Poems for My Mother
The Last Time They Poisoned You
I think if the cancer came back
You might quip to the doctor,
Give me the scalpel
I’ll cut it out myself,
Because I know that if you could
you’d tear at the meat that’s still left
Between your breast and rib cage
in search of the tiny stone that was dragging you down
Like a boulder a hundred times its size,
its collar shackled to your ankle in a place
That Dad must have brushed a million times in the night with indifference
Tumors do not move
but they make everything around them move differently
These speed bumps on the road
in a 65 mile-per-hour zone
Stopping your 75-mile-an-hour life
in its frantic tracks and
cutting your speed by half
And half once again as they try to cut it off
and fill the space back in with chemicals
flown in from a laboratory a thousand miles away
while you sit and let
the bleached dungeon of a waiting room
destroy your lungs
The last time they poisoned you
your hair was the least of the things you lost
But these things,
even the hardest to get back,
all seemed to return to you
The doctors played Whack-a-Mole with each new lump
until they ran out of change
The danger receded like the snow and ice do
in shame at the sun’s derisive glare
Spring sprouted in your eyes,
and so your body soon followed
And I followed because winter had fallen over me too
For the first time I see you at 55
and wonder how much toll you paid
To see that last spring and for how long
we picked its greens
and bathed in its hypnotizing, etherizing sheen
I see you slowing down before my eyes and I wonder
how long it has been
Since your life last clocked 75-miles-per-hour,
how long it has been since
You started coasting
and I hadn’t noticed
What will happen
if the tumors ever break the Treaty of Remission?
How much life did they steal from you the first time
and how much life have you spent convincing us
you were still whole?
A Mother’s Day
We knew this day would come
Its tracks were only made smaller by denial
Nipping at your ankles, and mine,
But mine less so
Maybe I feared the cancer more than you did
But I’m not selfish enough to think
I feel it more.
I am selfish, though,
To want you to keep
running, to keep your hands clean and to keep
toiling in the butterfly garden you took over;
another problem you didn’t create
but one you claimed because no one else would.
Weeds stretch high, brushing against our sensitive lungs
Avenging the dead ones you pulled and dropped on the grass to be eaten by the lawnmower —
returned to the ground to come back again as all things do —
welcome or not.
Rest is a foreign language to you
The to-do list in your head makes detours and jogs left and right —
to the kitchen, the basement, the back yard, the truck,
I can never keep up;
And is that why you won’t write it down?
So no one, not even death
Can keep up?
Your hands never stop,
Swollen, full, and red as the knuckles are,
Something else I inherited,
Count the callouses and the rings and the…
I know I’m not the first person
To write about their mother’s hands
But for most of us,
For the lucky ones,
That’s the place we first know love.
But I need to talk about my mother’s lungs now.
There is nothing gentle or motherly about them
A smoker’s cough betrays their wear
Years of cigarettes and bonfires and
Mold and dust and housefires
And macaroni noodles and canned stewed tomatoes
And scraped together nickels and Bazooka gum
And six-packs and beatings and decades of working her hands —
There, we’ve gotten back to her hands again —
But they’ve got stories to tell, too.
Anything stripped as raw by as many chemicals
in motel bathrooms and smoky casinos and old folks’ homes
Would have stories to tell.
Ammonia and bleach have battered the fine cilia
Which now might appear singed and
worn like the nicotine-caked,
mud-and-rust-colored seas of shag carpet in
my grandmother’s house where we gathered together until she returned to the ground, too.
You gather us together: weeds and flowers
Joys and burdens
And scoop us up in your arms with the same
Quiet love you breathe
into everything you carry
Because you know
even burdens have stories to tell and lessons to teach.
I hear you cough,
Invoking their wisdom.
You’re more than prepared.
I follow your lead.