Carpe Poopem

Face Close-up

My old dog is getting older. He turned 15 in early December, and just before then I thought we had reached the end. He was struggling to get up off his bed and walk to the door. His hind end didn’t hold him up reliably. He sometimes fell backwards and couldn’t get up without help. Getting old is not for sissies. I gave him some more rugs near his bed for traction. We tweaked his meds, added new pain killers, upped his dosage.

He did really well for almost two months, but then he had another bad spell. He either fell or had a seizure, and for about 24 hours every time he moved more than ten feet he wheezed and coughed as if he were choking. But after a day, with no changes in meds, he was fine. The turn-around came on a spring-like early February day when instead of holding himself still so as not to fall over or cause any more pain, he dropped to the grass for a good roll. It’s been another month since then, and he’s been going through another bad spell. It’s apparent that they are coming more frequently, and lasting longer. So far, he keeps getting better, but each “better” is not quite as good as the last one.

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This is not my first rodeo. I am a rodeo pro, at this point, with dying loved ones of both the animal and human variety. I have nearly lost count of the rodeos. I know that at a certain point with any aging animal I begin to feel like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride: “Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

With the old dog, I keep watching him, wondering if tomorrow will be the day. I am fairly confident it will not.  For most of the last two months he’s been remarkably perky for a 111 year old guy. Barking at the roofers. Bossing the puppy. He still sometimes gets excited when he sees I am going to throw the tennis ball, and he bounces in front of me – “Throw it! Throw it!” – and then I throw it and he watches it go and looks back at me – “Hey, there goes your ball.”

When my father was in his last few years we had similar ups and downs. He fell down the stairs. He fell up the stairs. He wound up in the hospital (oddly, not from falling), completely disoriented and not fully aware of who or where he was, and then he came home to celebrate his 85th birthday with good cheer. He went into hospice, and then he came home yet again, and went to the Adams Morgan Day festival and got up out of his wheelchair and danced. My aunt – my mother’s sister – said “He’s like Whack-A-Mole, isn’t he?” and we laughed and laughed. Because he was.

For every pet I have had to let go, I have wondered if the time was right, was there something else I could have done, did I notice too late, what if, what if, what if? There’s an article kicking around social media recently written by a young vet about giving animals a good death. The crux of it is that waiting too long is much worse that taking action too early. I know that when I state my feelings about this I risk being accused of anthropomorphism, and to that I say two things: one, there are worse things to be accused of (and I’m not sure who ever decided that only humans are capable of certain feelings), and two, I think it’s less me viewing my dog (or horse, or cat) as human as it is me scrutinizing my own humanity.

If we let an animal keep living into old age, where by definition infirmities start to creep in, who is that worse for, them or us? If we euthanize them early enough to avoid or limit their pain, whose pain are we really eliminating? Who are we making it easier for? I wake up every morning (and often multiple times a night) wondering if this is the day I will have to make the decision. Will I sleep better when this dog has died? Yes, I will, because I will not have that decision hanging over my head any longer, and I won’t have to worry about him any more. Is that a reason to make the decision now? Not for me, not today. But maybe one day it will be.

Sweet

I have said before that this old dog reminds me so much of my old father. As they both aged, their tendency to put their heads down and plow forward, keeping up the momentum so they don’t fall down, increased. The old dog has had as many ups and downs and “This is it, the time has come” moments followed by inexplicable improvements as the old man had. Was it easier for me when I got to stop wondering every day if today would be the day my father died? You bet it was. Would I have wanted that to happen sooner because it was easier on me? No. Actually not. A friend of his told me about the last time she saw him, maybe a week or two before he died, as she was leaving he raised a glass to her and said “L’Chaim!” and that was my father in a nutshell. Both the wine and the words – To Life!

Is the old dog enjoying everything about today? I’d venture to say no. But he enjoyed his breakfast, and he enjoyed greeting the crew that came to cut down the dead trees, and he enjoyed his peanut butter and kibble-filled Kong. He clearly likes the fact that we finally separated him from the other dogs today. He gets special treatment AND he doesn’t have to listen to their barking or worry about being jumped on or bumped. The old dog has his own version of toasting this life. Rolling in the grass. Wandering off because I think he is beyond getting into any serious mischief and turning up in the horse pasture eating all the poop he can before I notice. Tomorrow may still be the day. But as for today, Carpe Poopem.

Smiling 2

Out Loud

My mother cleaned the house every Saturday.
She took all the pillows off the sofa
To vacuum it, and piled them on the armchairs
Where I would sit and fish for my stuffed animals
From my pillow island, and when she was done
I would make a fort of the sofa pillows on the clean sofa
And play until I got tired or distracted
And my mother would put everything back where it belonged.
When we had my father’s friends over for dinner,
My mother polished the silver, and the copper casserole,
And she washed every single wine glass and liquor glass
And returned them, sparkling, to their shelves in the dining room.

When my mother cleaned the house every Saturday
I would sometimes hear her yell “Son of a BITCH” when she
Stubbed her toe on the bed while vacuuming
And I often heard her say “Jesus Christ!”
When my father was driving, but beyond that,
I rarely heard her swear.

When my mother turned fifty, she said
She was going to be old, or she was going to be fat
But she was not going to be both. She planned to be
Not the sweet soft grannie who baked cookies
But the mean skinny grannie who whacked the hoods of cars
With her umbrella when they inched too far into the crosswalk.
She stopped cleaning the house every Saturday. She started
Walking, and she lost enough weight to scare my sister.
We started having HER friends over for dinner
And before they came, she did not polish the silver and copper
And she did not wash the wine glasses.

My mother worked at the Smithsonian for over twenty years.
She managed a museum shop, and supplied it with the most
Eclectic book collection ever to grace the shelves of an art gallery.
When they began to push out their older and probably higher paid staff
She retired, and went to volunteer as an invertebrate interpreter
At the zoo, where she explained the exhibits to curious visitors
And sometimes sang The Octopus’s Garden to the octopus,
Even after one of her fellow interpreters informed her that sometimes
The exhibited animals, their visitors, and their singing interpreters
Were live streamed on the internet.

When my mother was clearly dying of cancer
Her neurologist wanted to insert a shunt in her brain
To deliver chemo directly to her brain and spinal column.
I asked my mother what she wanted from treatment,
And she said “Not to be in pain any more.”
So I asked the neurologist what this would do for her
And I relayed the information to my mother:

This will not help with your pain. It will not help you walk.
It will give you, at the most, six more months to live
Pretty much the same life you are living right now.
She looked past me as I sat on the foot of her hospital bed,
Staring at the wall for a minute, before her eyes returned to me
And she said “Fuck it.”

It was the first time I heard her say it
Out loud.

One Bird at a Time

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In the spring a friend told me about a 100 Days of Creativity challenge she saw on Instagram. She mentioned it not in the context of posting anything, necessarily, but just in setting yourself a challenge like that, to do a creative thing every day for 100 days. I decided to take on the challenge by taking photographs of birds. Well, originally I decided my project would be that I would take one bird photograph per day, and then I would draw the bird, and then I would write something about it. Because if I’m going to plan a project, then I’m going to plan to do it times a thousand in a way that is almost guaranteed to fail. I realized before I started that that wasn’t a good idea (progress!) so I backed it down to one bird photograph per day. I don’t actually know how to photograph birds, and it turns out to be not at all like photographing dogs or horses.

Almost immediately I realized that I needed to set some other parameters.  First: it didn’t have to be a great photograph. It didn’t even have to be a good photograph. The point was that I was learning this, so any photograph at all was a step in the learning process. And just by the way, when you have a camera that you don’t know how to operate and it has a continuous shutter feature (I’m not even sure that’s what it’s called), you can take A LOT of bad photos in a very short amount of time.

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It took me about two days to realize that bird photography was going to be my gateway to meditation. I have written here before about my ambivalent relationship with yoga. My relationship with meditation is even more tenuous. I occasionally dabble in various forms of yoga, even if I grumble about it the whole time. I THINK about meditating. I don’t think I have actually ever even tried meditating, though I have almost downloaded a number of guided meditations and I have almost signed up for some meditation … classes? Is that a thing? Gatherings? Clearly, I haven’t done it.

And so the birds. The lessons started immediately. Once I got past “it’s ok to take bad photos,” I got to “look at all the things I don’t notice!” My first three weeks in the 100 days were dedicated to birds that showed up in the background (or sometimes foreground) while I was trying to focus on something else. And because I had no idea what I was doing with my camera, sometime the only in-focus bird was the one I didn’t realize was in the shot.

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One thing that is true, it turns out, is that there is a lot of standing around and waiting in bird photography. A lot of becoming really still. A lot of observation. While being still. And waiting. Really, these are not my strengths. I know – or at least I think I know – that part of meditation involves clearing your mind, and letting go of any distracting thoughts that come up. I’m sure my bird photography would improve faster if I were better at this.

Another thing that is true is that I started this project about six months after my oldest sister was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. When I talked to her after she had the biopsy but before she got the results, she said “The best case scenario is that it’s the Jimmy Carter kind and I take a pill and I’m fine. The worst case scenario is that it’s the John McCain kind and I die.” The biopsy came back the John McCain kind, or more technically but no more correctly, glioblastoma. It’s not one of your more treatable cancers. The five year survival rate is extremely low, and life expectancy even with aggressive treatment is 11 to 14 months after the onset of symptoms.

My sister set out to learn everything she could about glioblastoma and treatment. She read articles and studies. She found and connected with long term survivors. She applied for clinical trials and got into one, planning an aggressive sequence of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. Her goal was to live long enough for someone to find a cure. She died on May 27, 6 days after her 59th birthday and 13 days after her 37th wedding anniversary. Less than 9 months after her diagnosis.

I didn’t have much of a relationship with my sister in our adult lives. We weren’t particularly close as children, either – not in that “my sister is my best friend” way that I hear about sometimes. She was seven years older than me, which doesn’t sound like a lot now, but when I was 11 and she left home for college it was pretty significant. She was kind of like a big sister in a book. She was almost magically creative in areas ranging from decorating cakes to naming dolls and stuffed animals, to choreographing, directing, building sets and making costumes for, and starring in annual neighborhood productions of The Nutcracker, to inventing complex and time-consuming games that keep us all occupied for hours on end. She was also just a sister, with all the sqabbles and jealousies and meanness that go along with being siblings.

For the last four or so months of her life, my sister wasn’t recognizably my sister. That is one of the many, many horrors of glioblastoma – it eats away your conscious mind before it kills you. I did not spend days at her bedside. I am eternally grateful that her husband was able and willing to care for her because I could not and did not. I went to see her sometimes, or to stay with her for a few hours so her husband could get a break. I thought about her every day. I continue to think about her every day. I have probably spent more time thinking about my sister in the last 9 months than I did in the previous 40 years.

I was, I am still, stumped about why I am so, so sad. I am sad for my sister, because it is complete bullshit for a person to die of something like this at barely 59 years old, and because she studied so much about it that she knew exactly what would and did happen to her, and it must have been terrifying. I am sad – and mad – that she didn’t get another 20 or 30 or 40 years to do exactly whatever she wanted to do. I am also sad for me, because my sister died. I think the part of me that is most sad is the part of me that lived with her and experienced her as that magical, maddening, creative, crazy-making big sister. I’m little kid sad. It’s a big kind of sad.

And so I spent 56 days waiting for birds to appear, and thinking about my sister who was dying. And I spent 44 days waiting for birds to appear, and thinking about my sister who was dead.

One of my favorite books is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, the title of which comes from something her father once said to her brother when her brother was overwhelmed by everything he had to write about in a school paper on birds. Anne uses it as a metaphor for writing – you don’t have to know everything you are going to write in order to start writing. You just have to take it bird by bird, one thing at a time.

Lady Cardinal

Bird by bird is something I often thought of when I started my photography project. Every day there are many birds, and the more I move to try to capture them on film, the faster they fly away. It’s also been something I think of while I wait for the birds and thoughts and images and memories of my sister cross my mind. Some of my memories are things I have been told, or family legend, some words or a sentence or a moment recalled without context. Some of my memories are mine.

I remember my sister’s perfect penmanship that never stopped looking like the writing of a precocious 4th grader who had just learned cursive. I remember the three of us sisters in my middle sister’s bedroom (it was the biggest) singing songs from a falling apart book of old folk songs. I remember being on the outside of that bedroom door, furious and heartbroken that my sisters wouldn’t let me in on whatever they were doing. I remember running down to the corner to wait to see her walking home from the bus stop in the evening after her ballet classes, and walk the last block with her. I remember her fingernails digging into my arm when I said something as a joke that she didn’t find funny at all. I remember the two of us laughing and laughing over a drawer of our old childhood drawings and letters in our grandmother’s house. I remember watching my mother while she was dying, and I am shocked at how much my dying sister looks like her, when I had always thought she and I looked like our father.

One bird at a time, the thoughts and memories flit by. Some of them I am able to capture, and some I just have to let pass. Sometimes when I go outside I can hear the birds but I can’t see them. If I wait, they will begin to appear. It’s often not that they are hidden but that my eyes are just not able to see them until I settle into looking. Similarly, when I try to reach for memories of my sister I think they are few, but while I want for the birds to appear, they begin to flutter around me. Like the birds, what I see at first isn’t always all that is there. Like the birds, what I think is one thing sometimes turns out to be something else. Like the birds, my memories come and go as they want to. I hope they will keep showing up, and I hope I will keep remembering to look for them.

Tanager

 

 

 

Blue Ridge Lullaby

Blue Ridge

I love it when people I love make art that I love. Music in particular grabs me. Listening to live music does for me what I gather church does for other people. There’s something about the connection I feel to the performers, and also the connection among the whole audience, and a general feeling of joy that really does lift me up. I have a similar unspecified feeling of connectedness to everything when I’m out in nature, and especially when I am in a place like the Blue Ridge mountains. I didn’t grow up there but I do have family roots there. I also have ties there to some of my favorite chosen family, the Allen family chief among them.

The first time I heard Holly Renee Allen’s Appalachian Piecemeal, I was driving, and I felt that same heart pull listening to it that I feel when I am driving in the Blue Ridge. I listened my way dreamily through the whole album three times. In the album intro, George Allen describes his fiddle playing as having flavors of bluegrass, country and mountain music. He passed all that along to his daughter, and she adds her own dose of blues and southern rock. Holly can sound red hot momma, and she can also sound like the whispered voice of all the women who wove the fabric of your life. Sometimes, both at once.

I have listened to the album online but I have no liner notes (are liner notes still a thing?) or any other information besides the song names. I don’t know which are covers and which are Holly’s own, and I don’t much care except that whoever wrote Matt’s Candy can write me songs forever, please. My money is on that it is Holly.

I don’t pretend to know anything about music beyond what I like, but that I know without question. Many of the songs here have a familiar ring to them, but I don’t know that I actually know any of them besides the beautifully rendered Ring of Fire. I don’t know who the artists are but I believe and hope that all Allens available had a part in this.

Listening to this music as I drove down the road gave me the feeling of curling up in the corner of a porch swing while listening to people I love play the evening in. The first time through I nearly had to pull over at the start of the last song, which is appropriately titled Last Song. It’s short, it’s a capella, and while I know it is Holly, it sounds just like what I believe it would sound like if, as I lay in bed with my window open on an early spring night with the redbud trees blooming outside, the Blue Ridge herself sang me to sleep. If the Last Song was the last lullaby I ever heard, I would drift away joyfully on its tune.

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http://hollyreneeallen.com

Watering the Horses

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About four weeks ago while watering the horses at feeding time, I dragged the hose to the end of its length to reach far enough to water Guinness. I stood there for about ten minutes, spraying him down. After a while it dawned on me that I didn’t need to wait for it to soak down to his roots, and if in fact it soaked all the way down to him that was quite a bit farther than it needed to go to water the grass seed I had just finished spreading on his grave.

We now have more horses below ground (five) on this property than above (three). Each of them has a grave site planted and tended slightly different from all the others. Three of them are outside of the pastures, and one is in a fenced area within a pasture. All of them are planted in flowers of different kinds, and each has a tree that volunteered on their grave, or somewhere else on our property that we transplanted. Those trees range in height from Cookie’s five foot maple (4 years ago) to Wy’s twenty-plus foot oak (18 years ago).

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Guinness was a horse’s horse, and he was Finn’s other half. We decided we wanted them to stay together, and for Guinness to be part of the horse landscape. So for the first time, we just covered a grave with grass seed and chopped hay to give it a chance to stay in one place and grow. For several days, the biggest challenge for the seed was that Finn kept rolling on Guinness. I don’t know if he liked the feel of the chopped hay, the fact that we were watering it so it was a nice cool spot, or if he just wanted to be close to his buddy. We will plant Guinness a shade tree in the fall, outside the fence so Finn can’t eat it.

Twice a day in the summer heat, we water the horses. They have hundred gallon troughs, but we don’t fill them all the way because that way we can keep adding a little water to keep it cool for them. We also offer to hose them off, so when they want, they get the sweat showered off. After doing the living horses, I dragged the hose to Guinness. We were in a bit of a drought – hard to believe, now that we’ve been getting flooded out for the past two weeks – and Guinness is buried at the top of the hill in the back field he shared (and still does) with Finn. That spot has the best view on the farm, but it is a lot of hoses away from the nearest water source.

F and G BW

My family does not run to grave sites. My grandmother was cremated, and buried in a graveyard next to my grandfather who died long before I was born. But after that, all bets were off.

My father gave me custody of my mother’s ashes, with instructions to scatter them by the tree we planted for her on my property. I did that with some of her ashes, but before she died she told me that she would be sad if she never got back to New Hampshire, or to Rehoboth beach. She didn’t, so I got her both places posthumously. I took some of her ashes to Rehoboth, and scattered them in the ocean. My aunt buried some of her ashes in her garden in Virginia, and sent some to my uncle in New Hampshire, where he paddled them out to the middle of Squam Lake and scattered them in her favorite childhood place. It was only much later that my father remembered she had told him she wanted her ashes spread in Rock Creek Park, though as her best friend recalled it, what she actually said was “Fling ’em off the Calvert Street bridge,” which seems more likely.

It was my father’s ashes that we scattered in Rock Creek Park, in the end, in the creek itself. There’s something vaguely furtive about scattering ashes in public places, be it the ocean or Rock Creek, but probably no one would in fact arrest you for it. Still, it’s hard to be solemn and ceremonial while looking over your shoulder as if you’re handing off the money to the drug dealer and hoping no one notices.

My aunt was scattered in a few places, too. The day of her memorial service we scattered some of her ashes in her beloved Blue Ridge mountains, in one of the prettiest spots I know. I believe some went up to New England, and some were scattered in a memorial garden at a wildlife sanctuary in Virginia – a certain blessing to the animals there.

I wouldn’t want anyone stuck in a graveyard, and I certainly don’t want to end up in one myself, but I’m starting to understand their purpose. We have planted trees on our property in memory of people and animals who have died since we moved here. We celebrate our own version of Dia de los Muertos each November. Sometimes we clean up the memorial (human) and grave (animal) sites, and plant flowers, and sometimes we just light luminaria for each of them, but it’s a ceremony we hold dear.

Standing over Guinness’ grave twice each day, watering the grass seed and letting my mind wander, was a meditative exercise for me. It was also a transition time. I know there are sudden deaths, but with most of my animals and all of my relatives, dying has been a process, with a lot of activity and attention needed over a fairly long span of time. With Guinness, for example, he was sick for about six weeks. We tried everything we could think of to diagnose and treat him. Like any sick room, our feed shed was full of supplements and medicines when he died. I checked him, treated him, and tried to get him to eat four to six times a day, all the while watching him fade away. Throwing away the useless prescriptions is something I’ve done a few too many times now, but I’m sure I will do it again. Watering his grave was a way for me to keep tending to him while also gradually letting him go.

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Ruby

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We said goodbye to Ruby, our 18 year old truck, this week.

 

Ruby drove us and two of our horses out to Colorado one summer, 14 years back. We drove 3,200 miles round trip, blew out two tires on the horse trailer and needed new brakes on the truck by the time we got home, but she got us there and back. Still one of the biggest adventures of our lives.

On day 3 of the trip home, after the second trailer tire replacement, in the western Maryland mountains in heavy fog and light rain, we were not sure we were going to make it. One of our main cds that trip (remember cds?) was Patty Griffin’s Impossible Dream, and one of our two favorite songs on that cd was When It Don’t Come Easy. I don’t know how many times we listened to it that night.

Red lights are flashing on the highway
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home tonight
Everywhere the waters getting rough
Your best intentions may not be enough
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home tonight

Ruby moved us to our current home. We were in a rental that we loved and wanted to buy, but the owners did not want to sell. When we found this place, Ruby sat in the parking lot of the title company at settlement, hitched to our horse trailer loaded with all the stuff we didn’t want the movers to move, waiting to take us to our new house, which has now been our home for almost all of those 18 years.

But if you break down
I’ll drive out and find you
If you forget my love 
I’ll try to remind you
And stay by you when it don’t come easy

She hauled our horses to horse shows, clinics, trail rides, the horse hospital, and best of all, home from the horse hospital. She hauled loads of everything we needed her to haul: hay, wood pellets, horse feed, stone, sand, lumber, boxes and boxes of books from my dad’s apartment after he died.

She carried our family on vacations from the mountains to the ocean.

She was the favorite vehicle of every dog we have had.

She carried our kids from ages 9, 11, and 15 to 27, 29 and 33, and moved them into and out of dorms, apartments, and houses.

I don’t know nothing except change will come
Year after year what we do is undone
Time keeps moving from a crawl to a run
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home

In those 18 years, we have said goodbye to all four of our parents, my favorite aunt, three friends and mentors, six cats, four horses, and one dog.

We’ve had more jobs than I even want to think about.

You’re out there walking down a highway
And all of the signs got blown away
Sometimes you wonder if you’re walking in the wrong direction

During those 18 years Rose and I nearly split up, and then later, got married. In fact, during those 18 years, it went from being unthinkable to possible to law, that we could get married.

Those 18 years have seen our children start and end relationships, become engaged and unengaged, get married. We drove Ruby to our middle child’s wedding, come to think of it.

So many things that I had before
That don’t matter to me now
Tonight I cry for the love that I’ve lost
And the love I’ve never found
When the last bird falls
And the last siren sounds
Someone will say what’s been said before
Its only love we were looking for

Ruby was hard on brakes, but she never broke down, refused to start, or left us anywhere. She didn’t have a lot of oomph towing up hills, and her gas mileage ran to gallons per mile, but she went everywhere we asked her to go.

She still has a lot of miles ahead of her, and she has gone to a friend, so it’s almost like she’s staying in the family. But not quite. Our new truck has got everything we want and need, but it doesn’t have 18 years of memories. Farewell, Ruby, and thanks for taking us to where we needed to be.

But if you break down
I’ll drive out and find you
If you forget my love 
I’ll try to remind you
And stay by you when it don’t come easy

(quoted lyrics by Patty Griffin, When It Don’t Come Easy)

Things My Mother Kept

FishTray

Things My Mother Kept

On the floor of the entryway
To my parents’ apartment,
A Bath & Body Works bag.
My father gestured to it, saying
“There’s your mother”
As we walked by.
The brown plastic box of ashes
Fit as if it were made for the
Blue and white checked paper bag
With convenient carrying handles.

On her dresser,
A melamine plate I made for her.
Remember the Make-a-Plate kits?
We spent one first grade class
Preparing for Mother’s Day
Drawing and coloring earnestly
Green-roofed house, purple door
Bright yellow sun, black cat
The year, for some reason. 1974.

On her bathroom counter,
My earliest ceramic art.
Sushi plates before their time
A rectangle with mama and baby fish
A square with baby fish alone
Each and every scale rendered.
Anatomically improbable
And hydrodynamically challenged
But drawn with painstaking care.

In her closet,
A sweater I bought in high school
From the Tweeds catalog.
Cropped cotton cardigan, aubergine
Sleeves too long, as always, for me.
I used to raid her closet
Secretly, I thought
Not knowing, or forgetting,
That she raided mine right back.

In her locking desk drawer,
Plexiglass pendants
Made by an artist I had known
With his wife as family friends.
I once asked my mother
Why we never saw them any more
And she said, ever oracular,
“Life is short. Things happen.”

In the bottom of a wine cabinet
In the dining room
In a compartment I never knew existed,
The plexiglass chess set he made for her
Which I’m sure she told my father
She had thrown away.
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