Saturday, January 14, 2012
The Day My Mother Died
My mother died six years ago, January 27, 2006. She died in a hospice in Sun City, Arizona. It was a beautiful place, out in the desert, cactus and sage and rocks and reddish sand all around. She would have liked it. Before she got too sick, she used to like sitting outside and enjoying the little bit of desert that she had in her own back yard.
She had come a long way to die.
She was born in a forest outside a small village west of Lvov, Poland in 1920. She loved that forest and probably would have stayed there her whole life except for the Germans. They came to her house and killed her mother and her sister and her sister's baby. My mother fled into the woods, but the soldiers caught her and put her on a train that took her to a slave labor camp in Germany. Once I asked my mother to tell me what happened on that train. She said that even though I was a grown man and a professor, she saw things she couldn't tell me about.
For a long time, she also wouldn't tell me much about the slave labor camps in Germany. She would wave her hand at me and just say, "If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run away." When she did start telling me about the things that happened in the camp, some times I had to ask her not to tell me.
At the end of the war, my mother met my father, another Pole who had been in the slave labor camps. When my mom saw my dad, he was a scarecrow in rags. He weighed about 70 pounds and had only one eye. He had lost the other when a guard clubbed him for begging for food.
She was 23, he was 25. She had been a slave for 2 years, he had been one for 4.
They married and waited in the refugee camps in Germany until someone in America would agree to sponsor them so that they could come here. They waited for 6 years. During that time, they had two kids, my sister Danusha and me.
In June of 1951, we came to America. For a while my mom and dad worked on a farm to pay off their passage here. Then, we moved to Chicago, and my mom worked in a factory.
The way I remember it my Mom was always working, working in one factory or another and working around the houses she and my Dad bought. She would plaster walls, paint, sand floors, and varnish them too. There was no work that she wouldn't do.
When my parents retired, they finally moved out to Sun City, Arizona, a long way from the village in Poland my mom grew up in. After he died out there in 1997, she lived there alone, taking care of her house and the garden, making friends and thinking about her grandchildren.
I've written a lot of poems about her over the years, and since the day she died, I've been trying to write a poem about her dying. Let me tell you, it's not coming. I've got pages of notes and half starts for the poem, but for some reason none of the words and lines say what I want them to say about my mom and how I feel about her and how her death touched me. Maybe I'll be able to write the poem someday, but I can't do it right now.
So I want to end this with two of my favorite poems about my mom from my book Lightning and Ashes. The first one is called "What the War Taught Her," and the second is called "My Mother's Optimism."
What the War Taught Her
My mother learned that sex is bad,
Men are worthless, it is always cold
And there is never enough to eat.
She learned that if you are stupid
With your hands you will not survive
The winter even if you survive the fall.
She learned that only the young survive
The camps. The old are left in piles
Like worthless paper, and babies
Are scarce like chickens and bread.
She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.
She learned that you don't pray
Your enemies will not torment you.
You only pray that they will not kill you.
My Mother's Optimism
When she was seventy-eight years old
And the angel of death called to her
and told her the vaginal bleeding
that had been starting and stopping
like a crazy menopausal period
was ovarian cancer, she said to him,
“Listen Doctor, I don’t have to tell you
your job. If it’s cancer it’s cancer.
If you got to cut it out, you got to.”
After surgery, in the convalescent home
Among the old men crying for their mothers,
And the silent roommates waiting for death
she called me over to see her wound,
stapled and stitched, fourteen raw inches
from below her breasts to below her navel.
And when I said, “Mom, I don’t want to see it,”
She said, “Johnny, don't be such a baby.”
Six months later, at the end of her chemo,
my mother knows why the old men cry.
A few wiry strands of hair on head,
Her hands so weak she couldn’t hold a cup,
Her legs swollen and blotched with blue lesions,
She says, “I’ll get better. After his chemo,
Pauline’s second husband had ten more years.
He was playing golf and breaking down doors
When he died of a heart attack at ninety.”
Then my mom’s eyes lock on mine, and she says,
“You know, optimism is a crazy man’s mother.”
And she laughs.
The first photo is my mom, my sister, and me in Riverview Amusement Park in Chicago, around 1957.
The second photo is of my mom and my daughter Lillian, around 1982.