The Best Day the Worst Day centers around the last 15 months of Donald Hall’s wife, poet Jane Kenyon's, life and her ultimate death at 47. They are living in “the country of leukemia.” Unfortunately, Kenyon had the bad kind: acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL),
which general affects children. Hall, the poet laureate of the U.S., has written a moving and important memoir.
Kenyon's caregiver: in hospitals, at home, in an apartment in Seattle, where they go so she can have a bone marrow transplant. She becomes his job, although he still finds time to write – it is his salvation. Hall details each and every joy, discovery, pain and medical complication. Each renewed hope and each swing into depression. The book is grueling, and it is beautiful.
Hall also writes about their previous lives - their coming together, their marriage, and moving back East
- alternating this with chapters about the illness that changes everything. Hall loves enumerating “what they did,” as people often asked them about this when they left university life to return to New Hampshire and to the freelance lifestyle: “We got up early in the morning. I brought Jane coffee in bed. She walked the dog as I started writing, then climbed the stairs to work at her own desk on her own poems and on Akhmatova [Anna, a Russian poet]. We had lunch. We lay down together…What we did: love.” These were the best days; the two poets were not bored or lonely. Neither were they competitive, as some writers tend to be. They shared their work, their rejections, their successes.
Hall and Kenyon are well-known in the world of literature. They met at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor when Hall was her professor. When they married, she was 28, he divorced and 47. Shortly thereafter, they returned to Hall’s family home in New Hampshire to make a life of writing. Hall has had cancer; Kenyon was bipolar. They lived with a 40-pound mixed breed dog, Gus, and with various cats, and they apparently were supremely happy.
During the 15 months of Jane’s illness, both mothers - in their 80s and 90s
- also died. Despite these three immense losses, Hall’s writing remains crisp, lovely. Much of it is poetic, although the passages about invasive procedures, drugs, and chemotherapy tend to be a bit drier. Hospitals and leukemia are not poetic in nature.
I didn’t necessarily want to know what their sex life was like, nor about each individual surgery, drug and invasive treatment that Jane underwent during that dreadful year. Yet Hall
is impeccably honest, giving every detail, leaving almost nothing to the imagination.
The Best Day the Worst Day is ultimately about commitment and love
- commitment to careers of creating beautiful language, commitment to being true
to oneself, to one’s relationships, to one’s community, to one’s faith. And the
memoir is about an unwavering commitment to marriage – to a belief in helping another person grow, suffer and heal and, if need be, to letting that person go.
The Best Day the Worst Day is not for the squeamish, but overall, it is uplifting; it is joyful. Love exists. Work is good. Writing is a worthwhile endeavor. Commitment is not a dirty word.