I hadn’t planned on twisting from birth with its newness and surprise to death. But thoughts rarely succumb to planning. They aren’t so different-birth and death-both come with newness and a surprise. The joy and celebration are quite different. I doubt joy ever associates itself with death. But surprise does.
I’ve watched death up close several times now and I think regardless of age death takes a person by surprise. We can’t imagine a world without us because we only know the world through our own eyes and yes it is through our own eyes that we discover death.
Birth has a progression that usually proceeds in a well-known pattern. Death follows no such course. Recently an acquaintance died from a mix-up with his medication. He went into the hospital with a bad cough and left dead. One unthinking moment on someone’s part led to an overdose of one of his medications. This alone might not have pushed me into words but I’ve been down this road before.
My Mother was a vital, active 70 year old who still water-skied, biked, walked, laughed, and played. One morning during a visit, Mother announced that she felt like she was pregnant—sore breasts, a little sick, and bloated. We all agreed pregnancy was highly unlikely.
This tale could get long. I will give you the condensed version. A young pharmacist had mixed up the labels on her new prescriptions. She had taken 66 estrogen in 3 days following the directions of the fluoride label that accompanied the estrogen. It destroyed her liver. Stanford gave her 2 years to live. Not one to give up without a fight, Mother lived 8 years. We learned quite a bit in those years about attitudes towards death. With every hospital admission, we had to fight the labeling that happened when the diagnosis was discovered. Mom was treated as worthless, an alcoholic or worse and old. Not a good combination in a busy hospital. We were constantly on hand explaining, watching, making sure she got good care. At the end of her last hospitalization, the nurses clapped and cheered as one more time, Mom fought and won and once again walked slowly down the hall.
I learned something else. We have rituals for birth. We have rituals for after death. We have none for dying. Except for the last rites of the Catholic faith, I could discern no path to follow. I created my own. Poetry played a key role in this new liturgy for me. Poetry gave me the words as I struggled to make sense of this long death and in those words I discovered what I needed to say, do for my Mother. In that difficult school, I learned how to join my Father as he met death head on after the complications from a stroke.
Each death has its own liturgy. Sometimes when it leaves us gasping for air, we long to beat it into submission. I don’t think you can. No matter how hard we try to avoid it, death is the inevitable result of living. In the end, I believe the only thing we can control is our reaction to it. Whether faith informs that reaction depends on individual choice. Poetry is not a pulpit but it is a path to knowing others and ourselves. It is capable of delivering its own surprise.
The first poem below turned out to be the last poem about Mother that flowed from my pen. This poem creates its own U-turn. Be aware. The next one is more prosaic. It captures the essence of how I replied to Mother’s question and it is my most published ‘Mother’ poem.
and the line that
thrusts into the light
straight up out to the sky
she draws with a red line of energy
grooves of her first grandson’s wedding
traces in air the rise of chapel walls the redwood
essential bone and thin brown cover her hand tenses
a hidden light this twilight of age takes her hand down to
a wedding veiled behind patina of Rembrandt washed bronze
home the earth laps the moon whose upper edge dissolves as
autumn yellow leaves fall on this late day and the road glows red to
LINES Tracks traverse white on black night/dark snow of November
from A Woman Turning in the Flame by Janice DeRuiter. A chapbook created by a grant from Navarro Publications, Blythe, CA. 1996.
On Solid Ground
Every time I leave you ask,
Why do you do so much for me?
It is a natural part of the order passing
from Mother to daughter.
Now my sons must catch the pieces of glory falling.
There is a burst of freedom
In knowing how to be a part of this:
our line of descent.
I know that mothers sing
the rhyming songs of circle game
and take movies of small hands picking grass.
I’ve seen you dressed in jeans,
boots and a low, worn, brown felt hat driving
the old green truck down the orchard rows.
Grandmothers can separate
rattlers’ bodies from their heads
with one whack of a hoe
and fathers can untangle
blonde curls and grandfathers
cook a Sunday dinner and tell stories
about Texas cowboys and buy
double holster sets for my two silver guns.
You let me dress for school
in jeans, a red flannel shirt
and cowboy boots that made a satisfying sound
running down the stairs.
I carry bursts of glory in my pockets.
Now, I’m giving back.
from Women and Death 108 American Poets edited by Jesse of the Genesee and Dorian Arana, Ground Torpedo Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan. 1994.