In 1977, when I was twenty years old, I saw a newspaper photograph of the writer Katherine Anne Porter; she, her private secretary, and a portrait artist stood in her casket, a fairly simple pine box hand-painted, as a child would, with bold, bright flowers. The trio’s happy acceptance of inevitable death, both one’s own and a loved one’s, astonished me. In contrast to the usual youthful “we are invincible” bravado, at that point in my life I was terrified of dying, so their blatant delight in the vessel of her final journey opened a whole new way of looking at life and death for me. Porter ordered the coffin only to discover when it arrived that it was rather oversized for someone as slight as she. According to an April 25, 2013 story in the online Atlantic magazine, Porter kept the “pine coffin in her apartment during her later years. . . . She enjoyed startling visitors by standing in it and commenting on the fit,” once inviting a reporter to hang his coat in it. What a strange old lady! While the delight people get in shocking others is de rigueur today, a stricter politeness reigned in the ‘70s. But twice in her twenties, including in the 1918 flu pandemic, she nearly died, so nearly that last rites were administered; I imagine that experience would embolden anyone. Her fierce embrace of death seems born both in defiance as well as an equally passionate grip on life.
Having been inspired by Porter’s photo and history to be less afraid of death, some years later I read David Ignatow’s “First Coffin Poem.” The speaker, in a coffin, suggests the reader take the coffin home and use it as a piece of furniture (“coffee table,” “bench,” “a conversation piece”). The image of dinner guests “standing about with glasses in their hands” while the coffin has “food and drinks served on it, and an ashtray,” was riotously funny to me. How much more useful to be a bench when one dies rather than a buried thing! I began to look at death as less of an enemy and more as just a guaranteed aspect of life. The ability to laugh at the inevitable, to appreciate the full course of one’s life, was such a gift. I was still unnerved by dead things (a squirrel on the sidewalk, whatever it was vultures were tearing up on the roadside), but I started to search for expressions and symbols of death out in the world. My love of art expanded into an appreciation for religious iconography, something I had not paid much attention to before. Though I never tried to write about death, I felt more comfortable thinking of humanity’s inexorable passing.
Then my parents got old.
And I hated death and age and change and God. I hated the doctor’s visits, the hearing aids, the Depends. I hated the diseases that robbed me of my mother and father, that turned me into their parent. I wanted at times to set the reams of paperwork on fire. More than anything, I wanted to go back in time and know my parents when they were young and perfect and beautiful. Strong. Healthy. I could change nothing. But I could write. So I wrote poems about my mother’s hallucinations, my father’s body twisted by stroke. I wrote about my distain for time. Seemingly countless ER visits and hospitalizations. Falls, deafness, medication screw-ups, hospice. Pureed food and failure-to-thrive. I wrote about the defeating burden of everything, and how I despised myself for writing about that. But writing saved me, brought me whole through the years of fire.
Recently I reread all the poems I wrote during those final four or five years. It is hard to admit, but I found many of them, especially the early ones, to be ugly and cruel. I told a poet friend that I was going to try to rewrite them. His response still makes me teary. He pointed out that though I may see the poems as unduly harsh, they also are unflinchingly honest; they are true feelings that can’t be discounted and should not be erased. He told me I had to write those poems to be able to write the superior poems I am writing today. So much of life is like that, but it was hard for me to see my work in those terms. My friend is right, as is his advice: I will not rewrite them, but I will take what I know now and make them better.
April 29 would have been my father’s 95th birthday. (He died at 90.) After work I drove out to Princess Anne Memorial Park, with its towering trees and shaded drive, to stand close to what used to be him, and my mother (who died in December) as well. I talked, listened, and cried, pressed my face against the bronze plaque and cold, brown-mottled marble wall covering the whatever it is you call what they are in—the drawer, to my mind. They are buried, no, they are encrypted, in a group mausoleum, on the third level of a six-story apartment of sorts. I appreciate the concession to the environment—stacked caskets have much less of a “footprint” than individual ones, which do take up so much land. Still, it’s weird.
On Mother’s Day about fifteen years ago, after a celebratory luncheon overlooking the wide and wild Chesapeake Bay, the whole family (my parents, me, my husband and son, plus my sister, her husband, and their son and daughter) stopped at the cemetery at Mom’s request so we all could see where she and my dad would end up, as they had recently purchased the spots. Most of the group felt an awkward discomfort, which was so odd to me. I remember being mad at myself for not having my camera in the car. Imagine a photograph of the entire family, especially the future inhabitants of the crypt, posing in front of the polished rock wall. The looks on everyone’s faces would have been extraordinary. It’s not a photo that many people would want to take or to keep, as my husband pointed out, but I regret not having it. I wonder if it would bring me special comfort to see Mom and Dad beaming there on a beautiful spring day, surrounded by loved ones, as opposed to the blank, voiceless façade I see there now. I wonder if it would make me smile. I think it would, but since that’s impossible, creating the photograph in words will be comfort and joy enough.
Demented, At 92
–for my sister
Sometimes you spit when you talk. Yesterday I was your mother,
tomorrow I might be your sister, or my sister. A fourth hearing aid
defies you, shakes free from wadded sheets. On New Year’s,
you toot a horn louder than the others, clink my glass, laugh
the soft way you used to. You fall, break; your body colors itself
like a map. I don’t know what’s going on at all, you say. You refuse
to eat your favorite foods. Unchecked, sodium and B-12 levels
plunge; madness takes over. You point to green slime oozing
from a ceiling vent: I took a wet deer leg and wiped it off. Your hair
spreads grey veins on a starched, white pillowcase. All the time now,
your voice is scratchy and loud. I read a found diary page; you recall
that tea dance, those couples. You wring your hands, tug your hair.
What can I do? What can I do? In firm refusal of physical therapy,
you squat, hug your knees. Control falls faster away, and in the
worst moments you question, Where is God? Your well-thumbed
Bible stares from the nightstand. He’s here, Mom, I lie. He’s here.
Too often, sleep takes you in mid-sentence. You tell visitors
of fantastic adventures. I pet your head: Your hand feels as good
as Mother’s. You forget Daddy is dead, wonder where he’s been.
Compliments still please you. Your face becomes the common one
the dying take on: all forehead, aquiline nose, sepulchral mouth.
You ask, Am I a real person? Small children visit or stand in the closet;
I’ve stopped insisting they’re a dream.
(previously published in Muddy River Poetry Review)
(AP photo courtesy blog.syracuse.com)