(Alice Minot Deppe, 1924—2009)
The Other Side of First Street
Driving at dusk to the hospital to sit up with my mother,
I paused at the crossroads where half a century ago,
as I walked home from school, a cloudburst
fell on the street’s far side while sun kept shining on mine.
The storm stood still, the stern crossing guard laughed
as she escorted us back and forth to the rain’s verge,
and even the drivers of the stopped cars got out to watch.
And some of us put out our hands to touch the rain,
and some of us stepped in and came back again,
so all these years later, stopping at this intersection
en route to the hospital, I imagine
stepping back and forth between worlds until morning.
April 18, 2009
No, I seemed rooted on this side, but while I sat by Mother,
telling her about the flight from Ireland, she suddenly gasped,
the violent rising of her ribs dislodged my hand from her shoulder,
and she stopped breathing, ten seconds, twenty
so I knew—
Then she sipped air again, my brother swabbed her mouth,
and her breathing became steady as a swimmer’s.
But when I checked her pupils, they no longer reacted to light.
Something had left and something had not. All night,
that unchanging respiration, and I pictured
her strong crawl carrying her past the islands of her childhood,
past Naushon and Nashawena, past Cuttyhunk
with its red-winged blackbird songs at the edge of the world.
On the third night, I watched runs of ventricular tachycardia
glide past on her monitor, signatures with billowing sails interrupting
her regular rhythm. When I worked as a night nurse,
those large-winged arrhythmias used to visit my nightmares:
any moment the heart could end things. She kept swimming.
Towards morning, I searched on my laptop for my 1990 journal,
wanting details of the cruise to Cuttyhunk with my parents.
Mother was never more at home than on a boat, or in water.
I clicked on the icon for that journal, but there was an error,
the file could not be retrieved. 1990 was the first year to vanish.
Swimming Out Further
That afternoon, the phone rang. Annie said: “Your mother is dying.”
I wanted to dress, have her pick me up, but she said, “It’s happening,
now.” I asked her to get off the phone, be with my mother.
Later, she described those moments so vividly
that if I don’t write this down—her telling me all this,
me seeing it as she speaks—if I don’t somehow fix my absence,
some future me will believe I was in the room myself,
not five miles away standing naked by the bed, thanking my mother,
talking to her in the middle of a blinding cloud—
Mother, while I slept at home, Doug sang to you,
a song he’d made up, an unrecorded, unwritten, irretrievable song.
I would like to have heard the youngest son sing to his mother.
Then Annie and Joan saw what I had seen, that you were swimming,
steady little breaths until your lips paused, and everyone leaned forward
until Dad said, “Get a nurse!” and Annie and Joan said, “No. Don’t.”
Unable to sleep, I listened to distant trains,
then got up for whiskey and heard my father
breathing in his bedroom. And I found myself timing his
breaths, the way I’d timed hers.
My earliest memory: she held me at the roundhouse in Superior
as engines entered the station, turned, re-emerged. Strange
not to have a clue where she is, even if she is—
Mother of doubts as well as faith,
Mother of questions,
Mother of grace in the midst of uncertainty.
Our youngest son woke from a dream in which my mother
hugged him at his sister’s wedding. Knowing
his Granny was dead, he wondered if others could see her, too,
or if they thought him mad, talking to the tent’s empty corner.
Either way, Michael and his Granny were delighted
that she’d slipped through the curtain and found him.
It’s the sort of dream my wife had many times
after her mother died.
Mother, I’m still waiting for a visit from you,
though perhaps I’m too stunned for it yet.
Or maybe it’s you who are stunned somehow on your own side,
Or maybe such a comfort would only leave me more bereft.
And then, after I said farewell beside the furnace,
after days of talking to her like this on paper,
which is what I seem able to do,
I found myself by chance in our old home,
the house on Maxwell Lane that I hadn’t been in for decades,
and two former neighbors and a girl who was visiting from Budapest
guided me through the home place,
though I did most of the talking.
They let me name the place of the fire,
the place where I once flew, the place where I lay in fear until she
came to me and led the nightmare bear away with a jar of honey.
And when we came downstairs, the dark-eyed girl
sang in Hungarian, a song for the kitchen of my childhood,
and I don’t know what the words meant,
but I was standing in that cloud of tears again,
everything almost too bright to see
as if the spark at the center of each word
were visible and moving in patterns
that might be a lament for a loved one, or for a vanished homeland,
yet somehow the glow and lift of those notes
gladdened this spring kitchen
as if all that is lost could return, at least for the length of a song.