Ways of Looking at Your Dying Mother

With a mother who cannot truly understand you, you can say anything you want. Donald Trump is finally in jail for a hundred years…. Let your imagination go wild. You are married to the richest man in Paris, even though you have not actually visited Paris. But do tell her you love her. That is the truth. Tell her you love her.

Try to memorize everything about your mother’s face. Her eyes are still a sharp blue. Her skin at her age is remarkably smooth. Her eyelashes have faded, but you can remember when they were long and black, and she could look like Elizabeth Taylor. She does not resemble you, but she also resembles you. One day you may be in the same chair and have a daughter who sits facing you. You may not recognize her. But somehow, you pray, she is kind and patient and will always be there.

Even though your mother has not attended synagogue since your father died two decades ago, I attend a service. I try to follow along with the prayers, but my voice just stops, as if there is a plug in my throat. My eyes fill with tears. The woman next to me who is wearing a fur coat opens her bag and hands me a Kleenex. I nod in thankfulness. Although everyone is chanting in Hebrew, I am hearing Wallace Steven’s magnificent poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I always loved this line: I do not know which to prefer, The beauty of inflections. Or the beauty of innuendoes. When the service ends, I allow everyone to leave until I am the only one sitting in the aisle, a woman holding her head in her hands, silently reciting the Wallace Stevens poem again, and again.

From “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Your Dying Mother,” Lilith Online. Penny Jackson is the author of My Daughter’s Boyfriends, a short story collection, as well as many essays, stories, plays and films.