Passing from Hand to Hand
Many poems have been written of this,
by men and women, young and old,
with the first sight of the mother
struggling with death.
All the words, written,
unwritten, spoken and silent
say the same thing.
I am no different —
I have nothing new to add
to the ancient drama.
But now it is you;
stretched out, naked and defenseless
on the steel table in E.R.
Drugged, vitals low but steady,
IV lines and cardiac leads
swept over your soft body like coiling snakes,
the ventilator tube down your throat —
a machine breathing better for you now
than you have for yourself in years.
And now it is me
who plays the strong first son —
resolute, unmoved and dutiful —
as you pass in and out of consciousness.
You choke on the tube, your eyes
flashing panic and pain,
so I turn your face to mine and smile,
as if I know what to do.
I stay through each eruption,
hold your hand, finger the restraints
that bind you to unwelcome rescue.
The nurse shouts:
“Relax! Let the machine breathe for you!”
I would tear her throat,
drink her blood while she lived her last,
but for the knowing
that she will repair your body
with the unconcern of a mechanic,
while your fears are mine to soothe.
You always liked telling the story
of the time I fainted when you cut your hand.
The bright red blood in the sink,
pouring from the two-inch gash,
stole my breath, filled my chest
with a wasp’s nest of panic,
while you dialed the phone for help.
My nine years could not martial the strength
to calm myself and save you.
I could not be that day what I am today.
Today I do not waver.
You choke bile from deep within,
retch and stop breathing,
red-faced, glassy eyes pleading for rest,
as the machines call out their siren warning,
and I do not waver.
I call quietly for help,
stay by your side, your soft hand
in mine, my heart sending blood and breath
through my eyes into your struggling lungs.
I may not be a man yet — I often think not,
but I’m here to do a man’s job:
to help a mother live again,
or to help her die, pressed to her own flesh
in final contact, unafraid of the passing.
When you are calm again, we signal
with eyes and touch of fingers to palm.
Taps for yes, waves for no.
You spell words into my hand, letter by letter:
“TRICIA” — Her name is Tricia!
“VOMIT” — she’s vomiting, can’t you see?
“DON’T WORRY” — I won’t worry, Mom, you’ll be fine.
“I LOVE YOU.”
Later, left with only
the endless tests and waiting for tests,
I go home, taste the full bitter and salt
of the near loss, and the loss to come.
Knowing, like a bruise in my muscle,
of the coming day when I will hold your hand
until the spelling stops, when your fingers
stiffen, grow cold in mine and rest.
And I think of another time.
What hand will press against these aged fingers,
these hands now holding pages and pen?
Who will watch me bleed and vomit,
choke on all the words left unsaid,
then stop with a final shudder,
after I have spelled into the palm
of a new generation:
“I LOVE YOU.” “DON’T WORRY.”
From “The End of an Ordinary Life”, available NOW. See my Author’s page.