grieving

Series comma

Musician Ronnie dies away and

cousin Leslie cannot say

how or why God calls

us there beyond the billow:

Sad friend Sarah’s dying dog

gets fed prednisone so life extends

a month perhaps as sibling Robert

hiss-pierces sister’s heart and venom

seeps down hanging veins while

curly-haired Amy sings and weeps

for a brother who died well before

he was newly felled yet somehow

in the face of grace I can make

the smallest case for the naught

we become after we hear our knell

when I find myself impelled

to tell some sighing students

“a series comma is more common.”

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The girl she left behind

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When she was 49, my brother’s first wife—a blonde-haired, green-eyed, freckled beauty—drove her car off a Los Angeles cliff. When she was young, her father Jack was the one to find his wife, her mother, who had also killed herself, and during the years I knew Carmen she more than once wondered aloud if that would be her own fate.

I have held onto a few things that help me remember the kind of person she was: a cookbook with a bright pink cover, which had been one of her favorites, and two papier-mâché containers decorated with a jungle theme, where I keep paper clips and push pins.

Sometimes when I am sitting very still, I find myself thinking about Carmen’s last moments, right when her car went over the edge and there would have been no turning back. I try to imagine myself flying through the air with her just long enough to be assured that she did not suffer. But I am never able to stay in the front seat with her for more than a few seconds before my psyche recoils.

My gentle niece, who was young herself when her mother took her own life, has been left to imagine and grieve that terrible death for the rest of her days, and I cannot think that anything would diminish the pain of her loss, not even time or love.

Photo/Suzanne Britton

“Kindness”

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

from Words under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye

The designated survivor

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It is as if you had arrived in a brown basket on a porch near St. Paul, a piece of bonnet poking out the one side and a wintry mix coming down. You couldn’t help but look up, mouth an O, but all you could see were four sets of dark eyes staring back down, blinking. Or more like a great tumbledown from a brilliant sun to a duller one, the fall through space across a frigid crosshatching of having-all-but-given-up-on-yourself and for what: a guest room with a busted lock and a Princess phone?

winter upon us

Shook elms lining the sloped

edges of a pitted road drop

their dying leaves while

Simon with Sam heave-ho

the grounded ones then

threaten each other with

pellets and rope.

Somewhere above the

yellow-brown heaps,

one songbird calls to

a white-winged friend:

“sweet-sweet-sweet”

and feeds her slick babies

black beetles and yarn.

What was once

dark was gray

after became hope

wanting to wind

its way down

to the ankles of

Carlisle Mountain

and lap at the feet

of the widow who

longed for that fat

girl Sanne to return

home and lie about.

Apocrypha

Codex_Tchacos_p33I have been thinking about my father, who died when I was twenty. Nothing that has happened in my life from his death until now can compare with the terrible sorrow I felt, although certainly there have been competing blows.

Back then, though, before I had thickened with callus, it swallowed me whole, that grief, and there was no one in the extended family, not any soul, who even took notice of it much less tried to salve it. I was the frailest of ghosts in a collective of vapors.

Rita, my mother, divorced my father when I was six, presumably because of his philandering. I remember just a very few fragments from that story, which came to me through her. Since she lied more often than not, I do not know for certain what is true here: 1) He had been doing his big-breasted secretary on the west coast while she had been setting up a new house for him some 3,000 miles away, her addled children in tow. 2) She had listened nonstop to Ritchie Valens’s “Donna” and had wailed all the livelong day. 3) He had thrown a heavy glass ashtray at her when the children were sleeping.

I knew my father for just a handful of years—from zero to six, say. After that he was out the door with another secretary, whom he met at a New York City cosmetics company while an advertising executive there. She had recently arrived from England; was some twenty years younger than he was; had become a bottle redhead, like my mother; and was more an athlete than an intellectual. Soon enough they married, and off they flew to Southern California—ostensibly to rid themselves of his verbally violent, alcoholic ex-wife but also, I think, to offload the two children: one an odd and lonely kid who cried all the time; the other her older brother, who by then had become a real rotter.

Through middle and high school, during my winter and summer vacations, I would visit my father and his young bride. I confess to having worshipped her then, and for many years after, though it turns out this devotion was undeserved. Although I have relatively few memories from that time, I can call up several stray fragments from the earlier years. Perhaps they, too, are part fabrication:

1) At a weekend party of adults, except for me, I am sitting at a round table next to my father. Several other grownups are at the table with us. My father has been drinking heavily, and I lean over to tell him he should go easy on the booze. Laughing and glassy-eyed, he turns to me and says, “I can drink you under the table.” I am ten.

2) I am in the bedroom of the party-givers, alone and rifling through a night table drawer. I find a small comic book and discover it is porn: Inside the booklet a hand-drawn couple is going at it in a car parked at an overlook. A police officer shines a flashlight in on them and sees the man’s outsized penis. I see the outsized penis, also. “We’re just necking,” says the man. “Well, put your neck back in your pants and go on home,” the officer tells him. I continue to be ten.

3) I am in a room with one of my only friends. We have come from New York to spend the summer in California with my father and stepmother. We are smoking, and my stepmother walks in on us. “Smoking!” she exclaims—then turns and leaves. I am thirteen, as is my friend, but by then I had already been smoking for four years.

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