Thursday, October 1, 2020

Poetry on Thursday

It would have been my mother's 86th birthday last week so I've been thinking about her more than usual. She died when she was 67, and it felt like this poem was written for her (and me with its countless oddly similar details). It's more like a story a typical poem, it is very long, and I considered not sharing it but no other poem felt right once I read this one by Barbara Kingsolver. (My apologies in advance.)

My Mother's Last Forty Minutes
Barbara Kingsolver

At three in the afternoon we heard the death rattle,
sound of a throat that can't clear itself anymore.
This was the cue for another drop of morphine, or not,
according to a nurse's advice my sister and I tried to
reconstruct, as earnestly as we used to kneel together
to build our fairy houses of tree bark and moss. We'd
slept almost not at all for a week, and between us now
constructed no clear game plan on the morphine.

Really, death rattle was all I kept thinking. As if
the den of this ranch house smelling of sickroom
and dust, with its flotsam of Kleenex boxes,
its rented hospital bed and oxygen machine, its frugal 
postwar windows and chronic gloom, had received 
a surprise visitor and it was Charles Dickens.

     May I say that life is filled with instructions
we just don't believe we are ever going to need?

My father announced he had checks to deposit, so 
was going to the bank. My sister and I locked eyes,
the old familiar rope of the drowning child. She
suggested to him that he might regret his timing.
I followed him outside. This is my family job, to say
the ungentle thing. Taking it for the team. I yelled
at him briefly. Then apologized. We were none of us
quite in our minds and anyway, who was I to judge?

As far as I knew he hadn't spent a night or a day
away from my mother in something like half
a century, while I was off living my own merry life,
had merely put it on hold for a couple of weeks
to come and help out with the dying-at-home-
with-no-hired-help request.

     Again, I'll step out
of that room to warn the unwitting: it's a big ask.

My father came back inside. The three of us
sat in chairs arranged like planets around our sun.
She hadn't spoken in days, or opened her eyes,
yet her gravity held us. Though not completely.
I'd noticed Dad now shifting his gaze, staring in 
love and wonder at the 12 x 14 portrait of my mother
gorgeously veiled as a twenty-year-old bride, which 
he's set on the mantle to pretty up this departure.

The rain picked up. This storm was something else,
some wild stampede on the roof of my childhood
home. But she seemed shipshape, fresh cotton gown,
no furrows of pain on the pale crepe of her brow.
I took my phone out to the sunporch to update our
brother. I'd barely spoken when a bolt of lightning
struck the house. Zipped right down a metal duct 
an arm's reach away from me. I dropped the phone.
Took a moment. My heart, still beating.
The house, utterly silent. The electricity had gone
out, which made things seem peaceful.
I remembered oxygen. That she would suffocate.
I hurried back to the den where my sister and I 
in treble octaves discussed the emergency
backups. Then noticed my mother was breathing
on her own. She hadn't done this since last winter.

Around half-past, a shuddering little house-quake
brought the power back on. We breathed.
My mother's pulse-oxygen, measured by a device
pinched on her finger—a number we watched
like the basketball scores, like the polls before
an election—had plunged to the failure zone. Now
with machine assist she rallied back into the nineties.
Dean's List. All her life, that's where she liked to be.

This might be the moment to step one last time 
from the bedside to mention that while we spoke kindly,
mostly, my mother and I did not love one another.
Ever, not even when I was a baby—as I've lately learned
from letters she wrote her friend from a cold plywood
house in Annapolis where I crawled u her legs and
drove her nuts, where she begged my two-year-old brother
to look after me, wished Dad would come home
from the navy and they could zoom away from us
in their aquamarine Chevrolet.

When women are instructed to bear children,
we don't think of such possibilities.
That we are on our own here. There is no Dean's List.

The blessing is that later, in better times, she had
another daughter. I cherished my sister, too; it's no fault
of hers that lightning only strikes once. I would be
the unspeakable first failure that stuck in my mother's 
throat, the child who would never be gentled,
or allowed to touch her good things, or even allowed to
take her to lunch, but could take the rap, the bad daughter.

However I might hold myself to the good of my own life,
the too-many lovers, the eventual sweet husband, 
the daughters more necessary to me than my two eyes,
none of this could alter the daughter I was.
But for these last weeks—

     —but for these last weeks
while I spoon-fed my mother and crushed pain
medicine into liquid drops on her tongue,
did things too intimate to say—the bathing
and changing she once did for me, that trapped
her so terribly—through all these labors she
seemed to be sleeping but sometimes unexpectedly
gripped my hand, and did not zoom away.

She left on her own recognizance. No final
confessions, still the untroubled brow, the oxygen
thanklessly pumping away. The rattle went quiet.
The pulse-ox fell to zero. At some point the thunder
had ceased, the storm passed over. I have
no recollection of a house filled with so much light.
The trees outside, so bright with rain. So much depends.
Here begins my life as no one's bad daughter.

Kingsolver, Barbara. "My Mother's Last Forty Minutes." How to Fly: In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons, Harper, 2020. 
You can read more about the author here

I wish you mindfulness, peace, some loving remembrances of loved ones, a clear heart, and lots of poetry as this week winds down.


  1. Oh. That one did a number on me. Thank you so much for sharing it. I hope you have lots of happy memories on your mind!

    1. I do have good memories. Our relationship was a troubled one, and I was the bad daughter who never did anything well enough. Once I had children of my own and with the passage of time, I've realized that we did love each other and we both did the best we could.

  2. Wow, that is powerful. Well worth the read. Thank you. I hope you have good memories of your mother that are filling your thoughts.

  3. What a gorgeous and gasp-worthy poem! I hope you are finding comfort in the good memories of your mother today (and always, actually). Thanks so much for sharing this one. And for reminding me how wonderful Barbara Kingsolver can be.

  4. I am a bit speechless, Bonny. I had a loving relationship with my mother except for those times when she was completely absent from anyone. She suffered from profound depression off and on during her life, and it was hard to be her daughter, and probably harder for her to be my mother. If we are lucky, I think we come to the conclusion that parents do the best they can at the time considering their own life situation and that we can just get over it if it doesn't meet our expectations. I know I have, and it felt good to let go of all those sad feelings of wishing it could have been different. It was as it had to be. Thanks for sharing this poem with me.

  5. oh my, wow! what a powerful poem, and I'm simply awestruck by Kingsolver's way with words. Wishing you peace, my friend.

  6. Wpw, that poem really resonates with me. My mother & I loved each other, but we never got along, I could get on her nerves so easily. My brothers & sister all had a different relationship with her and it is through their stories that I am learning more about her and that I am not the "bad" daughter I always thought I was.

    1. I was a little surprised that this poem seemed to speak to so many people, so I'm glad that I did share it. I think we have to come to term with our childhoods from our perspective as adults, and I'm glad that you've had opportunities to learn that you are not the "bad" daughter.

  7. Oooof, this poem. It brought me right back to my mother's bedside in March of 1998. She, too, was 67 when she died. And I, too, was the daughter who always felt inadequate and unworthy. Thank you for this, Bonny.

  8. This is a lovely tribute to your mother. Thank you for sharing with us. Peace and joy in her memory.

  9. This, wow. What a powerful poem. I hope you find peace in your memories, and that these words carry you. XO

  10. My mom died in 1998 and I miss her every single day, she was 58 years old. Hugs to you :)

  11. Oh my! What a poem. What words and feelings. Wishing you peace and very pleasant memories Bonny.

  12. What a powerful poem. I wish you peace and solace as you remember your Mother. Mine died at 72 and it took a long time before the many good memories came to me ahead of the ones of her final illness.


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