Julie, 11th Century Chinese Poetry, And "Build Me Up, Buttercup"


Su Shi (11th century)

Ten Years Living And Dead Have Drawn Apart

About this time of year in 1999 Julie’s1 cancer, which no longer responded to any of the treatments available, exacerbated, beginning an irreversible deterioration that would end December 3, 1999 with her death.

Because we managed her dialysis2 ourselves and because, in any case, there was nothing to be done in a hospital other than crisis resolution and palliative care, she was able to live almost all of  those final  months in our home, her dream house we designed and built only a few years earlier.

At first, we talked throughout the days, but as she grew weaker and required higher doses of pain medication, she soon spoke less and less until eventually she did not speak at all.

We spent her final days mostly in silence except when our sons or our mothers, both of whom stayed with us for several weeks to help, would visit briefly.

Otherwise, the quiet was broken only by my singing (badly) the same songs I had warbled for years because they invariably triggered her smile. My repertoire was divided between pop hits (e.g., “Build Me Up, Buttercup,” “Barbara Ann,” “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”) and hymns (e.g., “What A Fellowship,” “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” “All Hail The Power Of Jesus Name”) with the occasional chorus from the CYOKAMO Camp Song and a commercial jingle or two added to the mix.

Most of the time, however, she lay in my arms in our bed with neither of us making a sound, me taking care not to obstruct the tubes running into and out of her body or to hurt her by holding her fragile body too tightly.

And since Julie died, … well, as Donald Hall wrote, in these lines from “Distressed Haiku,”

You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead.

I recently learned about Su Shi (January 8, 1037 – August 24, 1101), who was a major poet and also an artist, calligrapher, pharmacologist, and statesman of the Song Dynasty. It turns out that his writings are also the source of much of our knowledge about two seemingly unrelated aspects of 11th century China: travel literature of the era and the then booming iron industry.3

More to the point, Su Shi, after his wife died, wrote a tragically beautiful poem in her memory called Jiang Zhenzi.  I desperately hope Julie knew she had been stuck all those years with my rendition of “Build Me Up, Buttercup,” delivered with far more enthusiasm then skill, only by a failure of eloquence on my part and, had overwhelming  love been the only requirement for the creation of suitably wondrous verse, I would have then written and would now still be writing for her poems as evocative as this:

Jiang Zhenzi

Ten years living and dead have drawn apart
I do nothing to remember
But I cannot forget
Your lonely grave a thousand miles away …
Nowhere can I talk of my sorrow —
Even if we met, how would you know me
My face full of dust
My hair like snow?
In the dark of night, a dream: suddenly, I am home
You by the window
Doing your hair
I look at you and cannot speak
Your face is streaked by endless tears
Year after year must they break my heart
These moonlit nights?
That low pine grave?

  1. Julie was my much-beloved, fiercely smart, extraordinarily sexy wife, who died in 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a prize-winning writer. This blog includes many other posts about her and the unlikely but true story of our romance  as well as several of her short stories and other pieces.  For the location of the various content about or by Julie, see Julie FAQ. []
  2. Julie’s kidneys failed secondary to one of her courses of chemotherapy []
  3. Wikipedia []

One response to “Julie, 11th Century Chinese Poetry, And "Build Me Up, Buttercup"

  1. I think you held her and sang to her, and the holding and the singing were as eloquent and deeply good as any poem could be.

    Just a guess.