It’s sitting down with the doctors for the very first time
and being told that our son is sick, dying,
his body turning on itself,
that makes it real, that gets this roller coaster going.
Having words like options and chances and wishes
in our vocabulary now– we grip the metal safety bar
that lowers and digs in.
Every test result, every side-effect, jerks us
farther up the ramp, then it’s back to coasting for a while.
In the beginning, we thought we could control ourselves,
hold steady. But as time sped by
we wondered if this was the last visit or that was the last
joke. Then it went quiet. We loosened our seat restraints.
Things cranked up again when the phone rang: Pneumocystis,
for the second time. We might as well have been hanging
upside down in the middle of a corkscrew loop.
He cries to me long distance that he doesn’t want to die.
I’m paralyzed from voice to movement, grateful he can’t
see my face. The petrified air splits into shards
that spray the cool terra cotta tile around my bare feet.
If I’m cut I can’t feel it.
Thirty-three thousand feet up,
on our way to heartbreak.
I want to push and push the button
and tell them, Turn this plane around
before we go any farther! Take us back
to the safety of our denial, or stay circling
in perpetuity, I don’t care. If we don’t go,
maybe we can stave off the grief
Hours later he sits before us, intubated,
writing notes with a hospital pen:
He’s in isolation; we are covered entirely
in protective scrubs. They’ve tried three times
to wean him off oxygen but he can’t breathe
on his own; he doesn’t know this. I take my mask down
to reveal myself. They’re trying to figure out
why you can’t breathe, sweetie, I say. He can always count
on me to tell it like it is.
I’m scared, he writes.
We squeeze his hands. I raise my mask
and tighten the strap, as if I’m being told to do so,
but I’m really just trying to cover my shattering façade.
The fevers, the new neuropathy, the IV’s,
the forced smiles. We play at normal conversation,
like the cruise he wants to take for his next birthday
when we know it will never come.
Our hands fill with empty hopes
that fall through our fingers like sand.
How does a son say goodbye to his mothers?
How do we say goodbye to our son?
When the doctors tucked their stethoscopes away
into their big white pockets, they recommended
that we unplug him from ventilation;
then increase sedation for a smoother passing.
We waited for friends to arrive, and then we gave the nod.
We gave the nod.
Sometimes, now, I get a fluke of a good run
and dance in the illusion that the worst is behind me.
Sunlight seeks out the cracks in my walls, drafty gaps
underneath my doors. I can almost feel the heat of a new day.
Other days it feels like I’m blindfolded in an endless maze,
kept prisoner at gunpoint in a language I don’t understand.
These walls have gotten so high, I couldn’t scale them
if I wanted to. That’s the thing with grief.
The grief was my security blanket and my noose:
it was my connection to him, and yet
it wasn’t him at all.
He liked to be called Topher
in Portland. It was an identity he could carve out for himself
away from home. Free from being confined to one persona.
Safer, living in a chameleon world.
Here, he was Christopher, or Chris, or Mijo.
Stars shoot sideways in the black. Nighttime
protracted, darkness epitomized. Jasmine wafts up
under my sadness, under my window.
© BARB REYNOLDS
This was first published in A & U Magazine in January 2014 and is “the most read literary piece in the history of their magazine.”
It is also in Barb’s chapbook Boxing Without Gloves.
This poem may not be reproduced without the author’s permission.