Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Stages of Feeling

I write poems to commemorate special occasions or at times of deep emotion. For whatever reason, it's just how I process things. I am sometimes unable to let go of certain emotions until I write a poem about them. Often, not always, it is required that I show someone else the poem before the thoughts and emotions can be fully released. Since the recent death of my grandmother, I have tried in vain to write a poem that would honor her unique character and her place in my life. I lack the art to sufficiently encapsulate how I feel about her without just listing thirty-some years of memories and examples. Thus far, what I've managed is this. Three poems less specifically about her and more about my processing of her illness and death.

The first was written as she was deciding whether to undergo a surgery that may or may not have made her any more comfortable and may have made it worse. The second was written after my mother called to inform me of her passing. The third was written several days after the funeral.

After having written the first two, I assumed I would write the third. I assumed it would be, and set out to write it as, more celebratory than it turned out. I guess there's more that needs to be felt and thought about. Perhaps I will write a fourth in a week or two.


“She’s just wearing out, breaking down” they say,
and I remember the subtle bite of salt hidden
in each ideal chocolate chip cookie pulled down
greedily from the freezer.

I remember a time when she carried me home
from the Fourth of July parade. The time the heat
forced newly-patched asphalt to ooze tar. I walked
barefoot, because it was a small town and I was a child.

Her navy slacks set off the red accents in her mostly white
top and matched her navy orthopedic shoes. Before
the walker, I think, but after the bag of pills. She may
never have been able to carry me at all, but that’s how
I remember her. My other Grandma may have worn that top.

She would reel with laughter in her chair when Kirby
Puckett ran the bases. His relatively stubby legs pumping
like a cartoon, propelling his belly and endearing, goateed
cheeks in a surprisingly efficient arc, his talent and will
taming gravity on the field.

And after he left, the accusations came, tarnish added
to his bronzed fist pumping as he rounded third in Game 6.
Sense memory interrogated upon receipt, but only ever after.
The spontaneous trigger to elation cannot be disarmed.

And I remember her voice when I called about Grandpa.
She was steady. She understood that pain and liberation
and connection and loneliness are inextricably entwined.
She had seen enough of time to know its blank persistence.
I remember realizing we were both adults.

I remember the cards for every conceivable holiday. I remember
the increasing slant of her cursive, the humps squishing so low only
a practiced eye could translate. I remember my responses.
Short, pleasant, shy. Rarely diving much past, “It’s a busy time.”
and always returning with “...but things are good.”

Except one. She was in rehab after a fractured back
And I wrote claiming expertise, encouraging participation,
suggesting motivations and techniques, as though my month
in the hospital made us peers in disability.

But I recognized my own tubes and devices as some I had seen
connected to her on short visits to various antiseptic rooms.
Smiling and trying not to notice the smells and the veins
and the translucent plastic vessels marked in millimeters.

Her skin so soft and thin, stretched taut where the tape
secured the IV to her hand. As I first felt the blurry warmth
of opiates shiver through my system, I lived again the linoleum
and the sheets, the gown and the unfamiliar angles of flesh
and neckline.  All the small embarrassments of convalescence.

I remember standing at my mother’s side, speaking when prompted,
shying away from the discomfort. I was too young at the time
to recognize myself in that bed. I remember the evening
I understood we are all just bodies and brains.
We fall apart and heal and sometimes don’t.

I remember her on Christmas, surrounded by her family and piles
of brightly-wrapped packages, so excited to see how excited we were,
slightly wary of our disappointment.  I remember more 
than is necessary to mention.
I remember she asked for a copy of my wedding poem, 
because she thinks I am amazing.
I can offer nothing but to return the favor.



It's sunny here in California.
There's no reason it wouldn't be.
The meteorology calls for it and it is.
I've only once seen it rain at a funeral.
It came down briefly. Shimmering gray sheets
cutting across the cars caravaning to the grave site.
There was some talk of holding the ceremony indoors,
but the sun returned once everyone had parked.
The freshly turned soil wasn't even muddy.
The grass sweat as though it was early morning.
The green carpet surrounding the grave glistened
like the edge of a miniature golf hole water feature.
Our shoes were a bit damp as we walked
in twos and threes and fours back to the cars,
some craning skyward to check the clouds,
wondering if there was room in the garage
for all the folding tables if it came to that.

But this is not a funeral.
It's a Wednesday. The phone call has ended
and the intermittent static of a weak connection
has been replaced again by the oscillating wash
of the highway. The front door is open.
Sunlight sections the rug into rectangles and trapezoids.
My son has been napping and is now wake.
It's time for a snack and a conversation.



She lies there in slightly exaggerated makeup,
like an actress feigning death on stage.

I stand and watch, unwilling to indulge the illusion,
watching for the tell-tale rise of her chest.

The stillness of her lips belies the blush of her cheek.
Her perfectly folded hands. Her sweater,
fitted neatly at the shoulders, half-closed just so
over the black top underneath.

I remember pretending to sleep when I was younger.
I would arrange my limbs and clothes for maximum effect.
The perfect blend of realistic and precious. I would turn
my face to the car door or back of the couch
(to hide any irrepressible smirk) and imagine
my parents’ tilted head in the rearview mirror smile
or turn to say and then stop and shoulders drop and half smile aww
he must be tired like a tv show
where the conversation can wait for another time.

Leg half off the couch. One arm draped behind hip,
one tucked under the back cushion. Mouth hung slightly open.
Face slack. Overpowered by exhaustion, not curled to sleep by choice.
(I would often fall asleep in the car for real in odd poses, neck limp
and head bobbing forward or mouth wide to the roof,
which only lent my ruse believability.)

More often than not they or my sister would just repeat my name,
increasing in volume each time until they stopped with a sigh.
I held my eyes tight, breathing steady,
slightly more still than was authentic.

Her jewelry sparks beneath the church lights as I shift
to watch her hands. I remember their fragile softness,
but hesitate to touch them.

I turn away and join a group of aunts and cousins.
Laughter, sniffs, and conversations fade in and out
across the waiting room.

A red-faced cousin watches through swollen eyes
as my son tests his newfound ability to run.

I remember a photo of Grandma at my sister’s wedding.
She is sitting in a church pew in purple, turning to watch
something out of frame. I assume it is either children or grandchildren.
She wears the barest hint of a smile. Her eyes are soft, but not fawning.
She is comfortable in her pride and contentment.
She is humble in her well-earned confidence.

I remember leaning down to hug her. I remember potato salad
and her struggling to rise from the back seat to her walker.
I remember summer evenings and that giant maple 
scratching skeleton fingers at the window as I lay without covers 
in my Aunt’s former bedroom, a tender layer of Aloe Vera 
coating the sunburn on my over-zealous back and chest.
I remember her squinting, transformative laugh.
I remember her nasal, barking attempts
to be picked up by Grandpa’s hearing aid.
I remember the piercing, genuine concern
in her voice at every Christmas or wedding
when I mentioned my leg or how busy we have been.

I return to the casket, watching her hands and her blushed cheeks.
Too still to be sleeping. I lift my hand to hers.
I feel the softness and cold.

I remember the weight of her body, the strain of my wrist on the handle
as we maneuvered her onto the remarkably specific mechanism
in the back of the hearse.

I am so happy to have known her. I am so happy
so many did. I understand the practicalities of death.
I don’t know why I am still sad.

I don’t know why I pretended to be asleep.
I could have been with my family.


1 comment: