What My Mother Taught Me About Narrative

Rick Mulkey | Poetry

I’m watching her disappear in a Tampa hospital room,
her breath rasping, her lips swollen and cracked,
my father standing outside the door, his hands stuffed
inside his pockets to stop their shaking. It’s an image
I’ll want to discard, but the consequence of age
is memory: both its presence and its absence,
its truth and lies. It’s the inevitable byproduct of life,
stories we didn’t mean to write, but the pen
scratched out each letter’s line and curve anyway.

I’m sure my mother, all of seventeen when she discovered
she was pregnant, had imagined she’d author
a different tale than this one scripted from her bone and flesh,
her eyes, her pain and pleasure. She hadn’t planned
to bear an allegory for how her life could be,
but there I was. Here I am, a narrative twist,
a new vocabulary, my birth photo beside the definition
for surprise. And how surprised years later
when she reached to touch her breast and found it there,
that fibrous knot, that kernel sentence for an ending
which would write itself. We all want some stories

to last a little longer. The evening before she died,
I sat with her and promised I’d always remember
what a beautiful mother she had been,
but, of course, none of us can make that guarantee.
My wife, who fears her mother’s dementia may one day
be her own, writes down everything she sees and hears
in case one night it disappears. So, when I consider
that moment in the hospital, I worry the final line
I told my mother was a fiction. That’s why there are
certain words and phrases I’ll never say again.

I’ve grown tired of how like an old Faber eraser
life strips the surface away leaving only the illusion
of new and clean. And now I only believe in plot
when music is absent. I only believe in memory
where there’s nothing left to imagine. For instance,
what if I tell you I never made my mother that promise?
Perhaps it’s just a story I tell myself
to make her ending seem a little kinder.