the oncologist said, finger tips pressed together, frowning
from behind his desk. (Pens and highlighters were neatly
propped up there in a can decorated
with glitter and buttons and dried macaroni and love
by his daughter, the one in the gold-framed photo he kept
tilted toward his computer screen. It was Tuesday
and he was probably going to her softball game after work
and in six months
he will go to her fourth grade graduation
with a bouquet and some advice. The date
was already marked with a paper clip in his planner. I know
because my own sons’ school graduations were bigger
than some black-tie business dinner in my calendar.)
I was still
until I could feel the ticking second hand in my wrist
watch pulling on my heart beat
and then I wept.
mean I should start shopping
for a cemetery, where the ground keepers come to work every morning
to weed around the daisies. And children,
my grandchildren, bring heel slices for the ducks in the pond
when they get tired of watching their parents cry.
I need a cemetery not too far from my sons’
own homes, so they won’t mind visiting
me six months from now, sixty months from now.
The youngest (God, he’ll be 34 next month)
never could handle long car rides. The worst was our first real hunting
trip, just him and me,
for his 15th birthday. The other half of the present was a .22 rifle, his first
gun, though I had practically spoon fed him
gun safety rules with his Gerber canned squash and hand-
mashed bananas. As the gears caught and shifted on the mountain ascent
his stomach churned. After pulling over
three times, we called it a weekend and came home
with a few feathers found by the roadside to prove
we had come close (his brothers didn’t believe a thing),
and a good dinner table story to laugh over on his birthdays.
He doesn’t have that .22 rifle anymore. He says
he would prefer to raise his children
without guns in the house.
I wonder if you can shop for grave markers online,
click and charge by credit card. My oldest son
designs websites for a paycheck. He was the inventor,
my workshop apprentice. Four days out of five I’d come home
to find him in the garage, screwdriver in hand,
bits of dissected toaster strewn around him. (I knew
my English muffin would by crispy
the next day. Saturdays we’d trek to the hardware
store downtown for screws and soldering wire and a little combustion
engine for the miniature airplane we were building.
I found that airplane in the garage
last week while looking for an old
photo album. It still flies.
could mean the end of rehab and a new life
for my middle son. Or just another
fresh start screwed by pot and blank job applications and unpaid
child support. (I’ve never met my granddaughter.) Should I have
done something more drastic when I found the lighter
in his pocket and smelled the dope
in his sweatshirt? A high school phase. He was seeing
a girl named Jewel with black-lined blood-shot eyes and black
combat boots. (I’d brought home a few
non-conservative types myself.) He apologized
when I called him at the clinic with the prognosis –
my “estimated time of departure,” he called it.
“I’m sorry for being such a fucking mess,”
and he made me forget
that night he never came home after a concert
and the afternoon I pulled up next to a cop car
in my own driveway, my son in the car.
For possession. In a first aid kit, strapped
beneath the seat. I want to breathe my
of life into his stale head, but I’ve been breathing for 36 years.
Maybe I’ll just settle
for writing another check when the next eviction
notice comes and ignore his total debt.
Soon the cancer will steal more
than my hair (I didn’t have much to begin with)
and my waistline (I wasn’t crushed to see that go).
Soon someone else will come to bathe
me, they said, and my thoughts will look like a TV
tuned to a pay channel I haven’t bought. I’ve started watching
Dick van Dyke when I’m too tired to find
the remote. The pain
might make me wish six months would come tomorrow.
I am drinking Florida orange juice every day now
(maybe it is never too late).
The smiling sun on the carton will rise
robust and healthy for my sons
in six months. Tomorrow
they are taking me on a graveyard tour.
I am wondering which one will write the eulogy
until my phone beeps to tell me
they will come by early to trim the hedge out front and water.
They are my living eulogy.
The Love She Taught Me
Leaves in her hand after a walk — my friend —
from the sidewalk, from the grass, from the corner
café parking lot.
She meets her poet friend (who comes on brown strappy platforms
and sometimes a little acid) at the corner
café for cappuccinos and mille-feuilles.
Each leaf splotched green or rust or red or all three, as if spilled on
each one extinguished like yesterday.
She writes — her friend — about trees and squirrels that die
of neglect and plastic six-pack beer wraps (no one takes
five second to cut them) and aloneness. I’d asked her —
(Leaves go well on matte finish eggshell living room walls,
crisping the air and crunching like popcorn in laughing hands;
friends go well in living room chairs, crunching popcorn and laughing.)
— at a party, where she said loudly that feminists shouldn’t wear dresses
and quietly that she belly dances for fun (in a room without mirrors).
My friend hugged her mid-demonstration. I drew straight
lines in the dew on my cup, could see the mascara on my bottom lashes.
The living room — my friend’s — is living and almost photosynthesizing
loveliness inside the fatal splotches. One, dog-eared
and shamefully turned in on itself, she named for the poet.
(Star-watching once, the poet, my friend,
and I couldn’t remember
the constellation names that come with dysfunctional
relationships and illegitimate half-god children;
so that one the poet called “grandma’s chicken soup ladle,”
stirring the bubbling midnight pot
in a healing surge of universe altering.)
Another, rumpled, orange and sometimes brittle, is named for me.
“There’s the flutey man again,” said my
brother as we rode along to soccer practice
or the grocery store in our blue mini-van.
It was not Halloween and he looked
like a joke in yellow and purple
pants and a hat like an Easter bonnet I’d
made from doilies and ribbon and yarn
when I was five. Riding, riding, he
was always riding that silly bike
with a banana seat and silver streamers
that matched his fuzzy puffs of side-burns,
a little too long. And even as he rode he played
a flute that swayed as the pedals did. His
tune was improvised, without beginning
or ending or a key. He
must have escaped from the asylum,
we would speculate with crooked smiles.
“That’s where the flutey man lives,” not far,
I discovered one day, from my own
house. A porch light, mailbox, signs
of normalcy. He must live with his sister or mother
who washes his orange socks and makes him toast
for breakfast. Even flutey men have to eat.
Maybe she drives him to the dentist
or the donut shop in the not-so-whimsical
Buick out front. He tried to grow vegetables
in the dry patch of dirt by the driveway;
he waters his shrunken
radishes and talks to the aphids and plays
a new flute song for them. The next time
I saw the flutey man pedaling cheerfully
no-handed, to nowhere in particular
and on a whim I
would try to learn his tune.