“If” and “When” — a Poem of Eulogy and Celebration


If my grief over Mother’s death were a person, This would be the year it could buy its first drink With friends at the bar Slamming the mug down in triumph, Froth crowning its upper lip. Then, maybe, there’d be singing. Or, maybe, my grief, taking after me, Would be a teetotaler, content to drift on the rising tide Of friends’ besotted laughter. If my grief over Mother’s death were a person, I’d make a wish that its friends, when drunk, would only laugh — Opening their arms wide
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for tipsy hugs And slurred “I love yous!” I remember the year my grief was born — Seems like only yesterday, sometimes. I, a grad student a hundred miles from home, Rolling across campus in my motorized chair, Would sing aloud, not caring If my spastic throat pulled the tune off-key. I needed to sing, to give my voice the power To cut through helplessness
Like the prow of an ice cutter Through the North Atlantic: [sings] “My life flows on, in endless song Above Earth’s lamentation. I hear the sweet, though far off, hymn That hails the new creation. Above the tumult and the strife I hear its music ringing. It finds and echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?” Of course I got noticed. Moving through the cafeteria, The song’s final notes trailing behind me, I’d overhear: “She’s such an inspiration — Always so happy!” The irony sparked even through my grief-fogged mind. This woman: my mother, Daughter of a mathematician, Graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, Asked me to work magic on her behalf — To arm myself with Hope and Vision, To battle at her side from a hundred miles away. Whether she believed the Power of Thought Could alter the progress of her cancer, Or merely deflect the pity and disgust That Oncoming Death inspires, I do not know. But when I was two, this woman, my mother Refused to be cowed by the hospital psychologist And saved me from a life behind institutional walls. When I was eight, she taught me how to write a letter of protest. She hand delivered it to my teacher at the PTA meeting, that night. The next morning, I learned that the authority of justice Could make the authority of position tremble. When I was thirteen (in the spring of ’77) We rallied together under hand-painted signs So that I (and others) could roll across campus. (While waiting for the elevator, An acquaintance finds the courage to ask If I dream of walking, or hope for a cure. I say there is no cure. And anyway, I’d rather spend my numbered days Out in the world, writing stories, or teaching children, Then behind the walls of a physical therapy gym. My answer earns rebuke for ‘Giving in to my disability’ When I was sixteen, Mother fought our town hall For a wheelchair access ramp, And cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony, The mayor smiling at her side. “I will support you in anything you decide to do,” she told me, years later — “But it is up to you to decide it.” And so, for her sake, I sang,
And told no one the reason. [sings] “The water’s wide, and I can’t cross over. And neither do I have wings to fly. But give me a boat that will carry two And both shall row, my love and I.” Reincarnation, she once said, Happened when daisies pushed up from the grave, And bugs ate the flowers, and birds ate the bugs. She assurred me that the energy of her life, (Like the energy of an electron) would be conserved — And if I needed to, I could find her In the downbeat stroke of a crow’s wing. In those first years, my grief demanded All my attention, and care. Now there are long stretches of silence between us But it still wanders home in the middle of the night Waking me from dreams. For twenty-one years, I have watched for the shadows of crows. And told no one the reason. Until now.

3 thoughts on ““If” and “When” — a Poem of Eulogy and Celebration

  1. What a great piece of work. 'Until Now' is so poignant because the Internet is opening the world for 'ordinary people' to say extraordinary things. I sent you a message four months ago about 'The Sad tale Of Monsters in Our Town -another of your great works. I will be posting it in the next day or so and hope you like my slant on it. I have changed the Tune as your version was very similar ,if not based on, the Irish Washerwomen song so I have changed it to make it a more original piece. As you have released it into the public domain I will do also. Thank you for allowing me to work on this and I hope you like it.

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