'Second Life' Leads to Poetry

by Dmitry Rashnitsov on Mon, 2007-01-01 09:16
Cathy Wolf
Mila Sales, Cathy Wolf's head nurse, puts on Cathy's Headmaster collar for head support.

Cathy Wolf used to write funny poetry for her two best friends on their birthdays. She used to work on her college newspaper. She wrote a dissertation to achieve a doctoral degree.

Having received a diagnosis of ALS in 1997, Wolf, 59, has spent her "second life" reconnecting with the writer within. She enjoys composing thought-provoking poetry about living with ALS, politics, ironing or anything else that comes to her mind on those early mornings when she can't sleep. She especially likes to write about reactions to the news of the day.

"The world is so messed up you have to laugh to keep from crying," she says.

Switching muses

Born and raised in Washington, Wolf attended Tufts University in Boston for her undergraduate degree and continued her Ph.D. work in experimental psychology at Brown University in Providence, R.I. Her husband of 38 years, Joel, gently encouraged her to write from their home in Katonah, N.Y.

"I encouraged her to think about a 'second' career involving writing," Joel said. "It took her a while to get there, but the poetry idea was a natural one for Cathy."

I eavesdrop on young women in the gym
Their perfect bodies glistening with sweat —
No, perspiration
Those ethereal bodies could never sweat
Sweating is for pigs
And ugly people
A blonde says to another
"I need to lose two inches here"
Pointing to her muscular, womanly thighs
The other blonde replies
"I must tone this"
She pats her pancake belly
"It's disgusting"
I am more than twice their age
Crippled with muscle wasting disease
Each week I set the machines to a lighter load
Measuring my progress
Watch muscles transmogrify
Into some foreign, gelatinous substance
I want to shout with the wisdom of my colored hair
"Enjoy life!
Don't worry about such trivial things!"
But they would only stare, open mouthed
Revealing perfect pearls of whitened teeth
And take me for an old fool

Wolf spent the better part of her adult life working in the research department at IBM, specializing in human-computer interaction. Even after her tracheostomy, Wolf continued to work for two more years before she went on long-term disability in 2003. Now she uses the technology she helped to create.

Before the diagnosis Wolf ran 15 miles a week, and loved to tinker in her garden, cook meals for friends and family, and perform yoga and modern dance. Not being able to flex her left foot during a dance class in 1996 and pain in her left calf after running alerted her to a problem.

But Wolf's postive outlook toward life is what keeps her from getting frustrated with the day-to-day hassles of the disease.

"I try to live a normal life in spite of ALS," Wolf said. "An optimistic spirit, persistence and an independent nature — some say stubborn — have helped me face ALS."

Wolf's poems have deep meaning beyond the words in context. They show a person who is still struggling with the diagnosis, and coming to terms with the loss of physical activities that once punctuated her life.

ALS may have robbed Wolf of the ability to speak, but poetry gives her her voice back. She hopes her poetry skills continue to improve but she isn't that worried about it.

"I am less afraid of failure or the opinions of others," Wolf said.

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