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Poem of the Month - Parting by Mary Dorcey

Parting

 

The moment I opened the door I saw you were dying
and saw that you knew it too. How was it nobody else
had noticed?  Your doctor had said there was no need to

 

worry, he would drop in again on Monday. But the
moment I opened the door I saw you were dying and
I saw that you knew it too. You looked in the semi-
private care home bed, a companion asleep in a cot
alongside, almost at your best, sitting stacked upright
against a throne of pillows, your hair swept up from
a clear brow.  You had your usual air, when facing
any uncertain ground, composed, courageous, ready
to be amused. The only note out of place, the one 

 

physical clue was your colour, across your cheeks and
under your eyes a blue-black stain had risen seeping
like ink under the skin. You looked expectant or was it

 

absorbed as if you were listening intently to a sound I
couldn’t hear. You had never up to this cared for
departures, airports and stations discomfited you but
here, now your face held a tone almost eager. I sat down
on the stiff metal chair by your bedside. I kissed both
your cheeks. Turning slowly in my direction you smiled
but made no reply. I guessed then the effort it took to
stay this balanced and still. As if you were holding some
precious liquid in a glass too shallow knowing any abrupt 

 

 motion might spill it. I had never found you not ready to talk.
So I took the family photographs down from the shelf behind
you where I had set them twelve months before. I said aloud 

 

all the names of your children, one by one, coming last to my
own. The youngest I said. You thought that was funny. You
smiled without moving your lips. I told you where each one
was living, which one might get here in time and which might
not. You listened without the least show of surprise. Then
I said the names of your mother, your father and your six
dead siblings. ‘They are expecting you, I’ve sent word. They
will have everything ready.’  You smiled. I asked if you were
thirsty and you said yes. But when I held the plastic beaker to 

 

your mouth the juice ran everywhere staining the front of your
new bed jacket. We need more practice at this, I said. We’d
better start quickly then, you replied. Your last riposte and you

 

smiled. But you struggled to bring the words clear. Then, I saw
what the trouble was; you were drowning, softly, little by little.
I could hear the fluid bubbling in your lungs. Stealthily gaining
ground. And I understood all your strength was used to just to
keep your head above water. Does it hurt, I asked you. Yes, you
said. Where? Everywhere, you answered and smiled. A memory
came to mind, in a slip of association, a spring tide rising,
gushing into the harbour, the one our house overlooked, the
one where you brought us all up. Each year it rose without 

 

warning submerging small boats at anchor, sinking from
sight the big pier, as we called it in a gush of voracious green
spume. ‘Are you hungry,’ I asked. ‘A little,’ you said. I searched

 

about in the locker for the last packet of citrus fruit jellies,
your favourites. We had been told you must have nothing by
mouth but what the hell, I said and laughed. ‘Yes,’ you replied.
Your smile was close to laughter. Gingerly, at the corner of
your mouth I slipped them in, the glossy bright sweets between
dry parted lips. Delightful and delicious you managed to say,
a phrase you had taken to in the last months when a visitor
brought you chocolate or an ice-cream cone all to yourself.
The tears that ran from my eyes were so hot they scorched a 

 

path that stayed long after. I wiped my face with the edge of your
sheet. You smiled. Delightful and delicious. The water babbling
under each word carried them up like balloons to sway in the air 

 

above your bed. But though you could not harness the sounds,
it was clear from all your responses that here at the grave’s kerb
your wits had recovered their senses. Perfectly lucid now, you
gazed at the book by your locker. I knew you wanted to say as we
did every day until this, one or two of the poems that by some
trick had survived the ravage of  body and brain. One was by
Dickinson and one was by Shelley: ‘Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest    Like a cloud of fire    The blue 
deep thou wingest.’ At times we mixed their lines together. None

 

but your re-ordered mind would see how they mirrored each
other. ‘Hope is the thing with feathers    That perches in the
soul,    And sings the tune without the words,     And never stops at

 

all.’  In equal esteem you held the two, prizing as you did
faith, irony, awe, a sense of the absurd. You made one last
great effort then, raising your shoulders up from the pillows,
you struggled to give utterance, a sentence, twice, three times
the particles running each which way like beads scattered.
Once more you tried, you grasped my wrist, this time two
syllables broke free ‘Writing’ I heard you say and once more
‘Writing,’ with a harsh exhalation of breath. I settled you back
in your eyrie of cushions as best as I could. You wanted to lie 

 

flat facing the ceiling. I drew the curtain tight round the bed.
The old lady next to us made no stir, lost in her own drugged
slumber death was no bother. And neither, amazing, was I in 

 

the least awkward or frightened. Whatever happened when
we two were together seemed a part of the natural and what
was most hard to endure we found a way to make bearable. And
this famous scene, this dying now, was only one more thing
we had to get right between us. The drapes drawn close brought
some quiet, suggested rest, ‘I’ll let you sleep for a bit. I’ll get
something to eat and come again in an hour.’ When you heard
this you opened your eyes.  You smiled. You put out your hand
to touch my face. You intended to stroke it I know but you

 

couldn’t adjust the speed or the force. Your open palm slapped
my cheek. Then all the way slowly down it slid from temple to
jaw. Ten times your hand rose, and smote my face, ten times it 

 

slipped down heavy from temple to chin, ten times it slid down,
ten times. The rhythm, the rough insistence of it, seemed to
be saying: ‘Remember this, remember this. Until we meet again.
Remember this.’  The pressure sounded through my veins.
With each clumsy blow that fell, you fixed on me a regard so
luminous and calm it shocked. It nearly stopped my heart.
Greater even than I had guessed, and I had always known –
was the ardour I saw stand in your eyes. As if all the love you
had kept stored since first you carried me, was gathered up,

 

each day and year of it, and given back as legacy in that
marveling, speechless gaze. Was it imagination to feel that its
light journeyed already from a space beyond us both? At last, 

 

I caught your wrist, held it still. ‘You’re hurting me,’ I murmured.
You dropped you arm and smiled, nearly the last smile you would
ever give. I kissed your forehead. I smoothed your hair. How
strange I thought that in this long uncertain passage not once had
you been fearful or sad, joy was the element you entered and shared,
I knew even then I would come to count it the most precious of
the things you left behind you. I felt also a change in you, a subtle
reversion of roles, for the first time in I don’t know how long, you
were a parent again, a lifetime’s sense of protection reborn. To 

 

please you and from an old habit I whispered the words of the Salve
Regina. You followed me silently note by note. ‘Turn then most
gracious advocate thine eyes of mercy towards us and after this our 

 

 

exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb.’ I stopped there
not wanting Jesus to get the ultimate credit as usual.You noticed of
course and smiled. I spoke then, though I did not know it, the final
words I would speak on this earth as a daughter, words I used to
ask for from the dark when I heard you coming up the stairs to say
goodnight, ‘See you in the morning, please God.’  You had thought
Joyce was wrong to refuse his mother and so did I.  You smiled
when you heard the last phrase and closed your eyes. l leaned my
head on your bed and wept. Arms held sentinel at your side, you 

 

snored in your sleep like a child with a cold and did not move again.

 

 

Taken from To Air the Soul, Throw All the Windows Wide: New & Selected Poems by Mary Dorcey. Published by Salmon Poetry.

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