91: The Poem

91: The Poem

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Messages from Heaven

The Poem

Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.

~Anne Sexton

My mother was a poet and quite a good one, although I didn’t always fully appreciate her talents. Her poetry at times seemed dark to me, and even a little morbid. When she wrote about family and things that touched her heart, I truly loved those poems. But she also wrote about things that I didn’t care to think about, especially in my younger days—things like death and dying. And she wrote one particular poem that I flatly refused to listen to. I didn’t care to hear long sad verses depicting my own mother’s death. So for years I balked at her reading this poem to me, as if by listening to it and giving credence to it would somehow make it come true.

This one particular poem was called: “Oh Death Where Is Thy Sting?” But Lord knows she never stopped trying to make me listen to it. She used to say, “I want you to hear it because I want this read at my funeral.” As a teenager I would rebel and bark back at her, “Mama, I do not want to hear about what you want read at your funeral!” And with that I would stomp off to my room and slam the door.

The truth was I did not want to hear that I would ever have to face that day. Usually by the third line in the poem I would be reduced to a blubbering mess. The adolescent, independent “me” would rather die than let my mother see weakness, so I would cover it with anger and run off to my room in a huff.

Over the years she tried many times to read the poem to me. And with each failed attempt, the conversation ended with the same burning words: “I mean it. I want this poem read at my funeral.” And I have to confess that in all those years I never actually read or listened to her read the entire poem. I only knew the title and bits and pieces that I had heard over my protests. But I did know that although we never talked about any other “final wishes”—that she absolutely wanted this poem read at her funeral.

Thirty years passed and the day I had dreaded all my life was upon me. My mother had succumbed to an aortic aneurysm at seventy-three. Sixteen hours warning, hardly time enough to even say goodbye, and here I was with my three siblings planning her funeral.

Though she never talked about her flowers, we all knew when my brother Kelley picked out yellow roses for the family blanket that they were perfect. Though she had never seen a polished cherry casket, my mother had a deep love and appreciation for beautiful wood furniture and we instantly knew it was right. The songs were hymns I’d heard her sing at the top of her lungs in the car on every road trip we ever took. And the officiate was a dear friend of the family who she loved and respected. All was set—all, that is, except the poem. And I had no earthly idea where it could be.

Mama never kept her poems together in any kind of book or typed in a file on her computer. Most were memorized and the rest were scribbled on scraps of paper scattered in dresser drawers or buried beneath old photographs in various shoeboxes.

“Oh no,” I cried to my sister Joan, “she made this one thing abundantly clear to me and I am going to fail her because I was too stubborn to listen and keep a copy.”

Four and a half years before she had downsized from a ten-room house, where she had lived for twenty-five years, to a small two-bedroom apartment we had built for her adjacent to our house. She had pared down her furniture and purged a ton of paper prior to that move. It could be anywhere or it could be gone. I had not seen that poem in more than ten years.

“Calm down. We will find it,” my sister Renee said.

“You don’t understand! Boxes of her overflow are still stacked in my garage and the funeral is tomorrow!” I wailed. “There is no time to look for it.” I buried my head in my hands and sobbed about that too. Emotionally drained and physically exhausted from four hours sleep in the past seventy-two hours. “There is nothing I can do about it now.” So I dropped my head in bitter resignation and headed off to bed.

My house was full of extended family in town for the funeral and so Mama’s youngest sister, my husband, and I were going to have to stay in Mama’s apartment. As I lay down in my mother’s bed I said to myself more than anyone, “I’m so sorry Mama, but I have no idea where that poem is. I know you really wanted it read tomorrow. I so wish you had told me where it was.” And with that I closed my eyes and dropped into the restless sleep of pure exhaustion.

At 4:00 a.m. I awoke from a fitful sleep and sat straight up in the bed. I proceeded to get up and walk to her living room. Lit only by a tiny nightlight in the bathroom, I felt my way to the old comfortable rocker/recliner where Mama spent probably fifteen hours a day. Without even knowing why, I reached my hand down deep in the cushion on the left side of the chair and pulled out a folded piece of notebook paper, yellowed with age and nicotine stains. I slowly unfolded the single wrinkled page. I was hardly able to believe what I was seeing—there in my mother’s own, familiar handwriting was the poem.

I did not get up with the intent to go look for the poem. I never even checked the other side of the chair. I just walked straight to the chair, reached down, and pulled out the poem. It was as if she had quietly whispered to me in my sleep and told me exactly where it was.

~Andrea Peebles

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