So much sitting still these past months, hoarding
my sorrows, looking out at another day’s news-
paper being buried by the accumulating snow.
I could be waking from a half-remembered dream
that, no matter how I try, I’m unable to put together,
my daily sighs a kind of catch-all for the poverty
of everything I need to speak. You are dead.
My words cannot alter that. And here I am,
your oldest son, addressing you, who are
of course absent and voiceless, as if
you might answer back, the way you told me
your dead husband, my father, spoke with you.
When I said something about the power
of grief, you repeated his actual words.
I mope about the house, circling our last weeks
together, hoping to find a through line
in that bewilderment of pain, in your body’s
inevitable betrayal, those days of wetting
and soiling yourself, of grinding bones,
of pills and incomprehension, the drugged sun
rising and setting, the moon spilling itself
like a sentimental song over the lake.
So often I have felt these past six months
as if something immense and absolute
had entered my life and gone away, and nothing
had come clear. Last night, standing at the door
calling my dog, I saw myself wander to the edge
of the electric fence and bark into the darkness
of trees that had become indistinguishable
at something I couldn’t see, but felt was there.
Waiting like a stamped envelope on a desk;
or live oak leaves curled up at their edges
like boats ready to be blown across the water;
even shoes waiting by the opened door—
the too easy images my mind conjured up
as if their readiness were yours, as if you were
not lodged in your dying body. Pathetic.
The good minister no better. He chattered on
about your victory celebration, the two of us
maneuvering a difficult situation with metaphors.
You kept asking to get up, why wouldn’t we help
you up? Didn’t we know how much work you had?
Afternoon sunlight filtered through the blinds,
and I was a child again, the tiredness of Sunday
afternoons pinning me to the patchwork of sun
and shadow on the rug, the imbecile gaze
of the television screen staring blankly at me.
We prayed, lodged in the amber of the moment.
Nights were always worse. In the light you slept;
in the dark you needed to stay awake. Hour
after hour, you repeated, I do and I don’t, as if that
equivocating mantra could help you arrive
at a final destination. Once you asked me to come close.
You whispered to me, “Do you know what’s happening?”
Without tears, as tenderly and straightforwardly
as I could muster an answer, I said,
“You’re dying, Mom.” You slapped my arm,
asked, “Why would you say such a thing?”
Neither one of us had a clue. I thought you knew—
hadn’t you declared just that morning:
no more insulin, no more pills, no more food.
Dying. Part of a language you’d spoken all your life
and yet inexact now, too definitive for
the decision you believed you were still making.
I’ve read somewhere that we can never live
in the moment, that the human brain needs time
to make sense of what has already happened,
to get its story straight. After that moment’s
question and answer, your eyes widened
and did not shut for two days. Is this true?
Or is it a connection my brain has arranged,
the hindsight of these past months providing
the logic? Your bulging blue eyes are true.
Even under the washcloth I placed across them,
they bulged. They held hard, or so I thought,
to what surrounded you, every photograph,
every large-print, badly written book, the cheap
sofa and La-Z-Boy reclining chairs, the standing lamp
that mimicked a palm tree, but mostly they fastened
on the blank wall just above your bookcase
as if something was there none of us could see.
I thought you might have been waiting for
my father to come through, whose goodbye
you still had not separated from yourself,
but when you spoke at last, you cried out, “Abby,
Abby, Abby,” a childhood friend, nothing
that made sense at the moment, but who, it turned out,
was also dying in a New Jersey nursing home.
It is my second Sunday with you. I am looking
out at the lake you loved from your double-wide.
The lake’s about the size of a football field,
man-made, but heron, white ibis and wood-storks
come, and the occasional alligator. I am thinking
about a poem I love, the poet looking at a plane
of lake water and its little mica-points of sunlight,
looking at it as if the water might become a page
he could read and find some meaning in. He looks
and looks but after all his dazzling language, all its
statements and restatements, he remembers
the loved face of his dead wife, and finds both
the water and her face unreadable. I am watching a heron’s
slow glide from one side of the lake to the other
and a breeze in the live oak leaves, and the stillness
just after it passes. I am recording this moment
as if it has something to say that I cannot say,
but it is only a record of a moment just before
some friends stopped by after church and the minister
gave you communion, the body of Christ dipped in
his blood, and pinned to your forehead
because you could not eat, your swallowing reflex
gone by now. In your clean, blue nightgown you are—
how do I say this without sounding unbelievable?—
radiant. Yes, radiant, though I cannot say why,
but only that it is so, you propped up
with pillows like a child (was it really true,
as so many said, that you looked younger each day?),
perched on that hospital bed in your living room
and its too frank smells of dog piss and old age.
You sing, or try to, using up what would be the last
of your words on “In the Garden,” hoping to hear
the one always calling through our voices of woe.
When I look back, I remember most of all your thanks.
Thank you for coming, to every visitor. Thank you
to each of the nurses that came and went. Thanks
for calling each time the phone rang. Thanks
and I love yous given out freely, as if there were
an unlimited supply, or as if the supply you had
needed to be used up entirely. When you still
could talk, you asked each day, What’s happening
outside? and demanded a detailed description
of the weather and what I saw out by the pond.
You required an up-to-the-minute account,
as if, your own present used up, you could still
have mine. I was happy to give it to you,
the live oak quivering with starlings, the palm
we planted for your sixtieth wedding anniversary
a venetian blind filtering the morning light.
You smiled and drifted away, as if what I said
only opened the ever-widening distance
between us, that sense that every bird,
every description of the sun on the lake water,
between clouds, or the scrim of rain moving in,
made you feel isolated, immune
to the contagious joy going on just outside
your door that you had always found so easily.
Near the end, you looked stunned: how could
your eighty-five years have rushed through you?
You looked at me like someone who knew
help wasn’t coming. When I changed your diapers,
you moaned, and shook your head violently
as if to ask, “Why are you doing this to me?”
Now everything was groans and silence.
Neither of us could cross that baffling silence
even though I suspect that you felt as I did
that there was still so much to say.
Can we ever know who our parents are?
In your restless sleep you made sounds, a kind
of ur-language, or the language of children
before they are given to words. Some days
I tried to believe it was the language of the world
speaking beyond our human words. I knew
it was the language of the drugs I gave you,
squirting them inside your opened mouth.
Always that one question: how much?
The truth was bald and cold and indecipherable,
and spoke itself in another question: was it better
for you to be comatose and pain-free or awake
and suffering, and yet alive to those moments
when I held the phone to your ear and you recognized
your brother’s voice and smiled, or you heard
your great-grandson, who you would never see, bellow
his cries of life? Was it my own needs that cut your doses
in half? Did I put you in pain because I wanted
to console you, to curl the damp wisps of hair
that fell across your forehead in my fingers?
Part of me understood that faithfulness
to your dying was the only act left to me.
Clumsily attending, I waited, and knew
that there was no knowing, no rationalizing,
nothing left for me to do but sacrifice the thought
that I could make sense of these last three weeks
now arriving at their forgone, frayed conclusion.
Even so, I missed the moment of your death.
I’d been listening to the time between your breaths,
the intervals of not breathing longer and longer.
But when my wife whispered that you’d stopped
breathing, I was somewhere else, lost in
how your lap dog, staked out on the hospital bed,
mooned dolefully at you, whining for your attention,
and wondering if, once the obligations of being
who you were, were removed, your life’s restlessness
would finally end. And this, which I need to say:
that even now, with death happening, it was impossible
to imagine your not being here. Yes, you are dead.
And I am trying still to find a vocabulary for
the half-glimpsed, half-recognized: who you were
and who it is I am because of you.
Anything that might hold back your oblivion.
Or is it my own oblivion now, my younger brothers
joking at your funeral that I am next in line to die.
I admit, I find an infantile comfort in these sentences,
like the there, there, everything will be all right,
you spoke to my eight-year-old self when I woke
after dreaming you and Dad had died. Your death’s
become a blank page I have to keep writing on,
my action as involuntary as my dog barking
into the blackness at what isn’t there,
as if in doing so, I could cross the silence
of your disappearance, or somehow keep your life
from becoming smaller and smaller, flattened
even now in these pages, a life like mine
that will be forgotten in a few generations.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.