Illness led to more poetry, not a eulogy

Georgia Beyard expected to die

instead, she made a book of her poems and published it

October 15, 2006|By Lindsay Kishter | Lindsay Kishter,Sun Reporter

Last year, doctors gave Georgia Beyard three days to live. She gathered friends and family; she said tearful goodbyes; she got ready to go. Then she got better.

"I felt like a complete fraud, a charlatan," she says.

Beyard, now 76, recounts with characteristic wit and humor how she cheated death and this year published a book - 71 poems collected into Latter Day Parables and Other Revelations - which went on sale recently at the Book Rack in Timonium.

"It was sheer idiocy" to publish a book, she says, laughing. "It's very expensive [to self-publish]. Nobody wants to buy it."

Modesty and humor aside, Beyard says she is glad to have her memoir, which she calls "a few glass-bottled messages to throw into the oceans of the earth" in the poem To My Body.

She was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2000. Her body dances "the puppet's crazed ballet," as she calls the involuntary movements caused by her medications. But her thin form belies the strong and clever personality behind it.

She began writing the poems in her book in 1994, while taking a writing class taught by now-friend and mentor Betty Walter at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland's Renaissance Institute, a group of classes for students 50 and older.

Beyard had tinkered with poetry as an adolescent and once later in life, "but I destroyed all those poems," she said. In Walter's class, she blossomed.

"Her genius was she never criticized," Beyard says. "You felt free; you were freed. I wrote about very personal things I'd never touched before."

With some students from that class, Walter began the Wednesday Writers, a group that meets weekly at the Maryland Athletic Club in Timonium. The tight-knit group encourages rather than criticizes, Beyard says, and was a motivating force; without it, she would never have written the poems in her book.

About the ordinary

Fellow Wednesday Writer and poet John Hutchinson fell in love with Beyard's poetry and asked to see some earlier work.

"The first thing that really [shook me] with her poetry was her sense of deep honesty," Hutchinson says.

Hutchinson offered to help her publish. He chose the poems and a title and wrote the jacket blurb, out of kindness and because of "my total witless approach to technology," Beyard says.

With her very concrete style, Beyard's poetry is mostly autobiographical and spans from early childhood memories to the perils of aging.

She began working as a medical secretary at Johns Hopkins Hospital as a teenager and married at 29. She and her husband bought a house in Timonium, where she lived until May of last year, and had two sons. At age 38, when her sons were 5 and 7, she watched her husband die while he was running.

"Our children waited in their / red and blue kindergarten clothes, / blue and red second grader clothes. / We had promised them parades. / He ran one mile. Clutched his chest. / Dropped. / And it was all over," she writes in Memorial Day.

From then on, Beyard immersed herself in raising her two sons by herself and giving them as much stability as possible. She went to the College of Notre Dame and earned a bachelor's in English in 1972, then worked as an employment counselor and disability-claims examiner while earning her master's in liberal arts from the Johns Hopkins University in the 1980s.

"The ordinary, that's what poetry [is about]," Beyard says. "You have to write about the concrete, the visible, the real. You can't write about abstractions."

She sold the house last year and soon after became sick with pneumonia and atrial fibulations, which caused her heart to beat fast and irregularly. On a warm day last July, doctors rushed her to the Greater Baltimore Medical Center and gave her only days to live.

"It was like [the TV show] ER. It was very dramatic," she says.

She was ready to die - she felt as though she was dying, suffering pain and raging thirst as a result of her medications - so she asked to be moved to hospice and gathered her friends and two sons, Andrew and Paul. They said goodbyes. They brought "gorgeous flowers that must have cost them a week's pay," she says.

More angels appear

But days passed, and "no otherworldly beings appeared at the foot of the bed. No voices called from the other side," she says in At the Hospice.

Since her hospice stay, she has been living and working on her rehabilitation at the Glen Meadows Retirement Community in Glen Arm. She continues to write poetry and says the only difference between her work before and now is that her poems have more angels in them.

The book is published, but that doesn't mean she is satisfied with it. Publishing it simply means she has reached a point where "I no longer care if no one likes it."

Still, she spends hours revising each poem again and again on her own, sometimes putting one away for a while and then "sneaking up on it" before it knows what hit it, she says.

Even then, a poem never works out the way she wants it.

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