Rummaging through old family photos with the burden of displaying my mother’s life at the wake, (with the purpose, it seems, to prove the dead did not always look as they do in the coffin, polished and waxy, lips unnaturally taut), I am arrested by a sepia-tinted photo of a young girl looking out at me with a faint smile as if she could already see all the irony. I cannot cry for the difficult woman she would become, but I cry for this young girl in a sturdy wool jacket, a barrette pinning her blond hair to one side, her face, pure light like the girl with the pearl earring or Anne Frank in the attic or Mona Lisa—before the world happened to her. Before her father gave away a beloved, three-legged dog she nursed back to health, or refused to keep the piano left behind in their new house. Before worry. Before she learned her mother’s depression. Long before her spine refused to support her. Before she would ask God what she was being punished for. I cry for this girl who smiles softly at me, claiming some small peace in a big and blistering world.
After a death
it occurs to me that I need to take a hard look at myself, a sort of accounting. It occurs to me that I am easily distracted by a drop of water making its way down the pane, that I take everything too seriously or not seriously enough. It occurs to me that I feel guilty because I’m wasting time when every good minute should be spent writing or baking pies or sorting piles of mail. It occurs to me that something is very wrong with that. It occurs to me that I need to be a better person, that my students should be more vocal, that I lack some cool approach. And I really hope my husband knows I love him because I am trying to be a real person in a world where I find myself lacking every day. It occurs to me that I believed I would be a new, truer kind of woman after my mother died, with this new life stretching out across a prairie of waving grasses and endless sky. Instead I am the heroine in a black and white foreign movie where I get up every morning and make the coffee and take the turns through the day and go to bed where the nights are so long and I have to meet my sleepless self and I don’t know where to put her or what to do about her.
Raphael Kosek’s poems have appeared in such venues as Poetry East, Catamaran, and Briar Cliff Review. Her latest chapbook, ROUGH GRACE won the 2014 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Prize. Her lyric essays won first prize at Bacopa Review (2017) and Eastern Iowa Review (2016). She won the Bacopa Review’s 2019 poetry contest (Pushcart Prize nominee). Her full-length poetry book, AMERICAN MYTHOLOGY, was recently released by Brick Road Poetry Press and Garrison Keilor has chosen two poems from it for The Writer’s Almanac. She teaches English at Marist College and Dutchess Community College where her students keep her real. She is the 2019-2020 Dutchess County NY Poet Laureate. Find her at www.raphaelkosek.com
Kayla Branstetter is an educator, mother, writer, artist, and photographer from Missouri. She holds an MALS degree in Art, Literature, and Culture from the University of Denver. Her creative nonfiction, art, and photography have appeared in the following journals: the Crowder Quill, Light & Space “All Women” exhibit, The Human Family–Human Rights Festival, The Paragon Press-Echo: Journal of Creative Nonfiction, 805+, High Shelf Press, The Esthetic Apostle, the gyara journal, Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, a former contributing writer to a regional magazine Ozark Hills and Hollows.
September 2, 2003. The phone rings and my sister says, “You’d better come now.” Sound like a line from a sentimental movie? Not one my family ever starred in. Not one in which I’d have chosen even a minor role.
My mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer the previous year. A life-time smoker, she would not survive the thirteen months of poisonous treatments. No doubt that, coupled with fifty some years of epileptic seizures and the panoply of required drugs she swallowed, made her no candidate for long life. Ever the palm-reader, she predicted an early death. 70 is not bad, right?
To come now means a willingness to sit with my mother as she dies. Because I hate flying, because too abrupt, too jarring, because I no longer fly home, I decide to drive from Wyoming where I have lived since 1983. Thirteen and a half hours to Seattle will give me enough time to grieve and be pissed off at my mother. Thirteen and a half hours—getting up before the sun, heading over the pass above a valley I now call home—will keep me wary, guarded. At that time of day, wildlife cross the road before you can stop: the porcupine or mule deer, a roost-bound owl or chipmunk, suddenly crushed in my mad rush to be there now.
When I am in a hurry to get to Washington, I drive south to I-84. For a time, this route follows the Snake River toward its confluence with the Columbia near the Tri-Cities where my family lived in the early 1960s. It seems natural that I again live close to the Snake, close to the continent’s headwaters.
When I am in a hurry, I shouldn’t stop, but do: to take photos. Near Craters of the Moon a strange gold light seeps under the clouds and across the green dawn’s sage. Outside Hill City, Idaho, towers of cumulus stretch into the blue zenith. How can I not stop.
Soon the Snake will veer abruptly northward through Idaho toward Lewiston before turning westward again, and so I leave that drainage to cross the high desert country of Oregon, through Baker City, and eventually bridge the subdued Columbia at Umatilla.
When I have more time, I hug the Washington river bank before heading north through the Horse Heaven Hills, drawn to the undulating earth, picturing horses with their manes and tails lifted, racing the wind. But there are no wild horses and the only now that means anything: my mother’s last breath.
There is never a question about not going now, though I have a full-time job as a bookkeeper. My mother will die three days later, after midnight on September 6, at home, with me stretched out beside her, my sister’s best friend pressed to her other side. Both of us whispering over her body that takes her away—one soft breath at a time.
Connie Wieneke’s poetry and prose has appeared most recently or is forthcoming in Talking River Review, Camas, Split Rock Review, Pilgrimage, Stand, as well as anthologies. She earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana and received two fellowships from the Wyoming Arts Council. Since 1983 she has lived in Wyoming, where she has worn various hats.
Issue 106, published April 2023, features works of poetry, flash fiction, short nonfiction, and photography by Elizabeth Curley, Johanna DeMay, Alan Elyshevitz, J.V. Foerster, Lena N. Gemmer, Kimberly Goode, Ken Haas, John Robert Harvey, Gloria Heffernan, Ken Hines, Richard Holinger, Kate Hopper, Jennifer Randall Hotz, Michael Hower, DB Jonas, Eun Seo Kim, Cyn Kitchen, Mary Dean Lee, Paul Macomber, Victoria Melekian, Jahin Claire Oh, Hari B Parisi, Min Sung Park, Julia Poole, Paul Rabinowitz, Caroline Reddy, Lisa Rigge, Jim Ross, Yujin Suh, Ron Theel, Cristina Trapani-Scott, and Joan M. White.
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