Breathing Lessons

November 11, 2010

Looking through old poems, I found this one, which I wrote the year following my mother’s death. It’s strange to be on the other side now, the side of the patient, and read this. I find I constantly step back and forth over that line of the one with the illness and the one who helps the ill to get well. As I walk the path of my own healing I can’t help but reflect on my parents’ experiences with cancer. Somehow it’s all braided together. I feel them on the other shore watching me, loving me, quietly cheering me on.


I wanted to be her

when I was a child

sitting under bright kitchen lights

squinting behind her tinted eyeglasses,

my ears heavy with her gold hoops.

I perched on a stool,

proclaiming her name as mine

to all the partygoers—

for the laughter it ignited,

because she was my world.

* * *

Last night I dreamed the disease

entered my body.

My head alabaster smooth,

I’ve become the face in the moon,

pasted in space and no ladder.

How will I get home, Mother?

How will we climb down?

* * *

In the hospital bathroom

I pat her body with the towel—

feather-light strokes,

her skin suddenly rice paper.

I dry her arms, back,

whisper as I travel her legs.

And then we’re standing

in the metal-framed mirror—

one woman in a wool sweater,

the other naked.

I wrap the towel around

my mother’s wet head

until every strand is hidden,

nudge her to the mirror.

“Look how beautiful you are,”

I tell her, “see how pretty you’ll be

even without hair.”

* * *

He hates illness. His eyes tear up

at the scent of disease.

But my father puts on

the yellow robe, gloves,

the mask he’ll remove

as soon as the nurses look away.

And then he’s bounding through the door

with his arms full of mail, the Sunday paper,

whistling hello to my mother

as though he’s just come home from work,

famished, asking what’s for dinner.

* * *

It came out first in the comb,

then the shower,

on the kitchen floor.

It scattered like dandelion spores

on her pillow.

She went to the hairdresser,

told him to take it all off,

she’d be damned if she’d let it fall.

* * *

She can’t get warm, buried

under every blanket in the room,

her teeth chattering staccato hits

like the sewing machine

ticking along the red and white

polka-dotted cloth

of the matching dresses

she made us try on, take off.

My sister blasts the heat,

though she’s perspiring,

stripping off her shirt.

Outside it’s summer,

the Philadelphia sidewalk blooming

with sundresses and tropical plants.

“It’s okay, mama,” my sister

strokes her head, “we’ll get you warm.”

She would take the cold

into her own bones

to stop that trembling,

so she does the only thing she can

and lies on top of my mother,

her body an offering of fire.

* * *

In the forest unknown

no sunlight, no rain,

no path, no breeze, only trees

and spidery branches,

we hunkered there for nine months

like little birds in a nest,

feeding, preening, restless,

at some point we entered

another wood, where we lost track

of a future, each day measured

by the number of clear breaths,

the ability to move from bed to chair,

we learned to count body-time,

the multiplying and death of cells,

we learned to play good memories

over and over like popular songs,

we learned slowly the language

to converse with the natives,

and when we did speak,

we learned there’d always be

more questions than we knew to ask.

For instance, to take someone off life support,

did you know you must first put them on?

In the end, the invincible man

who arrived early thirty-seven years ago

for a blind date, the man my mother

eloped with to escape a slow life,

the hero of her story broke down

and wept when he told the doctor

not to use heroic measures,

so when she reached for him

across the bed rail, what

could he do

but open his trembling hand.



  1. Shira, dear
    These poems are prayers- they reach the deepest parts of the heart and soul. Blessings on your beautiful spirit and healing body!

  2. I’m so glad you posted this. I love you!! C

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