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Gale Acuff: a poem


I'm at her bedside for my mother's last

words. Come closer, Son, she whispers. I lean

in, but not so far as to fall. Yes, ma'am,

I say, though I'm not quite sure if I'll come back

from whatever hole she's slipping through. And

where does it begin and where does it end?

Well, I can answer the second question

though I've disguised it as part of the first,

but I can't fool death and I can't fool her.

Say that death's a tunnel vertical, much

like a well: you come into life ready

or not to break the water and enter.

And each inch or foot or yard or fathom

is another day, week, month, and year. But

at what point does one leave life and approach

death? She's 82 and still – let me check

– alive, but closer to the end for all

that her age is part of a beginning.

The last part, perhaps. I'm listening hard

but I hear nothing, just some syllables

of breathing, words formed from aspiration.

Or is she resigned? So I pull away,

trying to see what I can't hear clearly.

Her eyes shut. Her lips are parted. Wake

up, Mother, I say, as if in command.

Mother, wake up. She does. I've raised her from

the late-in-life, the almost-gone – her eyes

blink open, look to the ceiling, then roll

like a doll's-eyes to me. You were saying,

I say. You were going to tell me something.

She smiles. Oh, that's right, she says – and then falls

asleep again. Dammit, I think. Jesus.

C'mon, Mother, I say. Wake up. Wake up.

If these will be her last words, however,

perhaps it's best that she not wake at all.

Yes – if I let her sleep she cannot die.

Hmm. Unless, of course, she dies in her sleep.

Christ. Wake up, Mom. I nudge her shoulder. Wake

up. She does. This time she doesn't see me.

I want to say, she says, that I'm mighty

proud of you. You write good poetry and

you're a good teacher, even if you're broke.

I'm leaving what I can for you – not much,

I know. A few thousand. Buy something nice.

When she's dead I find she's left something

less. I mean, she's gone and that's not enough.

But something more: what was, the was I had,

it's back again, not that it ever left

but that it never was, like it's not now.

I mean, I'm resurrected, in a way.

Not that I was dead but that she's had me.

Gale Acuff has had poetry published in AscentReed, Poet Lore, Chiron Review, Cardiff Review, PoemAdirondack Review, Florida ReviewSlantNeboArkansas Review, South Dakota ReviewRoanoke Review, and many other journals in eleven countries. He is the author of three books of poetry: Buffalo NickelThe Weight of the World, and The Story of My Lives.


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