How to Talk to Your Dead Mother by Nicole Rollender

How to Talk to Your Dead Mother

At first, it’s like old times, old bones: she puts
her hand on the inside of your lower arm’s trusting
skin, a cat’s belly turned up. She wants to know
about what she’s missed – things that don’t matter
as much to you – the swans on the lake, did their five
cygnets survive, or did a snapping turtle drag them
under the water, all except one? Her white dress
rustles, the tinkle of tiny finger bones in a pocket. She
remembers the hummingbird’s ruby throat shimmering
still at the feeder. You tell her how your body failed,
the baby was born nine weeks early. Her hands make
the shape of wings. No, no, you say, he lived. Can you
tell me again what it’s like to be hungry? What does the body release
in sleep? You say the hummingbird’s too frantic to watch.
To keep the baby alive, you hold him over your heart,
skin on skin. Pray for mercy, for how the body hollows,
your mother intones, and that’s how you remember
her – if you don’t pray against everything, the roof
will fall in, the trees will pierce the windows, the quilts
go up in flames. You don’t tell her how your whole life
has gone brittle, as if one shake will break every word
you try to substitute. She’s your mother, now one who
returns trailing celestial afterbirth, a sort of innocence:
Tell me what it feels like to put your foot in water. What does it
mean when you can’t make any more milk for the child? You
don’t ask her to bless your house or the baby whose
bones rise against skin. Her hands have been in the earth.
Well, they’re there now, folded in this quiet sacrament
of how what has been useful sleeps. You, the living
mother, shake salt from the table cloth, teach your
child to nest where it’s warm, tell your dead to head
toward whatever window is full of light.

by Nicole Rollender, first published in Harpur Palate, and in Bone of My Bone.

Nicole on Facebook

Twitter: @ASI_Stitches

Editor’s note: This poem’s imaginative use of the narrator’s dead mother to explain the trauma of bearing a child prematurely is both touching and disturbing. It combines grief with joy, and difficulty with perseverance. And like most editorial notes, this one doesn’t even come close to explaining the richness of detail the poem embodies.

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