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This is a poem I wrote last month. Sometimes I write something that I particularly like. This is one of those things. I don’t know quite why. It’s about the unpredictability of life, not a particularly pleasant theme. Maybe it captures my present situation-mom dying, having to move, lots of uncertainties ahead-fairly well. I’d be interested in reactions that others have when they read it.

Our lives are often linear, 
not wavering from course, 
so that we come to think we’re on 
a road that’s without forks. 
 
As things remain the same, we will 
increasingly take hold 
of calculations that provide 
illusions of control. 
 
But change is like a highwayman 
that’s lying just ahead 
to rob us of our certainties 
and leave our plans for dead. 
 
A bone will break, a car will crash, 
pneumonia grows from coughs; 
God uses ordinary things 
to throw the balance off. 
 
He baffles and befuddles us 
disturbing our neat rows; 
the Holy Spirit hasn’t come  
to coronate the known. 

I wasn’t exactly surprised when my mom’s health deteriorated significantly over the last few months, ending with her death. She had a stroke 15 years ago, couldn’t eat by mouth, and had been in the hospital multiple times. Still, even a few weeks ago I wasn’t ready for her life to end. From comments others made when we had visitation last week, my experience was common. The refrain I heard again and again from those who had lost one or both parents was “I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t prepared when it happened.”

Other than having an aide to help her with her shower, mom was toileting, washing, dressing, and feeding herself without assistance less than four months ago. I had been living with her because she couldn’t manage the household by herself, but she was mostly self-sufficient. I seldom spent even a half-hour a day providing direct help. Then she had a fall on March 21, injuring her shoulder and breaking her scapula. Suddenly, she needed assistance with everything. She couldn’t put any weight on her right hand, and that kept her from using her walker, getting up without assistance, and handling many self-care tasks. She went to a rehab facility for the better part of a month to learn how to live with her restrictions. When she came home, the family had arranged for an aide to be in the house twenty-five hours a week, and I was there the rest of the time. We hoped things would be easier for her when the scapula healed. The second week of May, she was given clearance to put full weight on her right arm. Surely she would work hard and return to something close to independence. She was so determined and had come back so many times before. It would be the same this time.

But it wasn’t. Less than a month later, she was back in the hospital with difficulty breathing and fluid in her lungs. Her heart was failing. She came home on oxygen, but went downhill rapidly. Roughly two weeks after being discharged she died.

I was startled by how rapidly she declined. It might have been simply the result of a medical process that had progressed much farther than I or her doctors realized, but I tend to think there was more going on. In particular, I think she had worked so hard in the past because she was hopeful about recovery. This time, she had lost any sense that life could be anything except suffering. After previous hospital or rehab stays, she was always happy to get home, but she didn’t say that this time. Home seemed to her a foreign place. She said that everything looked different. She also couldn’t remember her routines and had to be guided through them. She was really bothered by trailing the oxygen tubing behind her all the time. Faced with all this, I think she gave up. After visits from OT and PT didn’t make any difference, my siblings and I decided it was time to call hospice to help her be comfortable during whatever time she had left.

A few days earlier, when I still thought she might rally, I was impatient on a few occasions when trying to help her. She was getting confused about simple things, so tasks took longer I may have been a little frustrated with the amount of time that things were taking, but I realized after a couple episodes that a bigger reason for my impatience was that I was having trouble accepting how rapidly she was declining. Even more centrally, I wanted her to still act like a mom—to notice all I was trying to do, to think about my well-being, and to have the same pride in me that she had always had. But that motherly attentiveness, though not completely gone, was mostly beyond her capacity. Once I realized that, I was more patient. I didn’t want to burden her that way. I had enjoyed that gift of being mothered for so long; I could let it go in order to be what she needed. I’m starting to think that letting go in that way freed me from the intense longing that I could have felt after her death. Perhaps I wound up better prepared than I thought. Thanks, mom, for having mothered so well.

My mom died a week ago today. So this is a time of mourning, which encompasses a great deal besides sadness. One thing that has struck me is how her death has resulted in a sudden change in my focus: from micro-attention to her daily ups and downs to expanded awareness of her life as a whole. I wrote the following poem about the vista that’s been opened to me as a result.

The last few years were mostly narrow,
so that she walked through places 
where the walls were tight, 
leaving only little alcoves where she could dress
and feed and sleep. Her step had slowed 
and sometimes going on at all took exhaustive effort.  
Long ago, most with whom she traveled trickled off 
to other paths, so few still walked with her.

At last the road choked down to nothing; 
Her walking ended and instead she flew away. 
At that the vista opened and I could see 
more than the cramped confines of final days
but a totality of life. 

Yesterday, I looked at photos taken 80 years ago
and there she is, Loie then, not mom 
or grandmother, a teen reclining on the beach,
smiling impishly, dressed in a swimsuit 
that her mother wouldn’t have approved of. 

Then she’s on a teeter-totter, floral dress flowing
off the edges of the plank, delighted to be lifted 
high, among the trees.

Here she stands in snow,
black-shrouded, squinting from the cold 
and cradling the family dog as if it were 
a plump and happy child. 
A few pages on,
her boyfriend sits back-to-back with her, 
playing his accordion. He will go to war, 
then they will wed and twine together 
more than sixty years. She’s leaning into him 
and holding up a cup as if it were at toast 
to what had been and what was then 
and what was yet to come: friends and faith 
and family, a broad and blessed life. 
Goodbye, mom,
may your spirit soar.

My mom has been deteriorating for the past couple months. She’s currently on hospice. I’ve been her main caregiver. that’s been not only challenging, but instructive. I am learning how far I am from being unselfish and totally dedicated. Here’s a poem that describes one humbling moment:

Sometimes night conceals.
Sometime it reveals.

Caregiving for a parent is going fine by day,
the spinning top of dressing
		walking
		sitting
		feeding
		medicating
		comforting
proceed without a wobble,
but night is different.

“I need to get up.”
“You did a little while ago.”
“I need to again.” 

I compute my hours of lost sleep,
and, the books unbalanced,
add a sum of distance and discourtesy.

Back in bed, I feel the hard stone
of ego, wanting its ascendency.
I serve,
but I’m yet to be a servant.
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This was my first poem of the year, written in early January while reflecting on the year past and the year to come. It’s main image comes from Isaiah 40:8–“Grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of God endures forever.” It seems appropriate both in regard to the start of Lent and the present turmoil in the world.

Grass withers and the flower fades
winter comes to take away
whatever lacks abiding root
whatever lacks tenacious truth.

For metal rusts, the moth consumes;
the wealth that promised to accrue
gives little help when health erodes
thus proving a deceptive hope.

But we are blessed, not cursed by rust
for it discourages false loves
and losing is a discipline
that lights the way when dreams have dimmed.

Grass dies and human strength erodes
the word of God continues whole--
his grace and goodness are the hinge:
he opens and we enter in. 

		
		
	

Here is the Brief Rule of St. Romuald, who founded the Camaldolese Order in Italy a little over a thousand years ago. The rule is taken from https://camaldolesedownunder.com/st-romualds-brief-rule/ this website of an Australian Camaldolese monestary:

Sit in your cell as in paradise;
put the whole world behind you and forget it;
like a skilled angler on the lookout for a catch, keep a careful eye on your thoughts.

The path you must follow is in the psalms – don’t leave it. If you’ve come with a novice’s enthusiasm and can’t accomplish everything you want, take every chance you can find to sing the psalms in your heart and to understand them in your head; if your mind wanders as you read, don’t give up but hurry back and try again.

Above all realize that you are in God’s presence, like a little chick tasting and eating nothing but what its mother brings.

Reflecting on this rule a year ago during the time of isolation imposed by covid19, I wrote the following:

This room has become the cell sustaining me,
with its bed and chair and desk,
its wallpaper looking just a bit like burlap,
a calendar that usually lags a month or two behind,
and stacks of unread books and magazines.
Art hung here and there tells me of the world
beyond these walls—a field in Idaho,
a lake spread like smooth flooring 
beneath clouds plastered softly to the sky,
a quaint European street,
and a room somewhere that’s always sunlit
even during these cloudy winter days.

Wanderlust reaches out of the frames to tug
at me, but I isolate in place,
fishing just among my thoughts,
freshened by the sunlight streaming
from the psalms that my heart sings.
I peck gratefully at whatever seeds
my mother-God supplies.
Contentment visits and
my cell expands to paradise.

Photo by George Becker on Pexels.com
Advent comes, I wait, and know
that all of life is waiting.

I wait for the particular,
what I’m sure will happen—
school to start, graduation to occur,
guests to arrive, Christmas Day to come.
Waiting is faith.

But I mostly feel the weight of my wait
when I’ve left my certainty for contingency;
I check my watch more often when unsure
the train will come on time.
Waiting is doubt.

I wait not in completeness, but in lack—
no Invictus here for me, but need, 
for I am not enough. Other souls
and the mangered God must come
to fill me where I’m incomplete.
Waiting is emptiness.

And emptiness is such discomfort
that I seek some substitute,
some easy way. Yet all the while,
the One for whom I wait
waits steadfastly for me in hope 
that I will disavow distraction
and give myself to him.

Waiting is surrender. 
PXL_20211102_212444491

Necessities accomplished,

in stillness I sit down and read.

I find the place where I left off,

backtracking a bit to find

headwaters of the stream

spilled out by the author.

I row among the words a while,

their black debris floating

on a sheen of white.

There is much worth netting,

remembering, collecting.

Five pages in, my eyes,

winched at first to thought

and concentration,

   slowly

       uncouple,

          skittering

        across

    the

  lines,

    nothing

       understood.

           They

                       close,

            and

 the

            snow

                           of

     slumber

                           softly

 falls.

Clouds empty

inadvertent blessing

on the earth.





It is summer yet, but barely—
some days already suitable for sweaters.
Light’s vast expanse is shrunk, 
tailored ever tighter, as if the year
became obese but has been dieting
and will with winter shrink 
to skeletal. 

After eight, my dog and I go out 
and find the yard is deep in darkness.
I thought to take a flashlight
to help us find our way, but discovered 
that the scant rags of light left over
from the day’s rich finery 
are enough for us. 

Wendell Berry writes about a hunter
so exasperated by his temperamental
lantern that he tossed it down a hollow,
then proceeded better than before. 

Perhaps I’ve huddled
close to lamps and lanterns overmuch. 
The darkness has more light 
than I imagined, and in it 
I can see the stars. 
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When I go out, I usually have an agenda that usually takes priority over the strangers I’m walking past. Occasionally there’s an exception, though. This poem describes a time I put my agenda aside and made connection.

A young man sat cross-legged on the sidewalk,
not looking up, playing his guitar, 
the only sign that he was panhandling was a sign:
“Homeless traveler, please help.”

I passed him easily the first time 
and went beyond two steps when coming back
before becoming gum-footed.
I had a few spare dollars and a few spare minutes,
so why not offer both? I turned around.

We talked a bit.
He was passing through, 
he liked the town but found it hard 
to be among the homeless here,
so he was leaving soon. 

Then he volleyed this:
“Would you like to hear a poem?”
He had been writing one about the friends
that heroin had stolen. I said yes,
so he flipped a battered notebook open. 

I remember words of sorrow, pain, and anger,
but most of all determination to express all this.
There must be many more like him—
heads down but eager to be heard.

I thanked him and he smiled, 
glued his palms together, 
and bent down in a bow.