Checking the Funeral Musicians’ Schedule
January, 2006, Saint Paul, Minnesota
Start doing funerals and you notice it:
the time of year the old people decide
they’ve lived enough—that death might be more friendly
than winter is. Some go outside to meet it.
They toss the snow from walks in reckless swoops,
till their hearts bank and dive, and then the sirens
call us to muttered prayer. Mostly it’s men
who get this easy out, who cheer themselves
right to the end with reasons to be, to do.
Their women, cursed by common sense, hang on,
caged in their houses, living on crumbs of care.
Their houses keep them alive and their houses kill them:
Rooms, more and more, resist the readying
for visits that rarely come. A room at a time,
they fill with the useless things that will not stop
singing the litanies of the dead and absent,
till living shrivels to a room or two,
a few clothes, dishes, everything hand washed,
warm water the last solace where the drafts
insinuate at every uncaulked crack
to say, Give up, dear. I don’t know how long
persuasion takes. I do know where it ends.
There’s nothing for it but to sing, although
my aging mezzo sinks more every year.
I curse the cold and salt the icy steps
pray at the wakes and sing the funerals.
Editor’s Note: The conversational tone of the narrator in this poem is strongly convincing. By the end, the lesson of aging has been subtly pressed into one’s mind.