My current work focuses on authentic experiences of aging — bodies, family roles, caretaking, loss, and grief, as well as freedom and joy. I've published poems in many literary journals and anthologies, and my third book, Waving Back, came out this year. Please visit my website: http://www.gailthomaspoet.com/.
Author's Note: These five poems are from my third collection, Waving Back, which was published this spring by Turning Point (an imprint of Word Tech). They are from a section of the book that deals with caring for my mother, who died of Alzheimer's disease.
When he called her high-strung, I imagined a horse
rearing up white-eyed, not the woman who dusted
down walls every week and sprawled on the floor
braiding strips of wool into a rug.
When I answered the pay phone in the hall, he
stumbled with the news — break-down. I saw
thin wires snapping, her still body in a white
room. Because you moved away. When I moved
farther, she offered the rug and wrote a letter,
because you were a cold child. Now I change
her diaper, trim chin hair, bring a cactus with
one yellow flower. She calls me angel, my angel.
Like this shell carved by tides, you used to be whole.
If I’m honest, not quite whole: baths when you scrubbed
too hard, tears behind the bedroom door. All the hurts
swarmed: brothers off to college instead of you,
priest refusing a church wedding because your good
man wasn’t Catholic, mother sickly, father dead too young,
the old neighborhood gone.
And me, first-born who pleased with folded hands
at the table, relics preserved in cedar: hanks of hair,
pink blanket, baby teeth with brown-stained roots.
Soon you held tight to the sting of my disappointments.
When we hugged, you were always the first to let go.
Now that you have forgotten my name, I whisper
in your ears that hear only gibberish. I wash
your face, stunned by the spill of laughter
like a stream freed, at last, of debris.
Every other Saturday we drove to
the city library in our first car to browse books
with smudged plastic covers, pages
smelling like old milk. Once we stopped
at the building where you worked so I
could climb marble stairs and ride
the golden elevator. I sat at an oak desk,
clicked the adding machine to see
its paper tongue spit out numbers.
After, when we stopped to pick up a case
of beer, I walked behind, pretending we
weren’t related. The holes in your work pants
shouted something I refused translate
until the useless errands of pride
brought me back to you.
My Father’s Feet
In the house sheathed in socks and slippers,
Mother said they were soft as a baby’s.
I took her word for it. Awed by their whiteness
I watched him hobble over hot sand at the Jersey shore,
then dry each toe before returning to leather.
A creature too tender for this world, my mother said
and I pictured a saint, feet immune to flame.
But later they give him trouble, nails at odd angles
and the shuffle, like an old man, pick up your feet, she says.
A doctor recommended sandals, but they stay
at the back of the closet. In the retirement home,
legally blind, he wears blue Converse sneakers and pedals
a tricycle down the driveway. Like Ulysses
scanning the horizon, he lifts one hand to shield
the sun before crossing the street, before
the day is swallowed.
My hair is a shower of salt
the stylist calls striking.
When the pink floor of skull winks through,
the mirror calls me old.
My mother saw Rose every week
for color (ebony, chestnut, ash brown),
set, teased and sprayed tight for 60 years.
She called it a shame when I cut
my long hair after giving birth.
At 80 her hair is still dark.
In the nursing home
I call a stop to color
when touch begins to hurt,
except for the bright scarf at her neck
If she could remember how to use a mirror,
she’d see spun silver, fine as a child’s.
I wheel her to the porch where
for the first time soft strands
blow across her unlined face.
-all poems previously published in Waving Back (2015, Turning Point)
©2015 Gail Thomas