Business or pleasure: what brings me here?
For some reason I want to tell the desk clerk
my father is dying. Don't know why I don't.
Definitely business, though: bottom of the bottom line.
There is no God but God is our father.
I have no father but here he lies, ashen in final fever.
An old friend rests a hand on my shoulder.
Thank you, I say, but for what, exactly?
Another friend writes well, this is
the big one, isn't it? I feel oddly honored.
Cold coffee and an orange hard as stone
in his room. Disconnected phone. Closet full
of his shirts. We count his breaths, discuss
any changes. Weather report for a single room.
Nurses on break outside at a picnic table, smoking
and joking. Breath and smoke mingled, yes.
My mother kisses him, urges him to let go.
But he left us years ago. We're the ones holding on.
Outside a room down the hall someone has hung
wind chimes. As if to demonstrate the lack of wind.
I like low water because
then we can walk the shore
a long way, my dog and I,
without having to bushwhack
up the steep hill above our lake.
It's undeveloped state land,
those woods and shoreline,
which is to say it's mine,
a gift from my mother
as I like to think. She and I
used to paddle our boats
from our beach down the lake
to a particular pine right above
the water, with thick roots
embracing a large mossy boulder.
It must have been growing
a hundred years or more.
She's loved that tree and rock
since clambering down
this shore as a girl, and right
there, in the pathless woods
above that tree, she declared
her ashes should be scattered
when she died. She made
me promise. Every year
as we would paddle past
she checked to be sure
I remembered exactly
which spot. So at low water
I still hike there, picking
my way over driftwood
and slick Adirondack stones,
watching for whatever
surprise presents itself--
mink or kingfisher, and once
a great blue heron right on
her rock, unfolding
its historical wings to rise
right over me and out
over the water. When my
father died my mother
changed her mind--told me
to put her ashes with his
when the time came. He had
no love for this lake and woods,
just for her, and so we left
his ashes in a churchyard
far from here, as he would
have wished, though
at my mother's last-minute
urging, I stole a cupful
to bury here in the garden
by her beloved lake. That
was years ago now, before
her legs went, and then her
mind, though she still breathes
and eats, fearful and full
of complaint. She no longer
talks about her ashes, but
sometimes I still see this lake
pass across her face like
a cloud over Piseco Mountain.
I intend to keep my vow,
though not entirely sure
what it should be. On my
last visit she looked at me
pleadingly as I said goodbye
and spoke her clearest
sentence in days: "David,
get me out of here!" When
water gets low enough, I will.
My Mother Goes Back to Christmas 1937
The doctor settles opposite her in a straight chair
looking kindly and earnest, and I can tell
what's coming. He asks her her name
and of course she snorts, "you know that!"
Yes, he does. But then he inquires if she can say
what season. She looks around the ward
craftily: decorated tree, tinsel, cartoon snowflakes
stuck to the windows. "It's almost Christmas.
What are you getting me?" Next he wonders
if she knows the year. She glares into his face,
allows a sullen pause. . . . Then, "1937" she says.
And so it is. She's going on sixteen, a girl
ready to burn and roam, nobody's fool,
a spitfire, all vinegar and fizz. The War
is but a vague mist on the horizon. This year
has a gleaming, sun-scoured sound. 1937.
The train is about to leave the station
for the one and only time. She'll be damned
if she won't be on it, and ride far from home.
Oblique Elegy on a Bright Winter Day
They are all gone into the world of light!
We are all gone into the world of light--
daylight, sure, but more, today all ashine
with sun-struck ice coating walkways
and car roofs, glinting off windows,
coating garbage can and back stoop alike,
dazzling the eye no more than the heart
to see, to feel, and know the old ache
of an ever-melting brightness we can never
touch, like music, or breath, or the look
in the eye of a child no more a child
forevermore. We are all gone before
we rightly arrive, and that is the sweetness
and that is the cold of light as it leaves.
My grandmother died so long ago, decades, another
entire life, I find my memories fraying, turning yellow
as window shades, muffled and heavy somewhere
in a side room of my brain, like the bleached parlor
full of her antiques and oppressive leather bound books
--or fake leather, at least, but heavy with murk, with history--
and she is somewhere above in the huge quiet house,
napping after lunch, and so I roam room to room
bored out of my unbudded skull, counting dust motes
drifting across the windows, making up a tune
to go with the sound of the echoey grandfather clock,
driven finally to reach high as I can on that book shelf
in back of the piano, pulling out a single book
--some long forgotten best seller, maybe, or a history
of our dull county, or more likely a treatise on Christian values
written by someone dragging around a string of letters
after his now completely disintegrated name.
Thus I sit in the uncomfortable wing chair reading,
reading because otherwise I myself will turn to dust
as that day mostly has, because though I know
approximately nothing about anything at all,
I know with utter certainty I don't want that. . . .
And all the while Grandmother naps, or reads her own book,
or just stretches out her legs in bed, sighs, and savors
the quiet. I know she is up there somewhere, and
will descend well before dinner time to ask what
I have been doing, and if I'd like to play some checkers
or have a snack before we go to the market. I have
no doubt she is up there, dozing, pacing, flipping through
her magazine maybe, but though I am utterly certain,
I am utterly wrong. She's nearly gone already,
her voice fading first, tattered and frayed to almost nothing,
then her pale soft skin, her sharp eyes and improbably long
gray hair the color of dusk and dust forevermore.
While Barred Clouds Bloom The Soft-Dying Day...
It's good to live near a small-town cemetery,
all those unwritten novels beneath placid sod.
Furious and frantic equally silenced, along with
the calm and clear, those rural saints
who carried their loads until they couldn't,
then lay down without complaint like a pile
of autumn leaves. All side by side the former
majorettes, preachers with low burning voices,
fathers grown hoarse from shouting, sisters
dancing with sisters under yellow street lights
aimed at dawn. All this and more, but mostly
the unsaid that cracks stone after stone
every winter, and comes out, if at all,
as gibberish and trash talk from the crows
who perch in the oldest oaks above it all.
© David Graham