Easter in the Cancer Ward
Because it has been years since my hands
have dyed an egg or I’ve remembered
my father with color in his beard,
because my fingers have forgotten
the feel of wax melting on my skin,
the heat of paraffin warping air,
because I prefer to view death politely from afar,
I agree to visit the children’s cancer ward.
In her ballet-like butterfly slippers, Elaine pad-pads
down the carpeted hall. I bring the bright bags,
press down packets of powdered dye, repress my slight unease.
She sweeps her hair from her volunteer’s badge, leaves
behind her own residents’ ward for a few hours’ release.
The new wing’s doors glide open onto great light. Everything is
vibrant and clattered with color. Racing
up, children converge, their green voices rising.
What does one do with the embarrassment of staring
at sickness? Suddenly, I don’t know where to place
my hands. Children with radiant faces
reach out thinly, clamor for the expected bags, lead
us to the Nurses’ kitchen. Elaine introduces me and reads
out a litany of names. Some of the youngest wear
old expressions. The bald little boy loves Elaine’s long mane of hair
and holds the healthy thickness to his face, hearing
her laugh as she pulls him close. “I’m dying,”
he says, and Elaine tells him she is, too: too
much iron silting her veins. I can never accept that truth
yet, in five months, she’ll slip away in a September
night – leaving her parents and me to bow our heads, bury her
in a white wedding gown, our people’s custom.
But right now, I don’t know this. Right now, we are young,
still immortal, and the kids fidget, crying
out for their eggs. Elaine divides them into teams;
I lay out the tools for the operation.
I tell them all how painting Easter eggs used to be done
in the Old Country. Before easy dyes were common,
villagers boiled onion peels, ladled eggs
into pots so the shells wouldn’t break.
They’d scoop them out, flushed a brownish-
red, and the elders would polish and polish
them with olive oil, singing hymns for the Holy Thursday hours.
The children laugh and boo when I try to sing. The boys swirl
speckles of color into hot water, while the girls
time the eggs. When a white-faced boy asks from nowhere
if I believe in Christ and living forever,
I stop stirring the mix, answer,”Yes, I do.” I answer slowly
and when I speak, my own voice deafens me.
The simple truth blooms like these painted flowers
riding up the bright kitchen walls. I come
to belief. I know that much. Still, what a man may
do with belief demands more than what he says.
Now, the hot waters are a stained, rich red. The eggs have
boiled and cooled. To each set of hands, Elaine gives
one towel, three eggs. I pass the pot of melted paraffin,
show these children how to take the eggs and dip them in
and out. While the wax hardens to an opaque film, we hum
Christos Aneste and the room bustles, ajabber
with speech. Holding pins firmly, we scratch out mad
designs where the color will fill. Small, flurried hands
etch and scrim the shells. Everyone’s fingers whorl
and scratch in names, delicate and final.
Edging the hall’s threshold, an April’s allow-
ance of sun filters through tinted windows. Faces furrow
in solemn concentration. Looking to Elaine, my thoughts clamor
for what is redemptive in illness, for having
a Credo to hold these people to me. Etchings
done, everyone immerses the waxy eggs in the pooled
dye. We ooh together when transfigured eggs are spooned
out, wiped and dried on the counters. Soft wax
is peeled gingerly, flecked away; more oohs for the tracks
of limned lines, testimonial names.
We burnish the shells with olive oil for a fine sheen
For a moment, the cultivated, finished eggs hush
the room. Then, every child goes wild in a rush
to compare, they show the nurses, each
other. The bald boy taps my waist, Lined up and speech-
less, they present me with a bright, autographed
egg, communally done. Elaine makes me close my eyes and laughs
when small limbs push at my back to follow
her. They shove my hand in the cool, wet, red dye. The hollow-
eyed girl squeals till tears streak from her laughing.
Another child cries, “You’ll never get it off!”
And today, I don’t want to. Today,
we’ve painted eggs a lively color, not caring
about the body’s cells and the cells’ incarceration.
I lift my arms to embrace Elaine and dab her nose and chin.
And my hands are vivid red. My hands
are bloody with resurrection.
and we are laughing.