1. At Sixteen
She ran off to join Major Bowes'
All-Girl Band. First stop: Chicago where
she dropped her father's Italian name,
adopting the "Palmer" from the Hilton
downtown. She headlined with Sinatra
and Pat Boone. And now she shuffles across
the room, naked under a hospital gown.
The woman who chop-chopped her hands
like cymbals now finds herself waiting
for everything: a sponge bath, a chirpy nurse
to wipe her bum, a son to blow in like weather.
Tick tick till lunch, though she can't stand
the food. Tick tick tick till dinner. Tick tick
tick. Here, even the sweet potatoes are bitter.
3. Heart Failure
She's a novel with too many plots,
a photo album with no room for another
shot, an overfilled balloon about to pop.
She's outlived everyone she's loved
or loathed, outlived the very word cause.
She is the last scene in a classic film
frozen on pause.
The pelvis of a twenty-something woman
is a plumb weight. A nonagenarian's
is as light as Styrofoam. The doctor
warns it could snap with a sneeze.
But your mother is a jet burning off
excess fuel. She wants to hear flute music
blowing through her bones with each breeze.
Doctors have buried the word
cure. We now have treatment
plans and regimens and promises
of new vaccines. We have weeks
or months or years of progression-
free disease. We have years
or months or weeks.
6. Black & White
Pregnant belly under a fox fur coat,
Cape Cod home on a suburban street,
rag-top car in the drive. The new bike
beneath an aluminum Christmas tree,
a son's acceptance to an Ivy League.
This is her world in black & white.
Not pictured: the life she left behind.
7. Daughters of the Depression
Your mother and her cousins wave
from the luau, the pool, the edge
of hotel beds: instamatic proof
of how far they've come, of the men
they didn't take, the meals they didn't
cook, the rooms they didn't clean,
the sweat they didn't break.
8. You Were An Only Child
The only one your dad taught to throw a ball,
ride a bike, shift gears in the blue VW Bug.
Your mother's companion at Broadway shows
and Sunday mass, the reason your folks sat
in the front row for every trombone solo
and line drive. You were an only child. Except
for the first three babies who didn't survive.
9. Tasks for the Living
You attach the walker basket
with the built-in cup holder, the one
that lets her carry a glass of water
to her favorite seat. Before you leave,
you test the battery in her hearing aid,
coax a curl with your finger dabbed
in spit, and kiss her papery cheek.
After a morning spent bathing,
buttoning, and hoisting your mother
like an overgrown infant, we find
the one sunlit table in an otherwise
dark sushi place and without speaking,
touch each of our fingertips together:
lean-to, temple, shelter.
11. Let It Be Known
That lake in New Hampshire,
its surface shimmering like
sequins on the gold dress
she wore on tour in 1934,
her body bobbing in pockets
of spring-fed cold. This is how.
This is how she wants to go.
You trapped your mother's black cat
in a cage and presented the armful
of squirming fur at her bedside,
vowing to brush him twice a day
and feed him tuna-flavored treats.
That was her cue. The hospice nurse
said our names. And then we knew.