Time of Death


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, no matter how hard I try,
when they zipped her back up, I know something died.


Summer Squash

Summer Squash

Near the end, when my mother
was mostly cotton pajamas
and bones, we could see the tumor
rise out of her belly, as big and round
as a prize-winning tomato.

With every heartbeat, the thing
pulsed its own defiant life,
pushed its roots deeper
into a pancreas and liver no longer
rich enough to be good soil.

My brother, the pharmacist, found
it first while turning mom,
put his hand on the swollen fruit
like he might have felt
for his children, kicking with life,

safe in their first dark and fluid
place. He urged me to reach out
and touch, but—watching his hand
rise and fall—I could not bear
such labor, so clinical, so intimate

like sex. When all was said
and done, I drove home three states
away, to the summer garden I stuck
hurriedly in the ground—eggplants, okra,
tomatoes, peppers, and squash.

Previous years, the squash vines
spread green through their end
of the bed, bloomed yellow flowers
as bright as the morning sun, sprouted
a squash or two, then suddenly

wilted and died. Extension Service
Publication Insect Pests of the Home
Vegetable Garden
says I have
squash vine borers, clearwing moths
whose larvae chew through

stems of otherwise healthy plants.
Remedies include “chemical prevention
of egg deposit” and “manual removal
of larval young.” Bore holes tell me
I’m too late for prevention,

so I carry a penknife to the garden,
search plants for protruding frass
and a bulge, cut gently like a lover
along the stem axis until I see the palled

living worm, gut the fat white thing,
and—with the blade—scrape
the bastard out.

Hemming and Hawing



Hemming and Hawing
for Louise C. Smith, d. May 21, 2011

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 has already left that place, gone

out the back door, through the glass
and screen, without the familiar bang of people coming
and going, made its way into the back pasture
with the cows and coyotes, the golden

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

almost takes shape, then turns and flows like a stream
toward the cool, wet dark where ripe mayhaws
float in red collects, pooled and bitter, but waiting
to be gathered in and made sweet.




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.