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(for my mother)

“I hope you never go through this,” she says, but there is no other way.
All roads lead here. All things must pass.
Think of life as a beautiful bird,
watch as time plucks your feathers one by one.

You sail through childhood like a happy ship
until you hear, “Girls can’t do math.”
Or “girls aren’t strong.”
You are young enough to wonder why. Pluck.

You grow into womanhood, revel in newness
like a just-born foal, kicking up its heels.
The world notices in strange new ways.
You learn fear. Pluck.

Then — when did it happen? You’re not so young
and it comes to you at once that your worth,
the price tag of your being, was bound in what you were.
You disappear like vapor. Pluck.

Menopause takes what you’ve finally learned to love,
memory, ripeness, uncanny feminine ability.
You ask yourself, what are you now?
Thinning bones and lost days. Pluck. Pluck.

When does it dawn that you are mostly chicken flesh,
shivering and practically naked?
When do you know that you
no longer know?

Perhaps when the last feather falls you see:
God was there all along, collecting your plumage,
saving it, knitting it into a most fantastic garment.
And when you die, you wear your feathers anew, this time as wings.

And you soar, at last.

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The middle-aged among us are in a curious position: We are becoming caregivers to our parents. This is certainly not a new phenomenon, but it is more prevalent these days — in the past, people simply didn’t live as long as they do now. My longest-lived grandparent was in her early 70s when she passed away. My beloved friend Marcelline is 101 and still doing yoga.

This shift presents real moral and spiritual dilemmas, as grown-up children navigate the line between respecting their elders and celebrating their independence and wanting to make the path smooth for their parents in their later years. It is not easy.

My mother lost her mother when she was barely 20. I know it was traumatic for her. But it also makes it hard for her to understand my concern for her: She never watched her mother live into her 80s. But in this period of adjustment, I have stumbled upon an important piece in the puzzle of my own aging — letting go. Because that’s what getting older is — the process of letting life go, piece by hard-won piece.

I have to let go of my hopes and expectations for my mother’s “golden years.” Of course, I’d like to see her waited on hand and foot, tempted with fine food, made to do little more than recline while being fanned by palm-bearing attendants. That’s not going to happen. None of us gets to write the ending of her own story, let alone someone else’s. And there is my mom’s own tenacious will to contend with, too.

In the end, God will bear us up, as God must. In the meantime, there is poetry.

She never had to do it, so she doesn’t know
how it feels to touch the bird bones
of her hands, feel blood click a pulse
through ropey veins, the flat of her hand
a creased map of a strange valley,
each gnarled finger a beloved isthmus.
What to do with this hand when I cannot
take its lead, but equally cannot force it
to follow? I can only love it, seeing in it
my own hand marching quickstep, just
inches, really, behind it.

 

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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