Rainer Maria Rilke: “Sunset”

In memory of Dr. Kathryn Hobbs

On Saturday, I was privileged to attend the memorial service for Dr. Kathryn Hobbs, my beloved doctor and dear friend. A vital, vibrant, phenomenally alive woman, Kathryn was just six months younger than me. We first met ten years ago this month, when I had just moved to Colorado and needed a new doctor. I had done extensive research, and when I came across Kathryn’s professional online profile, I knew in some deep and intuitive way that I had found the one.

And oh, what a doctor she was! She was smart and caring, an internationally renowned practitioner in her specialty and a doctor who hugged her patients hello and goodbye at each visit. Outside of her practice, she was an accomplished pianist, vocalist, and equestrian (with a specialty in dressage). Kathryn rushed forward to embrace life. She lived deeply and with zest.

What a blow to everyone when Kathryn was diagnosed with a rare terminal disease. Of course, her diagnosis was a blow to Kathryn and her husband, Dr. Marc Cohen. But all who knew Kathryn, those who were fortunate enough to be her patients and those who joined her in her out-of-work pursuits, those who were part of her family and those who had been long-time friends – all of us were devastated by the news.

When Kathryn finally had to step away from her medical practice, I knew it was time to say goodbye. Kathryn and I shared a love of poetry. For her wedding to Marc, I had given them a copy of one of Roger Housden’s curated collections of poems. Now with her impending death, I sent another Housden collection, this one titled Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime.

Over this past summer, Kathryn and I struck up a brief email exchange, she writing to thank me for the book of poems and me writing to thank her – as I had so often in the past – for being such a wonderful doctor. We affirmed our deep affection for one another.

Not long after, she wrote to tell me she had selected one of the poems for her memorial service. Rev. Brian Henderson, who officiated at her service, said that Kathryn had been fully involved in planning all the details of her service. And in the remarks she made at the service, her friend Rena Bloom reported that Kathryn was planning the service while in her hospital bed, bedecked with her tennis bracelet. She was, Rena reported, living while she was dying.

The poem Kathryn selected was Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Sunset,” and Rena gave a beautiful reading of it. Since this summer when Kathryn told me the poem she had chosen and especially since the memorial service on Saturday, I have read and reread the poem many times. It is about the ordinary – but paradoxically the extraordinary and magical – happening of every day: a sunset.

As Rilke watches the sunset, watches as the sinking sun spreads its “new colors” on “a row of ancient trees,” he dips a toe both into this world, the heavy earth of stone, and into the other world, the heaven of stars.

Where do human beings belong? Are we part of the earth, the ancient trees, the stone? Or are we part of the eternal, the heavens, the stars? Rilke seems to want to have it both ways. As he says in the poem’s conclusion, “one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.”

As I reflect on this poem Kathryn chose for her service, I imagine how it must have spoken to her in these last months when she was both in this world – living with all her heart and might – and in the next world – preparing to die. To learn more about the wonderful Dr. Kathryn Hobbs, you can read her obituary.

To learn more about the masterful German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (who was born in 1875 and died in 1926), you can read his biography at the Poetry Foundation website. In addition to “Sunset,” you might want to check out The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke: Bilingual Edition. Also very much worth a read is his wonderful book Letters to a Young Poet, especially appropriate for anyone who pursues a creative life. Rachel Corbett’s brand-new book, You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, looks intriguing indeed. And if you just can’t make up your mind where to start with Rilke, consider buying A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke.

As the sheer beauty of coincidence would have it, as Kathryn leaves the stone of this world and becomes a star, Earth’s moon will be a super moon tonight. As I watch the sun set tonight and the moon rise, I’ll be looking to the heavens and thinking of my dear Kathryn Hobbs.

Listen:Listen as I read Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Sunset.” You can follow along here.