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When Poetry Held Me Together

When my mother was living with/about to die from cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease–we didn’t know which would get her first–I moved in with my parents for a few months to help care for them. Every night, after I cooked my dad dinner and tucked my mom into the hospital bed we set up in the living room, I retreated upstairs to my childhood bedroom and wrote a poem. 

The form I used is called a “triolet” which consists of 8 lines with a rhyme scheme and a repeating pattern. My emotions were so unwieldy, I needed a container in which to pour them. Just as the form held the poems together, writing the poems held me together, as I watched my mom suffer physically from the diseases which ultimately claimed her, and my dad suffer mentally as he helplessly watched my mother succumb. 

I chose this selection of “The Deal” because it gives an overview of my mother’s journey from diagnosis to death and how my father and I came—or didn’t come—to terms with that.

The Deal

My mother’s doctor tells me, here’s the deal
She’s got six months to live, a year at most
His words lodge in my gut, a heavy meal
My mother’s doctor tells me, here’s the deal
I’m very sorry I know how you feel
But keep your chin up, don’t give up the ghost
My mother’s doctor tells me, here’s the deal
She’s got six months to live, a year at most

*

My father strokes my mother’s swollen hand
His broken body bent in half with grief
He stares down at his ancient wedding band
My father strokes my mother’s swollen hand
This ending is so far from what they’d planned
His face a wrinkled mask of disbelief
My father strokes my mother’s swollen hand
His broken body bent in half with grief

*

My mother always loved her tiny feet
Her toenails painted candy apple red
Smooth as marble, high-arched, and petite
My mother always loved her tiny feet
But now she hides them underneath a sheet
Two swollen loaves of yeasty unbaked bread
My mother always loved her tiny feet
Her toenails painted candy apple red

*

My mother points a finger. “Don’t you cry.
My life has been terrific until now.”
She stares at me ‘til we see eye to eye.
My mother points a finger. “Don’t you cry.
You’re making it too hard for me to die.
And this I absolutely won’t allow.”
My mother points a finger. “Don’t you cry.
My life has been terrific until now.”

*

And now my mother lets her hair go gray
For forty years she’s kept it curled and dyed
I never thought I’d live to see the day
And now my mother lets her hair go gray
She asks my father what he has to say
“Now you’re sexy and you’re dignified.”
And now my mother lets her hair go gray
For forty years she’s kept it curled and dyed

*

My mother’s name is Faigl “Little Bird”
And soon she’ll spread her wings and fly away
Leaving me behind without a word
My mother’s name is Faigl “Little Bird”
Her voice the very first I ever heard
Oh how, on earth, will I survive that day?
My mother’s name is Faigl, “Little Bird”
And soon she’ll spread her wings and fly away

*

And now my father’s heart is full of hope
My mother’s had two good days in a row
He clings to her, their hands a twisted rope
And now my father’s heart is full of hope
And I, the daughter, clueless how to cope
While deep inside, my mother’s tumors grow
And now my father’s heart is full of hope
My mother’s had two good days in a row

*

At last it is my mother’s final hour
No more second chances. No reprieve.
The stench of death is bitter, sharp, and sour
At last it is my mother’s final hour
My father has lost every ounce of power
He wipes his runny nose against his sleeve
At last it is my mother’s final hour
No more second chances. No reprieve.

*

She was just here and now she’s just gone
In a New York minute I lost my mother
How can the rest of the world carry on?
She was just here and now she’s just gone
On whose loving breast will I rest my head on?
I’ll search all my life but I won’t find another
She was just here and now she’s just gone
In a New York minute I lost my mother


Excerpt from “The Deal” copyright ©2015 Lesléa Newman from I Carry My Mother (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA). Used by permission of the author.