AS SHE BOWS
The old Guernseys sit in the side pasture, muddy slough at bottom of a rye-covered hill.
Are they assisted in this last patch of living? Certainly, the feed buckets lay on end, the barbed wire weary.
Once milk-full, rounded, gorgeously rust and cream in August light.
Their grand-daughters, newly born, are over in the calving paddock under the willow,
fuzzy foreheads over long-lashed eyes.
Bones stick out through the hide of the old ones.
A certain beauty in the barely-covered ivory of the aged
as they rattle clumsily near the silage.
The ancient cows limp, and wait.
I’m not going anywhere. She screams this, practically. I want to die at home.
Anyhow, it’s his fault I’m sick.
(One of her platoon of doctors, the one who when pressed by her guessed a prognosis.
Her sworn enemy, now.)
Her daughter (me). Petulant, spoiled, busy – so busy – afraid of the dying.
She is a dancer, long, lean with golden skin and hay-color’d hair.
Up until the day before, she chuckles – at her cats. My ungainly ways. Her sister’s cats.
Tales by neighbors. Of neighbors. And Tom Selleck.
She grew up in silliness, light footed.
Yet: she can wail too, in a wizened, wicked way.
A wail that in the last days seems less
to come from her than
from antiquity’s grandmothers, who knew sorrows of the grave and feared, but spoke. No assisted living.
No ‘home,’ as she calls the quiet, clean and long white halls.
Daily, before this time of keening, a stubborn oxygen cannula trails her into the SUV,
follows her into the beauty parlor,
down grocery aisles.
Swings and plays with clever Jethro, cat number one.
The grandchildren, grown, approach her with gentleness.
Even they grow tired,
but between young ones and the old is a whispered bridge unheard by
the recalcitrant daughter.
I’m staying at home. If I can’t, I will . . . an autumn’s worth of threats, screeds.
In the warmer kitchen, ‘though, more like kindness and promises. Humor, jostling,
adroit at catching a joke or a missed word, knowledge that she is smarter, as she is,
than pretty much anyone.
Her mind skips and spins as she once did: elegantly, through the air.
She sits in a hug of white leather looking out at the lake.
Late summer sun spitting through green leaves.
An otter leaves a trail on the surface, and she giggles a bit.
Animals, yes. People, mostly. Religion: Nope.
Still, the stubbornness. She brings it on herself, no doubt. She is a woman
dealt a coarse fate
over years of darkness losing children embracing bitterness.
Yet she lives, salt leavened with sugar. All this.
All this after a childhood of pranks and Twainish tales of mirth.
Beautiful, still. Bones under transparent skin.
Pixie haircut. Manicured nails. A gold ring on every bent finger. She had worked with the ill;
she knows how this goes. (She used to talk glibly of the guttural rattle
in the cool tones of the clinician.) But now.
I want to see my doctors. I want to know when I’m going to be better.
It goes so fast, doesn’t it? October, we’re still grumbling. Her eyes to mine. Hers shinier.
Mid-fall, it is time to call in help. They want her to admit that she is dying,
so they can help her, so she can stay at home.
She stares at them, fully aware (fully aware until Christmas, almost).
Relenting just a hair,
my mother says that she may sign on, will think about it.
She states in sing-song from her white throne: What-ever.
The visitors are a charming lot, and she enjoys those of good humor (I come from my father’s serious side). The nurse tells her of a newer expression, the shorter, smarter What-ev.
My mother grins a bit.
So, will you let us come in and help? the visitors ask.
What-ev, says Mom, and signs.
November, she and I tell tales and titter a bit, but there is regret as well.
She learns/I learn that her father had stopped both of us from becoming doctors:
girls don’t do that.
She watches the red oak leaves cling to the tree by her window. How lovely.
The mist rises over the water as December enters, and within an hour, evaporates.
Our eyes still meet but it is more of a joining than a clash.
She stays at home. I am there. The grandchildren are with her.
The neighbor comes over on the final afternoon and talks of sharing seventeen years through a kitchen window,
sugar shakers, belly laughs.
What I learned in December:
What dying is. The O of the mouth. The gurgle.
How the dying speak of what is to come.
How kindness takes the form of a large country man who bathes her for the last time.
Now, I talk to her in the car as I once called her on the road. Only she
appreciated the funny moments. Only she
could teach us not to yield.
The field-force of being there.
The final prize, to stay at home.
My own home was an hour away and rarely seen last autumn.
A ride back through the western ridge in early morning startled. The old Guernseys were gone.
The pasture empty, but waiting.
Marjie Gowdy writes poetry and stories atop a hill at the eastern foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She has had a varied career, including assistant editor at a small town newspaper, in marketing and now grant writing for a health care system. Marjie served for 18 years as founding executive director at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. A graduate of Virginia Tech, Marjie received a Master’s from University of North Carolina – Greensboro and recently completed a certificate in How Writers Write Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The geography of the south and its people are her terrain.