INSTEAD OF A DEATH WISH
I. What She Doesn’t Say
My aunt, who hasn’t spoken for several days.
“It’s all a mistake. If I’d only known.
I always decided what would happen
to me, to people I cared about.”
Uneasy, relations lean against white walls.
Beneath their talk, I hear her whisper.
“Harold would have died that time,
if I hadn’t yelled until they took him
to a better hospital.”
Her brain heaves with breeding tumors.
Tubes carry air into her body,
waste out. Nurses watch a screen
where colored lines sketch life that is not hers.
“If I’d known, if I’d only known,” she whispers.
“I’d never have let it happen this way.”
Today I’ve agreed to give a speech
halfway across the state. I’m packing
when my mother calls to say
the family is gathering at the hospital
again. “You can’t leave,”
my mother says. “What if she dies?”
What if she does? I said
goodbye while she could hear me.
Fleeing deathbed scenes
I drive too fast.
II. What She Says
“Look, that fellow’s got his hay stacks
in a bunch by the house; one lightning strike
could take all his winter feed.”
Wait a minute, I say.
You’re not supposed to be here.
You’re supposed to be back there dying
where the family’s gathered around your bed.
“That next place is empty;” she says.
“A shame. Folks worked hard, lost it anyway.
Nice place for a house; look at the view.”
I can’t look; I’m driving.
Since I’m hearing voices,
maybe I shouldn’t be.
“Some woman worked hard to keep those flowers alive,
just like I did. All winter, looking out the window
at brown stems, I pretend the snow drifts
are white blossoms in spring.”
Her voice rises, falls like the tawny grass
beyond the windshield. I gather my nerve,
and glance at the seat beside me.
She’s there, brown curls blown in the wind.
Grinning, tan face crinkling,
She throws her head back in a laugh.
“Well, we fooled them, didn’t we?
They’re all gathered around that bed again,
trying not to look at that mess hanging under it.”
That’s where you’re supposed to be, I tell her,
instead of making me talk to myself.
She shakes her head. “Nobody touches me
but the nurses. You’d think it was catching.”
I’m not happy talking to the dead either,
I say. Leave. Shoo. Scram.
For once, she’s quiet, looking at me,.
Maybe she knows that two years later,
I’ll welcome her voice
when I pull a calf at midnight,
and talk to my dead husband every day.
We meet a Cadillac;
a tumbleweed wide as the grille
rides the radiator,
twined into every crevice.
“Look– that’s how that tumor is inside my head,”
she says. “For years, that thing’s had its claws in me.”
Your grandfather kept a journal, I tell her,
though she knew it once. When you were born,
he wrote about the tumor on your head.
Maybe it’s been waiting all these years.
“It waited a long time, then,” she cackles,
voice trailing away.
Sunset gilds the rolling slopes along the road;
shadows lie along the river.
Ahead, I see her striding up a hill,
sun burnishing the hair gone months ago.
“You be sure somebody waters those trees
I planted,” she yells over one shoulder.
“And don’t forget . . .”
She tops the hill, strides down
into bare white cottonwoods
along the wide Missouri,
rolling high with snowmelt,
thundering toward the Gulf.
Though I can’t hear her voice,
the land and river
know where she’s gone.
But just in case,
I say goodbye for her
to big bluestem and redtop,
buffalo grass and grama —
standing up to the west wind.
The engine rumbles as I top the slope,
still heading east.