Last Words
Richmond Heights, Missouri, 1947
Rosemarie was skinny, ugly, and mean.
She cheated at Monopoly and tattled.
Once, at our house, she peed the bed
on purpose, and once she stole trading cards.
Even if she was two years older,
she wasn’t as smart as I was, couldn’t skate
as well or run as fast. When I told
our neighbor Mrs. Knabe how much I hated
Rosemarie and why, Mrs. Knabe said,
You must be nice to her, because she has
leukemia and is going to die.

Winter, Wisconsin, 1953
We were summer-camp girls trying on clothes,
slumming, laughing at ruffles and peplums,
cheap, shiny fabrics. Then a woman
with clogs and a kerchief stepped inside
the dress shop. As I frowned at her plaid
seersucker, eyed her sun-leathered face
reflected to forever in the three-way mirror,
she told the salesgirl how her husband
had slunk to the henhouse the night before
and shot himself in the head. All morning,
she said, I was mopping up his brains
and trying to calm the chickens.

Detroit, Michigan, 1962
Anne was a teenager, only fifteen when her father
fell to the ground, mouth foaming,
incoherent noise rising from his throat,
and she — a large, sedentary girl — vaulted
a hedge to get to him, dropped to her knees,
gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while
her mother ran across the street crying for help.
I’d never kissed a man on the lips,
she confided, and there I was, tasting
my father’s saliva, giving him his last kiss.

Mexico, Missouri, 1970
Aunt Margaret was beautiful — tiny and dark.
She wore silk, cashmere, diamond earrings,
had a doctor ex-husband who was
impotent and hated her, an adopted daughter
who didn’t much like her either,
and each month she borrowed money
from her brother-in-law, my father.
One day, Bee, her old nursemaid, found her
hanging by the neck, wearing a kimono
and one diamond stud. Suicide, the family
agreed, and never mentioned her again.
But Bee said, Rope too high, stepladder
too low, and I knows it was
Dr. Joe put her there and stole that jewel.

San Francisco, California, 1973
Lying in the hospital bed, a man I loved.
The only sound the slosh of dialysis
as his blood was washed while we held hands.
When a wave of dementia blurred
his brain, he clawed at me, whined like
a child for me to hold the urinal. Instead, I
called his wife. Later, he and I, holding hands
again, knowing this was the last night,
an overdose of morphine to follow, said
our goodbyes. When I leaned down, he
kissed my lips, murmuring, Strawberries . . .
You taste like strawberries.

St. Louis, Missouri, 1978
My father, dying of cancer, throat ulcerated
from chemo, reached out to me and said,
if hospital windows weren’t fused shut,
he’d jump, if he had his squirrel gun
he’d shoot himself, had rat poison
from the basement he’d swallow it
in his protein shake. He wanted only me,
he insisted, because Mother couldn’t admit
he was dying, so he had to pretend.
Only I understood exactly how he felt.
But I felt he needed to pay attention to
my mother, wife of almost fifty years,
so I packed my suitcase and left him.
Five days later, addressing his last words
to my mother, he died. Your price is far above
rubies, he told her, quoting from Proverbs.
You are a woman of valor.

Rome, Italy, 1986
A young artist lay down for a nap. She’d been
depressed, slept a lot, so her roommates
didn’t rouse her when they came home, didn’t
wake her for dinner. But later, after the movies,
they found her lifeless, poisoned by gas
from a faulty heater. At a posthumous exhibit
of her photo collages, I stared into
her unsuspecting black-gray-white face.
Two years later, her father, a dispassionate
lawyer, told me, It’s all ashes, you know.
Losing a child ruins your life.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992
Walking through a graveyard where I have
no attachment except to the long-dead,
talking not of death but of dogwood blooming,
and names from headstones my son might use
for his new baby. Caleb? Jonah?
Hebrew names, because those New Englanders
were Bible scholars who lived when death
was contagious, as many still believe it is.
Disembodied breath shivers headstones as we
move by, making me wonder what I will say, and
where, and to whom, when incantations fail
to protect, when shadows no longer couple,
when rags of dreams shred in the light
as I whisper, Yes. Or, No. Or nothing.