after Sharon Olds’s “The Clasp”
No one came for the old man
across the hall in the intensive care unit.
Nothing gathered at his eyes,
no small bit of expectation
as new bodies rounded the corner.
Sometimes you know what you know
& you know no one is coming,
& you know this is the last work you’ll do,
& you’ll do it alone.
The nurses shook their heads
when I asked. Sad, we agreed. He is sad,
we said. He did not look sad, though,
rather content. We vowed to live better
more loving lives.
My mother’s tribe brought with us
the ancestors’ names, a radio, CDs,
a quilt & cream for her rough skin.
She was in an induced coma
by her choosing, not wanting to know
(if it could be helped) when she failed,
that she was failing, from what or why.
So we busied ourselves by adding mementos—
a photo of her young self dressed in a kimono,
another with me in Spain, we both in pink bell-bottoms:
Doctors should work toward some truth.
She was beautiful once. Delicious. & happy.
There wasn’t much we could do about the old man
across the hall staring into her room
but shrug away his eyes & the vague feeling,
as we went about the work of helping my mother
up the steps of death’s porch,
that something malicious was licking at our necks.
In the end, it was her brother who,
alone with his sister, went against her wishes
& instructed the nurses to lift the veil of medication.
In the end it was her brother who caused her pain,
in order, he later said, to decrease his pain.
He wanted to whisper some last thing to her,
but instead caused her—throat muted,
body hijacked by tubes & restraints—
to use her body’s last means of saying
& shake her head violently, No! No!
No! Her brother.
Once we calmed her, I rose from her side,
hand damp with her tears, to settle with those
who had brought her such dark knowing.
But I was stopped, caught by the old man’s smirk.
You see, his eyes gleamed, now you see.