Sunday

Feb. 19, 2006

On the Eve of My Mother's Surgery

by David Graham

SUNDAY, 19 FEBRUARY, 2006
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Poem: "On the Eve of My Mother's Surgery" by David Graham from Stutter Monk. © Flume Press. Reprinted with permission.

On the Eve of My Mother's Surgery

She takes Dad, for a treat,
to the upstairs dining room,
where there are tablecloths
instead of bibs, waitresses
instead of nurses, where
all their joshing and arm-patting
make him grin like a seven
year old. But he knows where
he is, sleeping alone
for the first time in five
decades, and so he tells
Cindy in his halting
whisper all about Mom's
operation, confessing
"And I'm no help at all!"
This to a seventeen year old
with pretty face, carving
his meat into helpful cubes.

Out of the heart of dementia
he speaks unanswerable
truths, often as not confiding
in some minimum-wage
Cindy or Dawn, whose parents
weren't born when he sailed
the South Pacific in a troop ship
or cruised timber deep within
the Allagash. They will not
connect this man in diapers
with the one on horseback
in the snapshot marking his door.
At shift change they'll gun their cars
up the hill, radios screeching
and thumping, all the day's
bottled velocity released
like bees from the hive.

And it's true he's no help
anymore, stripped of his
pocketful of keys, man
without wallet or car,
who knows just enough
for honest misery
as he studies the menu's
bewilderments, trying
to find the words that may
release. "I'm walking much
better now, don't you think?"
he asks Mom, and that's true, too.
which helps neither of them
at all in their frozen love.
Sudden as a cloud across
the sun, he's overcast
again: "Keep your voice down!"
he warns her. He knows all about
the secret tunnel system
under the town, where Jews
and Mohammedans skirmish ...

And how do I know all this?
Our of some bent need for shape
and color, blues and riffs,
I build it from echoes
on the phone line, fragments
crumbling from envelopes,
fever dream pond ripples
reaching me a thousand miles
away. Then let my daily tears
wash into shower spray
once again, tears which
are of no help at all.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Carson McCullers, born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia (1917). She grew up in Columbus, Georgia, but moved to New York when she was seventeen years old. She's known for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), which was published when she was twenty-three years old. It's about four people in a small town in Georgia—an adolescent girl, a socialist agitator, a black physician, a widower who owns a café—and a deaf and mute man who tries unsuccessfully to communicate with the people around him.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Kay Boyle, born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1902). She wrote more than fifty books, including many novels, poetry collections, and children's books—but she's best known for her short stories, which are collected in Life Being the Best (1988) and Fifty Stories (1980). She called herself "a dangerous radical disguised as a perfect lady."

It's the birthday of novelist Amy Tan, born to Chinese parents in Oakland, California (1952). She started writing The Joy Luck Club in her mid-thirties, after visiting her half-sisters in China. It consists of sixteen interrelated stories about four Chinese immigrant mothers and their Chinese-American daughters. It was a huge best-seller and was made into a popular movie.


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