ALTHOUGH I LAID CARNATIONS
I wasn't there
to wash my mother's body.
The day before,
When the home nurse came,
we cleaned her together, rolling her gently
on her side so we could wipe away the feces,
rolling her back to lift the too-heavy breasts,
dry the gathered sweat.
And each time we touched, each time
we moved her, she cried,
No. No. No. Although she could hardly speak.
Had said her goodbyes two days before,
making me listen.
After his call, by the time I could get to her
--three hours away--my brother had already
washed her and dressed her again
in the flimsy hospital gown.
But nothing in it of ceremony,
although I laid carnations
to frame her face and cover her crossed hands,
thinking of Hamlet's mother and Ophelia,
sweets to the sweet, thinking not even
of the real but of some other sore heart's imaginings
to help me.
Because in half a day
she was swept to clean ash in the licensed crematorium.
Walking into work
in the early quiet where a few minutes alone
is all I'll get today.
I can try to imagine
the Iraqi Shiite woman
the radio has brought me.
She is the one who keeps the dark stone house
for the ceremonial washing
of the Shiite dead.
She didn't elect this work.
Twenty-two when I saw the first body.
I said to myself, your four children
will starve if you don't do this.
The reporter describes how she
begins by covering the genitals
with a small square of white cloth.
Onto the scalp, she touches a circle of soap,
which widens to foam. The rinsed hair
returns to ringlets. With the loofah sponge
she scrubs the body until it emerges burnished,
ready to be wrapped in white linen for burial.
If pressed, she will tell you
she has never gotten used to it:
what was hardest, the woman they brought
to her, burned all over--
clutching her baby so tightly,
they had to be washed together.
When friends ask, this first year
my daughter's gone from home--
Don't you wish she was always
a child, holding to you?
No, I say. No.
No. I want us
to be able to let go,
one body then two.
Then from the tight embrace of the first years,
a child gathers herself
to walk away.
The air remains.
This Shiite woman has given me
a part of herself, her gift,
as I stumble out of my car
in the half light of first spring,
all the birds back
to help us hear air.
One thing becomes another.
Mere thought leads to the touchable child.
As she feeds her children the evening meal,
the woman who ashes bodies knows well
what flesh is made of
how necessary the solid body is,
which becomes earth, its sure path.
When her children crawl into her lap at bedtime,
that's a different matter.