I wrote the following 18-line poems in honor of my mother, whose Hebrew name is Chaia. The Hebrew letter "chai" is also the number 18, and it means "Life."
My Mother’s Song
We tied the line
.....between strong trees
..........clear across the yard
I gave her pins
.....one by one
..........as she gave me her song
Clothes caught the song
..........and snapped against the sky
Leaves rustled the song
..........tossed it like a bouquet
Now I sing a song
.....a tall tree song
..........soft blue memory
wrapped in the clothes
.....she washed and smoothed
..........and draped in the sky for me
How lucky I felt to sit with the choir
in the U-shaped balcony
high above the men. The women sang
familiar songs in a language I knew
only by heart. Friday evenings
I’d hurry to my mother’s store
and walk with her to shul
where she’d don her black robe
with the white collar.
The women ascended the stairs
and their voices
now soft — now strong —
swelled in my chest
shimmered in the air
cascaded over the banister
to the covered heads of the men below
and glittered in the golden threads
on the curtain of the Holy Ark.
My mother struggles to rise from her chair
wrestling with dignity
to stand on her own.
Earth draws her near
When I reach out
she waves me away
wants to do it herself
the way she has for ninety-four years.
The day the Pope died
a great white oak snapped
in my yard
from a strong gust of wind
and fell across the bridge
into the pond.
Between birth and death is a sweet freedom
to live beyond regret
Mother in My Arms
I am carrying my mother, frail yet substantial,
across a field urgently, as though she’s a bird
who can’t fly and I must restore her to her nest.
Her arms and legs are all angles
so I’m struggling to hold up her body
as we move through this meadow
of long grass and uneven ground.
Yet she is light, light as the silver strands
that fly around her head and brush my face.
Now I see we’re not walking to a nest
but the ocean before us — shimmering blue gem
spreading wider and wider.
Wet sand beneath my feet, mother floating in my arms.
Together we enter as we entered this life.
She cradled me in her body and then in a basket
from the coast of California all the way to New York,
one ocean to another,
mother to daughter, daughter to mother.
I visit my mother in the hospital with lilacs
from the garden to make her smile
but her mouth is open wide
in a soundless cry of pain
So I run around trying to get anyone
to ease my mother’s suffering
but all the doctors are home for Mother’s Day
leaving nurses unable to help
Finally a resident comes to her bed and says
She doesn’t look like she’s in so much pain and I say
Oh yeah? Well this is what pain looks like
smashing my face in her face
my mouth open so wide I swallow her head
When the nurse starts the soothing drip
I sit beside my mother, whose body is dying,
and tell her Don’t worry, Mama, I’ll bring you home
and pray she lives long enough
to die peacefully at home as I’d promised
Her Last Tooth
After losing her last tooth
she makes a list:
“Corned beef. Herring.
A slice of hard salami.
My mouth is watering
for something with taste.”
I make a smooth whitefish salad
for this mother of mine
still hungry for taste.
At night her sweet tooth aches.
“Coffee ice cream.
Strawberry short cake.
A good piece of dark chocolate.”
I brush her hair, cover her ears
with the blue knit cap,
give her a chocolate kiss.
The rest of the night she sleeps
sweet to the dawn.
And at the end the awful symmetry —
changing your mother’s diaper, mashing food
then eating it for her when she can’t swallow,
helping her sip from a straw.
Searching for words, I find awe:
mingled reverence, dread and wonder,
the Middle English word for age.
At ninety-seven my mother is full of awe.
It’s hard, this dying.
Her moans are a new sound in our home.
I gave her a bell, but she calls “Patti!”
and I come. Even in my sleep.
Even in her sleep.
At her bedside, I lower the bars and hold her hand,
her other hand reaching for Papa
who she sees with his arms outstretched.
“Papa! Patti! Papa! Patti!” she calls
holding on to hands on both sides of death
After she labored to leave her body, my mother’s face
was composed in the stark beauty of death —
cheekbones defined her heart-shaped face,
pink skin smooth, moist lips and eyelids
gently closed in rest.
I thought she was alive.
How many times had I come to her door
to look for the rise and fall of breath.
Now I place my hands on her chest
that I saw moving just an hour before,
and in this room where she had wanted to die
I could feel her body still warm.
That evening she’d smiled
when I opened the window to cool her fever,
the breeze caressing her skin, and now with my fingers
I comb the long white hair that halos her head
to hear her say one more time,
“That feels so good.”
The Secret of Life
Watching my dog sleep beside me
I discover the secret of life: Air
rhythmically swells and shrinks
her whole body — a bellows
.....pulsing with life
..... .....inspired by air.
This ubiquitous elixir
fills our lungs, aerates our blood,
bubbles in our brain.
Asleep and awake
.....we ride the waves of air
..... .....as long as we live.
As long as we live we breathe
this invisible essential,
and we pass it on
one being to another
.....this anonymous gift
..... .....this blessing that keeps us alive
More Gratitude Than Grief
when my mother died, I was
happy I’d held her close so long
relieved she died in peace.
How many deaths do you almost die
if you live for ninety-seven years?
False alarms gave us the grace of time.
And when at last time’s thief
shut her eyes with care,
my mother’s faith
that her father would be waiting
lightened my sense of loss
and left me grateful.
Holding her picture
hearing a song
I cry in sadness but not regret
the burden of my grief lifted
by my mother’s lifelong belief
that she would rest in Papa’s arms.
When a Tree Falls
who hears the thud, feels the ground tremble
where our whole life stood?
When my mother died, I called friends
to tell them not only that
she died but how
and they told me their stories.
For so many the passage is harrowing
but here’s a good one: eighty-seven, feeling fine
in the comfortable chair by the window
of her daughter’s San Francisco home,
sipping her four o’clock sherry.
No matter how they died, now we are orphans.
Two months later this astonishing dream:
I walk downstairs where my mother lives
in the light streaming through open windows.
She is cheerfully putting things in order,
doesn’t need a walker anymore,
invites me to visit any time.