Davenport poet documents cancer journey in verse

Though the collection’s actual final poem is one he dictated by phone from his hospice bed, the last poem that Dick Stahl wrote on his own with pen to legal pad, “Life, Loving and Living,” closes with these words: “I want the last words in this book to include / what we all aspire to—a better life.”

This collection documenting Stahl’s 2019 journey from melanoma diagnosis through treatment and into his final days is set to be published later this spring. The idea for The Cancer Chronicles was born when Stahl first met Yousef Zakharia, MD, clinical associate professor in Hematology, Oncology, and Blood & Marrow Transplantation. Stahl had been referred to Zakharia and the UI’s Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center after a melanoma was discovered on his nose.

Dr. Zakharia

Already a published poet and a high school English teacher for more than three decades, Stahl brought along some of his work to the meeting. His previous volumes of poetry were often about place and history, either his own from childhood or that of the Mississippi River and the Davenport community where he grew up and still lived. But as Zakharia, Stahl, and Stahl’s wife, Helen, began to build a plan for treating the melanoma, including enrolling in a clinical trial, Zakharia made a suggestion at their second meeting: “Write a book!”

What eventually emerged is a “powerful story that includes the difficulty of diagnosis and treatment” as well as a book filled with poems that “also retain a sense of humor and grace throughout,” Ryan Collins said. Collins is the executive director at the Quad Cities-based Midwest Writing Center, which will publish The Cancer Chronicles in June. “We have done our best,” Collins said, “to honor the manuscript as Dick wrote and assembled it.”

But that March 2019 day in Zakharia’s office, long before the poems existed, Stahl describes his response to the suggestion.

For a few moments, I looked at him
with quizzical eyes. I was surprised at the request,
but also elated to be asked
for more poems—personal, honest, light in tone,
surprising, informative, helpful
and hopeful—to share with others.

“I’ll do my best,” I responded, eager
to look back at events
and forward to those coming
with sharper eyes

and a quicker pen.

Over the next nine months, Helen said, Stahl would sit in the mornings at the dining room table with a view of nature out their window, where he always sat when he wrote, and describe what he was going through. The warm blankets and the welcoming environments of the HCCC and its staff, including its fish tanks, make frequent appearances in the poems that emerged. But so does the “barbwire bite” of the cancer in his nose and the exhaustion that came from the immunotherapy and eventual radiation treatments. “I earned a diploma,” he writes in one poem, “for pain and impatience.”

The assignment of recording and reporting kept Stahl grounded throughout the ups and downs and the many trips that Helen chauffeured between Iowa City and Davenport. In “A Regimen and its Rigors,” Stahl writes: “Composing poems for this book keeps me / thinking, imagining, remembering / and revising. My mind takes a detour here / and finds its way back with new thoughts, / new lines, new satisfactions.”

Helen cited this poem when describing the impact his writing had on those months of treatment. “He always carried a notebook and a pen around with him,” she said. “The idea of sitting down and ‘scribbling’–what he called it—certainly eased his mind. He never complained.”

She offered praise for all the nurses, staff, and physicians who guided them through those months and their kindness and the way they listened. But she returned to that moment when Zakharia gave Stahl the book assignment. “He had already made us feel so at ease and that was important. But because of these poems, Dick felt the pain less.” She said the poems gave him purpose. “Anything you start had to be finished.”


reprinted with permission from Stahl manuscript


In addition to his teaching Stahl had made a name for himself as a poet, serving as the first Quad City Arts Poet Laureate, offering lines for building and art dedications as well as teaching poetry workshops to writers of all ages. One poem is incorporated into a mural outside the Quad City Symphony Orchestra office. He wrote poems within the hour of when each of their five grandchildren were born and often contributed poems for weddings and funerals. “He loved to write poems with different colored pens,” Helen said, “and the poems for the grandkids were always in the color of their birthstone.” Helen said that having his words all over in the home and in the community helps preserve Stahl’s memory, but that she appreciates this final volume especially.

“It’s a calming presence,” she said, and brings back memories of 2019 traveling to Iowa City. Helen says she is “so appreciative” for the many clinicians and staff who took care of them, offering advice and support far beyond medicine. She reminisced about trips they would take to the Amana Colonies or to nearby restaurants when breaks in the treatment allowed.


Photo: Dick and Helen at the Ox Yoke Inn in the Amana Colonies;
poem reprinted with permission from Stahl manuscript

Zakharia remembers the Stahls fondly and, at Helen’s request, provided a few words that will be a part of The Cancer Chronicle. He wrote in part, “In this book, Mr. Stahl nicely conveys his day-to-day experience . . . always accompanied by his supportive wife Helen, who never skipped a visit to the clinic.” The way Stahl describes “his fight,” Zakharia writes, makes it possible for the reader to “comprehend and live in the moment.”

Collins said that Stahl was the first poetry workshop instructor he had ever had and he connects these poems to the other poems Stahl had written. “As I read through the book, I’m struck by the familiarity of the voice, but the formal strategies and subject matters are such departures from much of his previous books–because the poems document his treatment, but also because so much of his previous work was more outward, more place-oriented and observational.” Collins goes on to say that the poems in the volume “bend toward gratitude and away from despair, and it’s that quality [that] will make this book so valuable to people going through a similar experience.”

As Zakharia wrote, the 70 poems that comprise Stahl’s chronicle detail the specifics, the daily ins and outs of painful, and often boring, treatments, the fitted masks, the compression socks, the ceiling tiles of the hospital as he is wheeled around. What shines through them all though is Stahl’s commitment to keep trying and to keep finding the joy in the journey, whether in the passing landscape or the receptionist at their favored rest stop. Many poems refer again and again to Helen driving him back and forth to Iowa City and how grateful he is for her reliable presence and her stability to do that for him.

Pre-orders for The Cancer Chronicles will be offered soon and can be made through the Midwest Writing Center’s online catalog. To learn more, emails can be directed to ryan.collins@mwcqc.org. 

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