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An Expected Unexpected Death

Even though my mother was very sick and her death was not unexpected–which is to say that it was very much expected–it still came as a shock. All my father and I could do—barely—was put one foot in front of the other.

 The first poem that appears below spells out directions in a matter-of-fact mechanical way, capturing what we were going through at this most difficult time. The second poem shows how my father remained on autopilot, unable to fully digest the enormous change that had just upended his life. And the third poem, well yes, that is a true story.

HOW TO BURY YOUR MOTHER

Slip out of the dark limo
into the bright light of day
the way you once slipped
out of your mother:
blinking, surprised, teary-eyed.
Turn to your father
and let him take the crook of your arm
like the crooked old man
you never thought he’d become.
Feel your heels sink into the earth
with every sorry step you take.
Weave your way through the grave
of strangers who will keep your mother
company forever: the Greenblatts,
the Goldbergs, the Shapiros, the Steins.
Stop at a small mountain of dirt
next to a hole that holds the plain pine box
that holds what’s left of your mother.
Listen to the rabbi mumble
prayers you’ve heard a hundred times 
but this time offer no comfort.
Smell the sweet honeysuckle breeze
that is making your stomach buckle.
Feel the sun bake your little black dress.
Wait for the rabbi to close
his little black book.
Bring your father close to the earth
that is waiting to blanket your mother.
Watch him shove the shovel
into the mound upside down
showing the world how distasteful 
this last task is.
See him dump clumps of soil
onto your mother’s casket.
Hear the dull thuds
of your heart hammering your chest.
Watch how your father plants the shovel
into the silent pile of dirt
and then walks off
slumped over like a man
who finally admits defeat.
Step up to the mound.
Grasp the shovel firmly.
Lift it up and feel the warm wood 
between your two damp hands.
Jab the shovel into the soil.
Toss the hard brown lumps
into that dark gaping hole.
Hear the dirt rain down upon your mother.
Surrender
the shovel to your brother.
Drag yourself away.
Do not look back.

WHEN MY FATHER WAKES UP

on that sweaty sweltering night
of that scorching scalding summer
as drenched as my mother 

when she suffered those terrible
hot flashes 40 years ago,
he stumbles out of bed

and lumbers to the ancient A.C.
fumbling for the right button
to bring it back to life

with a wheeze and a groan and
a thump. Next he shuffles across
the faded carpet, slides between

the worn sheets, and lifts the torn
blanket to cover my mother
who will surely grow stiff

from the frigid air blowing 
between them as she had
for more than sixty years.

Who could blame him
for forgetting she had left
him and was now slumbering

on the other side of town
wrapped in a shroud beneath
the stony, stubborn ground?

How he missed 
her old cold 
shoulder

DO YOU THINK YOUR FATHER

would take me to the theatre?”
A woman pulls me towards her,
her pointed red nails digging

into the doughy flesh of my bare 
upper arm. It is a hot August
afternoon, made hotter still

by the heat of the oven
which I have just opened
to take out a pan of kugel

a neighbor brought by and needed
to be warmed. How did I wind up
alone in the kitchen with this 

woman who does not look unlike
my mother? Styled and stiff
thinning brown hair dried out

from too many years of dying,
lipstick two shades too dark,
forehead lined like notebook paper

hope springing eternal
in her made-up myopic eyes.
I drop the metal pan of food

on the counter with a clatter,
open a drawer near the sink
and lift my mother’s gleaming

kitchen knife. What is this woman’s
name? Edna, Edith, Estelle,
Esther! A woman my mother used

to play canasta with and never
particularly liked. “She cheats,”
my mother told me on a scorching

afternoon not that long ago.
“She picks out all the cashews
in the bridge mix. And she has eyes

for your father.” I cut the kugel
into even, sharp-edged squares
missing my even sharper-edged mother

who would curl her lip and shoot
me a silent “I told you so” look
to hear Esther ask me if my father

would take her to the theatre
the very afternoon after
the morning of my mother’s funeral.


“How To Bury Your Mother” copyright © 2015 Lesléa Newman from I Carry My Mother (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA). Used by permisison of the author.

“When My Father Wakes Up” and “Do You Think Your Father” copyright ©2021 Lesléa Newman from I Wish My Father. Used by permission of the author.