Monday, July 17, 2023


A memory I want to preserve before it fades.

The Word to Word poetry reading on Friday, July 14 went off very well.The structure of the reading is unusual: three poets blindly send four pieces of poetry each to each other, and then endeavor to order them in a way that makes sense. The idea is that the poets will be "in conversation" with each other through their poetry. The problem was that we are three very different poets, and our poems touched upon very different topics. After weeks of pondering this, I noticed that many of the poems mentioned or could be placed in a time of day: the hours before sunrise, midday, the afternoon, dusk. That suggested an order that gave a nice flow to the poems, and gave the final poems a synergistic punch. The four that I chose were "Night, April 21, 2020" (set at 4:00 in the morning), "dancer" (which can be found here), "Ora Pro Nobis," and "Cardinal."

When the reading was over I made my way back to the car. I had had nothing to eat but a large stack of French Toast at midday, and now, nearing on 8:30 PM, I was hungry. I stopped at Burger King, the Burger King where my mom and I would sometimes stop to grab a quick lunch after one of her appointments. I got my usual two Whopper Juniors (two for $5) and splurged on some fries. I noticed a skinny gray-and-white cat in the parking lot, picking at a scrap of food. I tore off a chunk of one Whopper Junior and psspss'd to the cat. It watched me with curiosity until I tossed the meat in its general direction, at which point it retreated to the forested area behind the Burger King. Maybe it came back out to grab it before anything else did. Maybe.

I stopped at a supermarket on the way home, fifteen minutes before it closed. (The supermarket and its parking lot were a setting for a previous story involving a cat.) I dashed in to buy a horrible list of groceries: one small package of half pork-half beef to make meatballs (I was really looking for ground beef, but they were all out), two bags of potato chips (Middleswarth Weekenders, once 14 oz., now just 9 oz.), one container of ice cream (once a standard half gallon size, then 1.5 quarts, now 1.44 quarts.) I made it to the self-checkouts just as the store closed.

I came home and packed up the remains of my late supper  and my groceries, locked the car, and proceeded up the hill to my back door. 

As I climbed the hill I was greeted with a light show: dozens of fireflies, some airborne, some on the ground, all flashing their HEY BABY WANNA HAVE SEX? lights at each other. I chose my steps carefully, not wanting to tread upon any of the luciferous insects. I wished them well in their reproductive endeavors as I walked up the hill. May they be fruitful and multiply. 

Lord knows we need more of their kind to light up our summer nights.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

The final breath

My sister and I were there when our mom died.

Her breathing had been getting shallower for days, but for the final hours it seemed merely a mechanical action, punctuated by a -click- at the end of each cycle. My sister was on one side of her, holding her hand. I was on the other side, typing on my Chromebook, trying to capture everything she had been in a few inadequate notes. 

Her breaths got shorter and shorter. Finally there was one last breath, and nothing followed. My sister spoke my name. I checked the time, made note of it. We waited a bit, then called the nurse. We had already called my brother some time earlier, to let him know this was it. 

We left the nurse with her briefly to do the things she needed to do. I posted the announcement of her death. When we returned to the room we saw the nurse had done the traditional thing we had only recently learned: she had opened the window and placed a candle - a small electric candle - in the window. My brother arrived shortly afterwards. He would wait with her for the funeral home to send someone to take away my mother's body. My sister and I quickly stripped the room of my mom's personal possessions, the artificial flower arrangements, the favorite blanket that had kept her warm these past eleven days and would now serve as a comfort to her beloved cats. 

We left my mother with my brother and headed home.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Memento mori

This started out life as a poem. That's not where it ended up.

Remember man, thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.

I tried to tell the priest who she was. To encapsulate her life in a brief conversation held two days before her funeral. He had never met her. He had never met me. He was four years younger than me. He took over the parish in the second year of the pandemic. By then we were well into the groove of watching the weekly Mass online, on the tiny screen of my Chromebook. He put an end to that a few months later. Pandemic over, no reason to stay at home, no reason to stream the service for those few holdouts who would rather hide at home.

She had already been cut off from her beloved church, the church she had grown up in, the church where she had been married, the church where she wanted to have her funeral, even if it were the last service ever held there. But it was not to be. The diocese closed the church at the start of the pandemic, as they did all churches, and then the parish - the combined parish - chose not to reopen it, even as other churches were being reopened. Their argument was that since it had been closed from the beginning of the pandemic, it clearly didn't need to reopen. The reasoning was bald-faced nonsense. But the decision held. In a few months the old parish priest, the priest my mother had gotten to know over the previous two decades, was forced into retirement despite previous assurances that he would be allowed to stay on beyond the normal mandated retirement age. My mother's only connection to the parish was now the online service which she attended faithfully until, without warning, the streaming ended.

We had asked that the old priest be allowed to conduct her funeral service. Nothing doing: the new priest was in charge of the parish, and he ran the show, and he would conduct the service.

So I tried to bring him up to speed, to let him know who she was. I told him her life story, her involvement with and love for the church, her work history, the story of our family, the story of her final months and final days and death. How do you sum all this up in a half-hour, an hour, a day? How do you encapsulate a life of nearly eighty-nine and a half years in any less time? But I tried. I'm something of a writer, and a poet. I tried.

I failed. The priest took one small aspect of what I told him - she had worked as a bank teller from about 1978 to 1998 - and built his entire eulogy around that, around what he imagined a bank teller did. The old priest, allowed to quietly concelebrate the Mass, sat mute.

A priest had come to her room in the hospice on Ash Wednesday to offer her ashes. He gave us ashes as well, making the sign of the cross on our foreheads with his thumb. He tried to make conversation, but it was awkward, almost confrontational. We thanked him. She died two days later.

We went to the cemetery. I rode in the limo at the head of the procession. I did not know that the new priest had high-tailed it to the cemetery and left the old priest behind. My cousin saw him standing, looking forlorn, and gave him a ride.

At the chapel the new priest completed the final prayers, said a few more words, and declared things to be at an end. The old priest rose and said he wanted to say a few words. He told us about how my mom was familiar with the neighborhood he had grown up in, and the favorite candy store of his childhood, and how since he had become the parish priest she had always given him gifts of chocolate-covered peanut butter candies from local candy shops at Christmas, and Easter, and his birthday, and whenever else she felt like it. His personal recollection brought me to tears, and broke the spell of gloom. 

Our gravesite was just a dozen steps from the chapel, and I invited everyone to come join us there to watch the workmen lower her into the grave. I told my friends the story of how, when I was an altar boy serving at dozens of graveside services, my greatest fear was that I would slip on the wet grass around the hole and fall into it. My brother had randomly found a Hershey's Kiss on the floor in the pew where we were seated at church. He tossed it into the grave with her. They lowered her in, and now the ceremony was truly at an end.

My mom was born September 8, 1933. She lived a full life. The last three years of her life I had kept her a virtual prisoner, protecting her from COVID-19 and anyone who might have it. But I didn't think to protect her from the ambulance crew that took her to the hospital after a fall on February 8, 2023, just a few days after she had come home. She tested positive for COVID-19 on February 13, 2023, had a COVID-induced stroke the next morning, the morning of Valentine's Day, and died eleven days later, on February 24, 2023. Her wake was held the evening of March 1, 2023, and she was buried March 2, 2023.

Remember man, thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.

Two dreams, and a reading

I haven't had dreams that I've remembered in quite a long time. Now I had them two nights in a row. I want to record them before they evaporate.

The first dream was from Friday morning. (I don't go to bed until after midnight.) I was back in college, and had just taken a particularly brutal final in some unspecified Physics/Electronics Engineering class. (I have "back in school" dreams a lot, but these are usually the common "I started this class, forgot to go all semester, and now have to take the final/can't find the room for the final" trope.) In this dream we had already taken the final - we being me and two of my best friends from college, friends I have stayed close to for the decades since we graduated, friends I have grown closer to because of different tragedies in our lives (death, divorce, and life-threatening cancer "with a very good five-year survival rate.") We all knew we had bombed to the final exam, and we went to check the bulletin board where our grades were posted (a physical bulletin board, as was the standard in the 1980s) and confirmed it - none of us had gotten a grade higher than 45%. We commiserated in our failure, and sometime later checked to see our grades for the semester, and saw that thanks to grading on a curve our final grades had hardly been affected, and were all pretty good - 89, 92, and 94, enough for B+ and A- for the semester.

This morning's dream was quite different. I was at my house across town, and discovered two benign creatures sheltering there - a small skunk and a small red lizard that looked like a little tiny dragon about four inches long with huge eyes and purple wings. The skunk had the friendly, pleading face that skunks have, while the miniature dragon had a more fearsome appearance, but mainly wanted to cling to the skunk or climb on me. I gave the skunk a bath in my kitchen sink, and only as I dried it off did I consider the possibility of being sprayed. I carried the skunk and the miniature dragon across town to my mother's house. The miniature dragon appeared to undergo some distress, climbed up on a small (about sixteen inches tall) painted figure of a man, and seemed to die. A visiting friend noted that the dragon on the figure closely resembled a dragon-wearing character from a TV show about an imaginary Victorian London where magic and magical creatures abound, and then demonstrated that the dragon was not dead but resting and possibly in a state of estivation. Meanwhile, the skunk had found a square hole cut into a wall, crawled into it, and refused to come out.

No idea what, if anything, either of these dreams signify. The more recent dream followed a very successful poetry reading event last night as part of the "Word to Word" series, where I was one of three poets who read our poems "in conversation with each other": we had each presented the other two with four poems, and then agreed upon a sequence of readings that reflected their relationship to each other. Our poems had very little connection to each other, but many of them indicated a time of day setting. I toyed with an order that started with poems about the creation of the universe and a late night/early morning stargazing session at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and ended with two close of day poems that were also meditations on death and dying. The order of the poems, and the poems themselves, went over very well, and the night left me feeling very buoyed, despite the absence of several people I wished could have been there. I am realizing now that creatures resembling miniature dragons, known as "pseudodragons," are beasts appearing in Dungeons and Dragons who often serve as wizards' familiars, enhancing the wizards' magical skills through their presence. Perhaps this was some hidden memory of pseudodragons, telling me that I am ready to enter the wizard/sage role that I have been building towards all my life?