A Private Liturgy of Grief

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A Private Liturgy of Grief

for Louise C. Smith, d. May 21, 2011

I. Hemming and Hawing

She made so many things
in her life—curtains, jellies, cobblers,
the cranberry leisure suits for me, my brothers,
and dad, infamous and immortalized

in the 1970s family portrait still hanging
in the deserted hallway, the newly empty house,
our ancestral and spectral home. But the last breath
she made already left that place—gone

out the back door, through the glass
and screen, without the familiar bang of people coming
and going—found its way to the back pasture
with cows, coyotes, egrets, the golden

bunchgrass her mother taught her to bind
into brooms for cleaning and making a home.
There, at the edge of trees leading down to Lost Creek,
the breath of her life pauses, hesitates,

almost takes shape, then turns and flows like a stream
toward bottom-land deep where ripe mayhaws
float in red collects—pooled and bitter—but waiting
to be gathered in and made sweet.

II. Permanent

Mom was a beautician,
her shop on the front of our house,

a screen porch walled and windowed
for business, then filled with chemicals,

dryers, scissors, sinks, rollers,
and combs. She could tease

the hell out of a woman’s hair
on Saturday, make her head ready

for church—every strand pressed
obsessively into place before the final

shellacking with Aqua Net spray.
To this day, my childhood

memories mingle cartoons, ammonia,
perms, milk, and Frosted

Flakes. In her beauty shop, Mom
broke and reformed protein chains

till hair curled like croquinole
dreams made flesh in a salon styling

chair. But bonds were hard for her
in real life—other dressers

always out to get her, spreading
lies, stealing friends and tips.

So, she worked alone, even following
her clients to the funeral home,

telling the mortician he could
go now—not afraid, without need

of witness for her final free
act of beautician mercy and grace.

III. Time of Death

Saturday night, on the way to declare my mother dead,
the hospice supervisor got lost. Her GPS ran out of data,
led her down our dark country road, to an end

that was no end, just nowhere, a black stopping place
between peanut fields and dense acres of pine,
the unmapped road and rolling hills persisting

as far as the car’s headlights could shine. By then,
my mother had been dead for some time, comfortable
and propped in bed, her pancreas and cancer out of gas

at last. The death certificate will say 10:15 p.m., but she died
all week, and before. On Monday, she woke for three mornings
—5, 8, and 10—each time asking for coffee, but falling

back asleep on the couch before the pot dripped
its way to done. Tuesday she gave up breakfast and food
altogether; Wednesday sat on the porch one final

time to watch the hummingbirds visit from another world,
her face a blank, unsigned form. On Thursday, she refused
water, walked herself to the bathroom for a terminal,

autonomous pee. But language faded all along, as if words
were a load too heavy to tote from one place to the next.
Friday she said, I love you, and Take care of Jeanne,

her youngest sister, who was very sick. All day Saturday,
we watched her chest rise and fall, counted beats, swabbed
her lips, teeth, and tongue, till she took a breath near dark

that was not a breath, just an empty gasp, a dry suck on the straw
that was her life. 7:55 p.m. So we sat, held, hovered, waited
for the one who could say she’s dead. Not thinking then,

but now—what is the real time of death? Midnight, when
the funeral director and his men rolled her toward us in the den,
my brother out of the blue said, Can we kiss her goodbye?

Surprised, but agreeable, the handlers paused, pulled down
the rich velvet spread, revealed the black vinyl bag beneath.
Though I can’t recall the exact time—and why now even try—

when they zipped her back up, I know something died.

IV. Hairline

The last days of my mother’s life,
when bones were almost all
that was left of mom

in this world, I kissed her

on the forehead and called
her sweetie each time
I put her to bed, kissed her

near the widow’s peak where hair
and skin met like the far line
between earth and sky,

her thinning skin stretched
tight over a hard plane
of bone, her downy hair

as soft as clouds seem, framing
the vacant space
where crows caw and fly,

call and fly.

3 thoughts on “A Private Liturgy of Grief

  1. What an extraordinary and moving remembrance. The details are vivid and strange, painful and compelling. Though it is your story, it calls up vigils I too have kept. You help me look back as well as ahead. I am grateful to have read this and sorry for your losses.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Laurie. I remember my dad talking about sitting with dying friends and family. He was a good man that way. I wasn’t with him, but I had called at just that moment to say Good Morning.

      Like

  2. Pingback: July 29, 2015 — #TenThingsNotToSayToAWriter | A Deeper Roar

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