Here’s my grandson, lanky, not quite a teen,
standing one foot crossed behind the other,
full of his grandfather’s genes.
I see Tom in front of me again.
In the years after we separated, I rarely
thought of him. Then he died, and I’m pulled
by memories that take on the colors of autumn afternoons—
creamy sunlight, yellow sycamore leaves.
I’m steeped in gold.
The man I love now seems to pale
in the false glow that floods me.
I want to think I’m wiser than a moth.
But some days I can’t keep my eyes on his face,
look across the room when we talk.
It wasn’t a mistake, our parting.
A tender man salves my sorrow.
I have a beautiful grandchild who remembers.
Can I really wish I were the widow?
The man who shares my home is part of me,
like a leg, or my liver. Can you be in love
with your leg or liver the way I was
with that first boy who kissed me
under the jasmine fifty years ago?
Mornings we chew the millet and blueberries
he’s fixed for breakfast. He reads the Chronicle.
I stare at the geometry of the Turkish tablecloth
as though it might tell me what to say.
I remember when talk poured easily.
Now I don’t know if this daily silence
is comfort or a sign of disrepair.
I look at my legs stretched beside each other,
then at him sitting there
spooning up the quiet, face opaque
above the bowl, eyes low.
Today he will graft plums, dig in a bed
of cover crop. My sturdy limb,
my dependable organ.
My lover’s troubled breathing
sends me, pillow in arms, to the room
where my dead husband seeded me with sons
Too stirred for sleep, I ask him to appear,
imagine a presence not wholly tangible,
hovering high in the corner
as though he’d descend from the air above the city
to be, for a while, my companion in the silence.
It doesn’t hurt to think of him.
This is how grief evolves. The hottest pain
burns out. The kiln cools, and I can hold
the glazed and shining bowl, warm and empty
except for a smudge of ash.
I remember Grandma curved over the floured board.
Heels of her hands shoved the dough away,
knobbed fingers drew it back while she sang to the Virgin Mary.
These days my mother hobbles to the communion rail.
Her face juts out over the angel pinned to her bosom,
elbows angled back to counterbalance.
Grandma’s gouty feet laced into black oxfords, my mother’s aching legs,
spackled with brown and purple bruises. They walked in happiness
wearing their bodies like uniforms they’d step out of one day,
grateful to lose the boney stays, the starched fabric of muscle.
Love your neighbor they’d admonish, the as yourself
dispensable, like a showy ornament.
They blamed or credited God for everything, and counted themselves
blessed. And me—what do I do now if I’ve lost the god
but I’m still draped in the same round back, studded with pain?
I remember my two sons, dripping
next to the clawfoot tub,
the chilly bathroom,
their thin bodies shivering till I put down
my book, my glass, and came to towel
I provided broccoli, sturdy homemade bread,
but when I read to them at bedtime,
their heads resting against my arms
drowsed in a zinfandel mist
my breathing cast around us.
I could hardly make sense of myself,
didn’t even try. They echo through me now—
those slaps I threw at the side of one head
or the other, that time I shouted
what the fuck are you doing?
at a four-year-old.
By the time I straightened out,
my boys had thundered into adolescence.
Then followed girlfriends north
and planted themselves a thousand miles away.
Now I wait, sometimes days,
for them to phone me back,
and they do, they do.
I stood in Grandma’s front room,
great uncles smiling around their pipes
as I Liza Doolittled “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”
in my New York Cockney accent.
Their toes tapped little dances
on the floral carpet.
I sang my way through two decades.
The December my first child filled my belly
Bach’s Magnificat blazed in and around me,
my bones vibrating with the brimming air.
I was vaster than the chorus I sang with.
The erosion of my vocal chords
crept up on me, slow enough to ignore.
I loved wine and weed, told myself
that harm would overleap me like a tornado
that razes every house but one.
That final time with the quartet, my voice naked,
I could draw out only pinched and sloppy notes.
I was replaced, like a section of rusty pipe.
Even then, I held my habits to me.
Too late, I shed them, but only the dishwater
hears me now. What was lost stayed lost.
So much of what I’ve loved
My son Ian, here for a visit,
brushes his teeth before bed.
He rinses, gargles, then grinds out
a rasping hack. His noises take me back
to when he was a pimply
teen, and his father set him up with a burning
sulfur stick, reasoning—if you can call it that—
that if it killed the mold
in our wine barrels, it could smudge away
the acne on a face.
There was Ian, leaning out over smoke
pouring up from the ash tray on the floor.
And I was thinking Sulfuric acid! Lung cancer!
How do we do it, turn them loose
into the world? I’ve added grandchildren
to my list of beings I can’t save.
They come with plastics, pesticides,
god knows what else premixed
with their fetal blood.
My friend Sid, a dog his only child,
tells me It’s all good. He can set his eye
somewhere out beyond Andromeda
and says we’ll see some culling—
some bodies will make treaties
with the strange invaders.
The others—well, that’s life.
But no matter how I try to move out
to a more distant vantage point,
no matter how far I yank my end
of the cord that ties me to those babies,
the filament stretches and stretches
and will not break.
When I Visit My Mother
Now it’s her cane catching the table leg,
and she goes down onto the carpet.
I’m OK, I’m OK, just banged my hip a little.
She holds up her hands. I wrap her wrists
and pull. Don’t put me in a home she says.
She forgets her pills. Her laundry
smells like piss. After daily Mass
she lies on her floral-patterned couch,
doing less and less of the Times crossword,
dozing over her rosary. She eats Cheerios
when the chicken I’ve roasted runs out.
I’m not afraid to die she tells me. I’m ready.
I tell her it comforts me to hear it
but what I really mean—and I cringe to admit it—
I too am ready for her to go.
In the inkiest corner of my soul,
I wonder what inconvenient week
her heart will close its valves for good.
I hope I’ll miss her, fear I won’t,
fear I’ll miss her, hope I don’t.
I’m as caged by my impatience
as she is by the body
that holds her to the earth.
She knows heaven is out there. I know love
paces back and forth behind my sternum.
Twenty years from now, what silences
will my sons hide inside their hearts?
Patricia Zylius is the author of the chapbook Once a Vibrant Field. Her poems have appeared or will appear in Catamaran Literary Review, Ellipsis, Natural Bridge, Red Wheelbarrow, and other journals, and on the Women’s Voices for Change website. Her poems have also been included in Women Artist Datebook and The Yes Book.