"No more..." he says feebly.
They beg him, one more bite
A plea bargain, another
Then they will let him sleep
Retreat behind his mindīs ivory curtain
By now so familiar
Like a second home.
They suspend surprise, fear, frustration
Sustain his pride.
Sometimes at meals
They look into his glassy sky-blue eyes
Dry like marbles in his parchment face
And offer him his dignity.
"Would you like your teeth in?"
He gags on the uppers
Surprised that they were coming.
He asks for friends sometimes
Forgetting they came at lunch
Or passed away last week, last year.
Sometimes he asks us to remind him
Who came today, who will come tomorrow
Although we know it all slips through
The ever-widening cracks.
A hardy life, he seems ill
As if for the first time.
Strange how sickness
Somehow kept its distance
For the past almost-century.
When my mother visits daily, he blames her
"You did this to me. You put me here."
She nods, accepts,
Knowing if she does not take
The burden of blame
He will try to shoulder it himself
And he is far too weak
To carry something so unwieldy.
He wanders, gently
As they listen for his needs
They reassure him as he declares
That the girls have gone for his lunch bucket
And he must get back to work.
His eyes start back, focus
And he asks where he is.
Iīm uncomfortable talking with him
Interacting reminds me he is elsewhere, else when
Seeing he is no longer himself
Brings me face to face
With his sunken, pale arms
Skin loose like dough
Mottled, mapped with bruises
That time will no longer heal.
I stand, smile dumbly
Frightened of what we might say
I quell my concerns with self-inflicted distance
It seems the safest thing.
I cannot nurture him, so I nurture her
Not too much, though
I do not know the full weight she carries
Of her fatherīs latest failures
Bravely brings reports to waiting relatives
Cries in the elevator, mouths words
Again, again, of not knowing when.
I think of the fires he built
The jokes and quoted limericks
Sunday dinners, bridge games
Reading his morning mail
Unable to open his Christmas gifts
Needing a hand to rise
Mistaking me for my sister.
The slope now seems too gradual
To have seen, at first.
Now, what I could not face
I cannot avoid, as it writhes underfoot
And squeals intermittently
Reminding me that I am small, small,
No challenge beside this breathing body
That has fought a near-hundred years
And for what? To lie here, vacillating
Wandering the space between "No more..."
And "When will I get better?"
I do not know which side to root for
I vote for dignity and no pain
We all say "soon," unsure
If we speak this magic charm for him
Or for ourselves.
I wonder if he knows
What we cannot ask
Or if he understands I donīt know
How to say goodbye before, not after
Iīm unsure of how the world will shift
When the words are spoken
Afraid it will tip up and swallow me.
Tomorrow brings another report
An incremental burden to add
I wish I could know its shape, its weight
See how to balance it.
How does she manage?
Who will lift her?
Me, I say.
I will bear her someday.
We know this, in our silences.
There is the unspoken promise
That I will proffer the spoon
Plea bargaining, when she murmurs