One lazy summer afternoon
at your house in want of things to do
it was determined (I know not how) that I would teach you
I, bursting with 12 years’ pride
and gorged on glinting half-truths found online:
you—how many years my senior? 60? more?
and my superior in all the virtues,
I to teach you, you who taught me joy
in a hummingbird at the window-feeder,
in plants in hanging pots or climbing trellises!—
it mattered not the color or the smell of them—
too in hard work, weeding in soft earth
and the feeling of cool grass between my toes,
cleaning out the garden-shed, washing the car:
tasks made heaven by the stories that we’d tell of them!
You who loved stories, of every shape and circumstance,
who taught me words like “doubloon” and
when you took me to the library
let me check out as many books as I could carry,
You who loved poetry and
from your small but formidable library
made my acquaintance with Frost and Dickinson
and countless others whose words will live forever,
You who wrote, never published,
but saved every rejection letter:
you who were afraid of thunderstorms as a girl
and wrote the rain and the terror into eternity,
You who loved every word I ever wrote for you,
every hackneyed story and stumbling verse,
you who praised me, always praised me,
pressed me for a signed copy when I’d made it big:
You who loved with an outsized heart,
a heart too big to fit even in a woman
of such incomparable dignity and grace:
you who loved with the very heart of Christ!
You who knew him in your walks at sunrise
and your faithful prayers each night,
who “expressed your spirituality by reading the Bible”
in the words of that ludicrous poster,
well-intentioned, tacked up on the wall
outside your room in the nursing home
which summed you up in the words
“golf” and “hairdresser” and “Idaho”.
You who knew Jesus Christ with a tenderness
and an intimacy I could not conceive then,
you who believed in angels
with the same practical surety
that you believed in the inexplicable goodness
of a peanut butter and pickle sandwich
(but with none of the sentimentality
you reserved for the fairies at the bottom of the garden)—
You would have had no truck with “expressing your spirituality,”
no indeed, as when I naïvely told you to empty out your mind
and invited you to repeat a mantra of your own devising,
what flew to your lips was the very consolation of God:
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”
I remember feeling miffed at that,
like you, in your mountainous certainty,
were somehow missing the point.
I did not realize then
you had poured yourself out in 8 sons,
poured out every drop in 44 years of marriage,
44 years making sandwiches, planting new seeds,
watching them grow up and marry—
and those who didn’t.
So many lives, so many years,
so many mother’s wounds.
Such a blessed, hard-won emptiness.
Such a blessed filling-full.
A whole lifetime of love in those words
I heard as mere nothings.
And when, at last, years later,
I came with your son to your side
for what I did not know then
would be the final time:
When I prayed over you and read St. Paul to you,
and you flinched because the holy water was cold
when I blessed your palms and your forehead,
I remember I whispered his name to you,
and though they all said you could no longer speak,
that name you had always known flew to your lips:
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus”—
until it faded at last into inexpressible groanings.
This is day 17 of LABIA MUNDA, a series of forty poems during the forty days of Lent.