14 lines to talk about my mother and her death? Too many, too few. And I’ve never been a poet. Not really. There was that one poem I wrote in 4th grade, the one about the class I was in. It was a rip-off of some poem about trees. My poem started like this: I think that I shall never see, a class as mighty as 203.
The dead are dead.
My mother didn’t believe in heaven. When she was dying, I asked her if she wanted to have a priest come and give her her last rites. She and my dad were both Catholic, and I remembered he wanted to make sure there was a priest with him at the end. So I asked her. It was in a hospice in Sun City, Arizona, just after she had the stroke that finally killed her. She could barely talk, couldn’t move her lips at all because of the stroke. It was like they were frozen shut. But I asked her, and here’s what she said, “I don’t want a priest.”
“No priest has ever come back from heaven to tell us what’s there.” That’s what she said.
She had been to hell. She’d seen her mother shot in the face over and over. Seen her sister raped and murdered. Seen her sister’s baby kicked to death. She saw things most of us just see in the movies, and even then we turn away. But that was just the beginning. Her first day in hell. The first hour. They caught her and put her in a boxcar with the other girls from her village in Poland.
She spent the next three years as a prisoner in a slave labor camp in Nazi Germany. She used to tell the guards that she had typhus and syphilis so they wouldn’t rape her, do to her what they did to her sister. It didn’t matter. They didn’t believe her. They raped whenever they wanted.
She had no use for priests. Or men of any kind. They were worthless, she said. One of her favorite words. My dad was the prime example. They met in the concentration camp after the liberation. After four years in the camps, he was blind in one eye and skinny as two shoelaces tied together. He was worthless, she said. Couldn’t fix a leak or mend the holes in his pants. A clown in dead men’s clothes. That’s the way she always saw him.
Her other favorite word was bullshit.
I remember something about how the sonnet is divided into 4 parts, four lines and another 4 lines and another 4 lines and then 2 to finish it off. Each 4 lines is supposed to introduce and develop some different part of the main issue, and then the last two lines are supposed to finish it off, I mean come to some kind of conclusion, resolution. Or maybe I got it all wrong. I should Google it. Maybe it’s 8 lines to state the problem and 6 to resolve it. In any case, I have to be moving toward resolution.
And what’s that? That my mom’s dead, but there was some kind of peace at the end for her? That she found some kind of joy through her understanding that life was finally beautiful and that there were people who deserve our love and our blessing? That wherever there was someone trying to raise a family and give them the best that she could she’d be there too? That she’d be all around in the dark, everywhere, wherever people were struggling to crawl out of the holes/hells somebody had stuck them in?
That’s bullshit. She was no Ma Joad, staring at the trinkets from the St. Louis World’s Fair with a tear in her eye. My mom wasn’t built on the soft side.
I remember how she used to get letters from her sister who survived the war and went back to Poland after she was released from the refugee camps. My mom would take the letters and slip into the bedroom and close the door. She didn’t want anybody seeing her weep as she read the letters.
Years later, when she was dying, I asked my mom where the letters were. I told her I wanted to keep them safe for the family. She looked at me and shrugged, “I burned them. What good were they?”
She was like that.
My sister wouldn’t come see my mom when she was dying. The years of beatings, my mom’s broom handle stabbing for my sister under the bed where she was hiding, my father begging her not to beat my sister again, my mother knocking him down to the floor and kicking him instead. My sister blamed her for the abuse and blamed me for not fighting back against our mother. I was a child then, two years younger than her, but I still feel guilty.
In Korea, a country my mother never imagined, the living write poems for the dead, to reconcile those who are left behind with those who have died. My mother died 9 years ago, and I’m 67 now, and I think about death more and more. In those Korean death poems, you can’t use the word “death,” but you can say “setting sun” or “autumn” or “snow.” All of those images embody the sense of continuation, of something ending and going on, some kind of cycle of life. The sun sets and then it rises. The snow falls and then it melts and spring comes. Like that. It’s an image of reconciliation, one that will make us feel good about whatever this death we face is really like. The poem can be in any form, even a sonnet. At least that’s what I read. They also say that after you write the poem you have to take it outside and burn it.
I will burn this poem.
Previously published in The James Franco Review, 2015. Reprinted here by permission of the author.
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