[Originally published in Dialogue Fall 2013]
The intensive care unit had never seen such a hostess.
How was the show? And what did they serve?
We brought her primary stew,
a fresh fruit bouquet,
chicken salad, croissants,
and raspberry scones.
She tried to feed every nurse and janitor on the floor.
We plastered the antiseptic walls with sticky great grandchildren.
We should play some cards, we reminisced.
Beset by wires and tubes and a haze of medication,
she still seemed game.
How much pain do you feel on a scale of one to ten?
She struggled, mind running away from her mouth,
ten she got it out, ten.
Then she changed the subject gracefully.
Is it impolite to dominate a conversation from one’s deathbed?
(She could be trusted on questions of etiquette.)
She remembered my recent promotion.
"That’s a big deal," she smiled behind the cannula on her lip
"I mean wow!"
I don’t want congestive heart failure, lung disease, diabetes, wounds or infection>
I don’t want dementia or even bouts of mild discombobulation.
I don’t want incisions or sutures that won’t heal this side of the resurrection.
I don’t want to burn out in a crescendo of emergency intervention.
Fill me not up with translucent bags of sugar water one drip at a time.
Stop from my nose the imponderable used-bandage dankness of infirmary air.
Shut out the interminable beeps and whir of medical technology.
Bring low the color-coded mountains dancing mirthlessly across the screen.
Hide from my face the television mounted on a two-elbowed black metal arm.
Lead me not among the blue pajama people too accustomed to fatality.
I don’t want to die in a hospital.
You play it again:
the Brahms Intermezzo in E flat major Opus 117 No. 1.
Years ago she asked you to play it at her funeral.
"Start practicing my dear," I can hear her voice.
"What's your rush?" you said.
"And don't get any ideas."
The Brahms is a lullaby,
a procession of gentle swells,
a horizon incandescent with fading light.
And the undercurrent, the dark water,
is not a complaint.
It does not lament. It is the truth.
A story about betrayal and forgiveness,
illness and endurance,
suffering and grace.
You play it again, my love, and
your sobs fill in the spaces between the notes.
I miss the late-night phone calls:
"How many slices do you think I can get out of a Marie Calendars pie?"
The recycled jokes and riddles and inspirational quotes.
The self-help books I couldn't return because she inscribed them so prominently.
I miss the abrupt hang ups—no goodbyes—when she deemed calls complete.
I miss catching her bending the rules of games.
The disappointed smiles that meant gentlemen should look the other way.
I miss the drinking fountain in her kitchen,
the candy drawer,
the decorations; figurines, table-runners, and tapestries for every occasion.
I miss her ears and her eyes and her pallet.
How was the show? And what did they serve?
The pleasure she took in good things done right.
I miss how she called everybody my dear friend.
How she defended underdogs.
Her endless supply of benefits of the doubt, no matter how tortured or elaborate.
I miss the radio, the classical station, keeping her company day and night.
I miss her with her family,
with my wife, her granddaughter, my love.
Life generally doesn't ask permission or apologize.
It is and it is good and it does not doubt.
It is relentless; insatiable; it wants more life.
And the fear of mortality—call it a blessing; a favorable adaptation—grips us.
It whispers in our ears:
Things that smell like that are not food.
The plunge is thrilling but the ground is hard.
Cockroaches are filthy and most snakes bite.
It urges us to make love and make peace while we still can.
To use up this miracle matter, a body, before it expires
And—in the end—
it can make us late to our own parties.
We go kicking and scratching, fingernails clinching the veil
just anything not to pass through.
Ancestors sigh, checking their watches, shuffling ethereal feet
they long to tell us: it's O.K. to die.
They embrace her at last; there are tears and introductions.
Maybe some paperwork, an orientation seminar.
Angels sing songs she knows by heart:
Rejoice, the Lord is King! Your Lord and King adore!
Lift up your heart! Lift up your voice! Rejoice, again I say, rejoice!
And she hardly notices the lightness of her spirit.
The feeling of beatitudes taking effect; reversing every mortal trouble.
A daughter come home. A release. A birth!