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Jane Kenyon's leukemia: chemotherapy and the Philadelphia chromosome


The onset of Jane Kenyon's leukemia
Donald Hall Poet
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Well that year, that summer, my mother could no longer live at home - she had turned 90 in April - and in August it became clear that she could no longer live by herself.  So we brought her up to New Hampshire to a facility, only 10 miles away from us, and I could see her every day... and she was having her difficulty with congestive heart at the age of 90 but, it was good to be able to see her. She missed her house, but she was glad that we could visit every day really... and with her in November we saw the first broadcast of the Moyers show. We went up to the facility - an extended care facility - and sat with her and watched it, this one hour show.  And then came Christmas, and in January of 1994 we went over to Bennington College, where our dear friend Liam Rector was starting an MFA program... low residency... there were only 125 students that first time - and Jane lectured on Keats, Bishop and Akhmatova.  She had translated some of Anna Akhmatova, and she wouldn't let me come to the lectures - she was so freaked out. I was used to lecturing - I had been a teacher, and constantly on the road - but she had never lectured... she wouldn't let them be tape recorded, she wouldn't allow my presence in the room, but people said that she did very well... and people praised her work and so on... and I lectured as well. I don't think she came to those lectures, but she was allowed to - I was just lecturing on prosody.  And then we did a reading together, late in January or mid... mid January I guess of 1994, and it was the last reading we ever did, because when we came back here, Jane felt ill.  She felt as if she was coming down with something... she had bone pain, she felt out of sorts.  And she was coming on a reading with me that year, but she stayed home, and then at the end of the month, 29th, 30th, I flew down to Charleston, South Carolina to do a reading and a lecture... and talked to her, as I always did, maybe three times a day when I was on the road... and she continued to feel... I would say, 'How are you feeling?' and she didn't feel so well. And then one day, while I was on my way home, my plane was late, and I telephoned from Logan Airport - because I was going to be later than I thought - to talk with her. I asked her how she was, and she said that that morning she'd had a terrible nosebleed, and that she had driven up to the hospital to get them to stop it.  But all she could talk about at that moment on the telephone was that the car wouldn't start when she came out... that, she thought later... that was, I thought, was my problem. She went inside and they did blood work, and she told me on the telephone that - as we arranged for when I would come back - that they were doing blood work and she was waiting for it, and the oddest thing - standing there in the phone booth in Logan Airport, the sentence formed in my head: Jane has leukemia. I have never known anyone with leukemia, and I have never been around it. I'd heard about it since I was a little kid, but a nosebleed... maybe something in my mind associated bleeding and blood work with leukemia.  But anyway, I had this thought, and I had made the arrangement that I would stop off to see my mother sort of on the way home, and then I could stay home. I had thought, when I was coming earlier, that I'd go up and see my mother later.  So I walked into my mother... but on the drive from the airport to my mother's place, that sentence, Jane has leukemia, kept floating into my head and I kept pushing it away.  There was no reason to think so. When I talked with my mother, a nurse came in and told me that there was a doctor at the hospital - which was the same place Jane had gone for her blood work - who wanted to see me.  And I knew what he was going to tell me, and he told me. At that time he gave me a piece of paper that had Jane's number - Jane's blood was in such bad shape that he said she couldn't wait for me to come home... she had to get somebody to drive her up to the hospital immediately and he got a room for her.  So from my mother's side, I drove up to see Jane in the hospital and indeed she had leukemia.

The 14th US Poet Laureate Donald Hall (1928-2018) was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, then earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1951 and a BLitt, from Oxford in 1953. He published many essays and anthologies of both poetry and prose including String too Short to be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm, White Apples and the Taste of Stone, Without: Poems, and Ox-Cart Man, a children's book which won the Caldecott Medal. Hall was editor of the magazine Oxford Poetry, literary editor of Isis, editor of New Poems, and poetry editor of The Paris Review. He won many awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Robert Frost Medal. At the end of his first Oxford year, he also won the university's Newdigate Prize, awarded for his poem Exile.

Listeners: Kendel Currier

Kendel Currier started working for Donald Hall in August of 1994 as his correspondence typist. Later she took on his manuscript typing as well, and in October of 1998 moved 100 meters down the road from Donald and became his personal assistant, adding many various new tasks to her work. As well as working for Donald for the last 10 and-a-half years, Donald Hall and Kendel Currier share a set of great (or for Kendel great-great) grandparents, making them distant cousins and part of a similar New Hampshire heritage.

Tags: New Hampshire, Christmas, Bennington College, MFA, Charleston, South Carolina, Logan Airport, Jane Kenyon, Bill Moyers, Liam Rector, John Keats, Elizabeth Bishop, Anna Akhmatova

Duration: 5 minutes, 9 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008