Portrait of the Artist’s Mother by Barbara Bickle
The Stations of Her Loss
It came with first breath,
with a baptism from holy waters, with a slap
that knocked you into the noise of time.
It came, as always, with numbered
fingers and toes, a severed cord, a split brain,
division and oblivion;
a gift and a loss.
It came with a thud, like book to lectern—
oh, but it was good,
(while it lasted) no denying that—
you loved your gift so
much that you played it always
and everywhere, even in bed
as you whispered prayers.
For years, there were hints of loss,
but you ignored them,
in a long game of pretend;
you played your persona,
never letting on your uncertainty,
that you were losing your grip—
if your lines stayed smooth, how would anyone know?
You still wore your charms then, didn’t you?
You lost a name, a date,
a battle, a pastry, so what?
When you lost your own grandchild,
that was harder to reconcile—
better to make light of it,
like children, play hide-and-go-seek,
and yet retrievable, a-a-a-a-a-a-
game of time!
What to do about the loss of conjugation,
the mangling of order and place?
Yes, a dog can follow commands;
curl into a ball, roll over, lie flat;
but no dog ever baked a pie.
What is the use of argument?
You pled harmony; I begged particulars.
Summertime, we picked strawberries:
me, the soft furred fruits; you, the firm green hearts.
I was the little brown berry of your brood;
the others had their own inflections—
did you forget that?
Forgetting you forgot
brought you back to innocence,
to a time of laughter;
your speech became a marvel of invention:
word-bits strung in rapid chains
with an ease any rapper would envy.
I would snatch at the scatterings;
if I didn’t try for syntax,
you made more sense:
Our Lady of the Mirror shares communion.
You tossed your words like salad
and the wind caught the chaff;
you spit out your dentures
when they cluttered your mouth.
Only sticky words stuck;
snippets of song—
It was a time for dancing:
oh, oh, oh,
avec mes sabots!
You danced the day, you danced the night, out the door
and through the woods, until you found
a small safe house to hold you.
Your joints jammed and your limbs locked:
You lost the spring, but kept the fall.
Down, down, down.
We propped you in a chair.
There, there, there.
When I massaged your shoulders,
it was like kneading boulders.
“Ahhh, yahhhh,” you sighed, sweet nothings.
You could still kiss.
There was still time for love-making.
We found you sitting at your bedside,
blathering to dolls.
We drew our chairs around you;
storytime: your face raced from one plot to another,
grinning, then glaring, then gleaming.
You would find a syllable and ride it,
up and up and up
up and up and up—
You had a voice that could fill a cathedral.
Your roommates, mercifully, were deaf.
And when all your syllables were lost,
you still had sound.
When the nurses phoned me with updates,
I could hear your voice from down the hall:
raw, elemental, untiring.
I was embarrassed;
I wondered what others must think of you.
I did not realize that you were divining;
keening your own wake
in your mother tongue.
Pneumonia, that old-time
friend gripped your chest.
You groaned and thrashed, desperate
it looked, to escape your skin.
The nurses offered opioid blessings.
And while I sang the saints,
you passed to silence.
“The Stations of Her Loss” read by Holly Tsun Haggarty