Below, an unfinished poem I wrote probably a dozen years ago. Offered without additional caveats, on Dia de los Muertos/All Soul’s Day.
The absence of a season, like winter, like nothing growing, nothing whistling, nothing singing. Like the days all next to one another, rolled together in a spitball. Like things that happen out of order.
All the organs of the mysterious body. Every drug filtering in through secret doors, man-made orifices. The blood, parading in and out during dialysis. Morphine stealing conversations as we speak.
I am an intruder. I can tell by the way you keep looking at me that I should leave. You are fascinating so close to death. Your shell grows more beautiful as your body attacks itself. You cannot string together the words to say get out.
The nights, like the winters. Clumps of hair come out in the brush. The world silent behind windows and storm windows and the sky.
Three a.m. is a bad time for the phone to go off like a bomb. Seven p.m. isn’t any better. It doesn’t matter if you don’t answer it; this is the kind of ringing that flings birds off the wires.
When I am in my room and you are downstairs or in the hospital or in Japan dying. When I slowly wake from months of crying, guilty with relief. When I ache to have you back, ache even to see you suffer again.
This is the cemetery that I cannot enter. I am too close to the flesh that is far from your bones. I can only sit in the car outside the fence, looking at the ground that holds the molecules that once sang with your voice. You still need a stone, an X for the treasure map of your life.
When you die, I don’t want hugs and arms and hands patting me as if I could burp up this pain like a baby. I don’t want to be strong for your daughter or your brother or your mother. I want to be running, running like in dreams where I am never out of breath, running towards your silence and away from your death.
It doesn’t matter who died or how you died or how many hours and days and months you were poised just off-stage waiting to leap from life into starlight like a dancer. You moved so beautifully, we cried.
What I mean by winter is that everything changes, but so slowly that I can’t see it. The temperature drops; I can’t remember it ever being any warmer. You are dying, you are dying. The sky, the street, the spaces where the leaves will be, all are lonesome.
I could write your name on the blackboard a thousand times and I still wouldn’t have forgiven myself. There is a litany of things I could have done, a grocery list of all I want to tell you. It was hard while you were dying, harder when you were dead, and hardest of all as we forget one another.
It cost me $20 to take the bus up to Duluth, to your room overlooking the lake. They had already moved you to hospice, where families eat take-out and sleep in communal rooms. I ate the food that you couldn’t and made a bed of plastic cushions on your floor. I slept to the hum of machines that dripped into you and your lungs rattling like a pair of maracas.
I cannot impress upon them how it feels when you are dying two stories below me, in the middle of the night. I can’t tell them how silent the world is outside the window. I can’t say what it’s like when I fall asleep knowing you’re hurting and wake up knowing you’re dead.
The most important part of dying, though, is that it doesn’t fit in clocks. There are no Tuesdays or Wednesdays or early Mays. There is no unit of measurement that works when breaths are limited and the end isn’t far. I keep halving it: a year, six months, a few weeks, days, hours. It doesn’t work like that. There is an instant when I am thinking of what to wear tomorrow and suddenly I awake to watch you breathe, unsure of how long we have been doing this.
I couldn’t wear red for three years after you died. That is to say, I could only recall you suffering. All the other images, of crossword puzzles and tulips and even the time you put pepper on my thumb when I was still a thumb-sucker, all of these have been put in the back of the closet.
You died in the same month as 10,000 in an earthquake in Turkey. I knew I couldn’t pray to keep you alive because I loved you; they loved others too. I could only cry for you, knowing that I was not alone in my earthquake, the crumbling of my land. I thought how many others were being pressed like stamps into the flesh of the earth that day.
The worst is knowing the hour you are being cremated, or watching the heavy concrete lid close you into the ground as we walk away from your body. The worst is when any possibility of resurrection is past and we must turn away from you to figure out who needs to go to the bathroom before driving home.
No, that is not the worst. The worst is dreaming that you are dying, dreaming of you in pain. Wake, heart racing, and realize that you aren’t dead. Then knowing you are.
Or perhaps this is the worst: when I am close to sleep and thinking back over my day I cannot recall you flashing across my mind even once. You are walking with me less and less often in dreams.