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Learning to live and die through poetry

In confronting his death as he had his

In confronting his death as he had his life -- by writing about it -- Stanley Siegelman shone a flashlight into his future, illuminating the darkness that may lie ahead for all of us.

‘I’m choking on a bitter pill/Quite terminally I am ill.”

So wrote Stanley Siegelman, my friend of 30 years, as he lay dying at his house in Great Neck.

“In hospice now I am enrolled/My waning days with speed unfold,” he went on. The 20-line poem is a thank-you to the health professionals caring for him: “They rescue me from the abyss/Bestowing kindness like a kiss.”

Stanley started publishing his poetry after retiring at age 65 as an award-winning editor at Hearst Corp. Nearly 200 of his poems found a home in the Jewish Daily Forward.

Little wonder, then, that as cancer came to him at age 88, he kept at his light verse, nor that his tongue stayed securely in his cheek. “The metal stent was heaven-sent,” he wrote in praise of his cardiologist, “Thanks to the stent/I’m still extant.” He also wrote, “My cancer, that villain, is planning to kill/One day, in its fury, it certainly will!/Its targeted victim I happen to be/The reason’s elusive — but hey, c’est la vie!”

Even in the face of pain, he resorted to gallows humor, his levity his lifeline, and remained free of self-pity. But soon enough his poems grew understandably grave.

“I mourn the loss of one whose heart still beats/I practice now bereavement in advance,” one poem opens.

The next year, he likened himself to a runner who has “traveled far, at fully measured length,” only to ask, “But what awaits him now, and in what guise? . . . The darkness/is it sunset or daybreak?”

In due course, my friend was too weak to type his efforts on his trusty electric Smith Corona typewriter, so he composed by hand.

The week after Stanley died, five years ago this month, the Forward published the last poem he submitted there.

“It will come, I know, as no surprise/(I speak, of course, of my demise),” he wrote. “The signs abound, for all to see/A curtailed life expectancy.”

He went on: “And if my reasoning is sound/ I’ll soon be resting underground/ ‘At times he made some people laugh’/ Might constitute my epitaph.”

In confronting his death as he had his life — by writing about it — Stanley shone a flashlight into his future, illuminating the darkness that may lie ahead for all of us.

So many poets have delivered deathbed poetry, from William Butler Yeats and Alfred Lord Tennyson to Sylvia Plath and John Updike. In showing us how to die, they also showed us how to live. What we say going out the door matters. Stanley knew that in crafting his valedictories, he was honoring a long literary tradition. And so in one of his final acts, he acknowledged that his own contribution to this hallowed heritage would be humble at best.

He left a note that he directed his two adult daughters to read only after his death. Go to the book shelves in his bedroom, it said, locate a specific book and then turn to a certain page. There, they found Sonnet 71, courtesy of William Shakespeare.

“No longer mourn for me when I am dead,” it begins. “Then you shall hear the surly sullen bell/Give warning to the world that I am fled.”

The author urges those left behind to forget him, even to stop saying his name and loving the life he led, “Lest the wise world should look into our moan/and mock you with me after I am gone.”

Clearly Stanley felt Shakespeare had gotten death right. And so he gave him the last word.

Bob Brody, an executive and essayist in Forest Hills, is author of the upcoming memoir “Playing Catch With Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes Of Age.”

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