Thursday, September 23, 2021

Poetry on Thursday

Today would have been my mother's 87th birthday, 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've shared it before, but it feels like the perfect, personal poem for this occasion.

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 up 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 as you realize you did love each other and you both did the best you could, and poetry as this week winds down.


  1. I remember you sharing this before, but it has no less impact on a reread. So powerful. I hope today brings good memories of your mother and of your time together.

  2. I hope your mother his having a good birthday, wherever she may be. Take care.

  3. I, too, remember you sharing this poem previously. Very impactful. Wishing you a day filled with fond memories of your Mom.

  4. Oh boy. That's a good one. Have a lovely day for your mom, Bonny!

  5. It's a beautiful poem and really captures how it feels to lose someone to a long term illness. I hope memories of your mom are bringing you peace.

  6. Maybe I am unable to read this poem correctly, but it seems very tragic, but honest. Like most of Kingsolver's work, it looks to the future while refusing to overlook the past or present. Taking care of someone who is dying at home is extraordinarily difficult in the best relationships, but if the relationship is difficult, it is truly agonizing. !t seems she was able to reconcile a lot of those feelings in this poem, step out from her family's assigned role and look forward, and that is an accomplishment in and of itself. If you think I am wrong, please let me know. Thanks for sharing this very thought provoking poem, Bonny.

  7. This is such a powerful poem... achingly so. Thank you so much for sharing it again. I wish you a day full of beautiful memories of your mom.

  8. I hope today brings fond memories of your Mom. This poem is so true. Kingsolver is a beautiful writer.

  9. Sorry but I wish I had not read this poem. It amazes me that some of you can see it as a beautiful poem. It seems so tragic to me. I can't imagine what one's life would be like knowing your mother thought you were the bad child until she was dying. Yes, it is probably a great poem, but not, for me, beautiful. I probably should not post this comment, but I just need to offer a dissenting view I guess.

    1. I'm glad you chose to offer your opinion, and think I can understand it. I'm not sure that I would personally call the poem beautiful, but when I first read it, I was immediately struck by the honesty. Many people grow up with difficult relationships to their parents, and I think that acknowledging that truth while realizing that most parents and children are doing their best is hopeful in a way. It may seem sad that I felt a sense of relief after reading it to realize that I might not be the only daughter to feel that way, but I don't feel that it was tragic. I'm grateful for poetry that acknowledges and helps us express honest feelings, even if they aren't always pretty. Thank you for your thoughts.

  10. I miss my mom all the time and sadly it's been decades. May you have wonderful fond memories today!

  11. Relationships with our families are so . . . complicated. There is much in that poem that reminds me of my own mother's death, and much that doesn't. I love that Barbara Kingsolver could so beautifully convey the pain and the heartache and the want and the love . . . of losing her mother. I think the deep expression of love (especially uneasy love) through poetry is a beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing this moving poem, Bonny. And even though I'm reading this post a day late, please know I'm still sending much love and gentle thoughts your way. XO

  12. Kingsolver's poem is heartbreaking, and lovely, and does such a beautiful job of putting into words what is hard about families, and relationships ... and love. I'm so late reading I wasn't even planning to leave a comment, but then I couldn't not. Sending love and a big, warm, virtual hug.

  13. I didn't know your Mother had passed so young. Today would have been my mother's birthday and I'm still greiving 5 years later and dealing with settling her estate. How life complicates while entwining with others that inspire. bless

    1. I don't think you ever get over missing your mother, no matter how many years she's been gone, or what kind of relationship you had. Estates are messy things. I'm also settling my father's estate; it's been three years and will likely be at least another one. Wishing you the best.


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