87 days after she found a lump
I am washing my mother’s incision,
jagged badge of bunched purple red ribbon
across her heart. Our bathroom expands to fill
the entire world: slow drip of faucets
purple of bruise, yellow of healing,
brown of dried blood. My focus
is a Moebius strip; if I can just
get this right, cleanse and rebandage,
I can right the indignity of the surgeon’s knife.
I know it’s silly, and I focus anyway,
feeling each tug of the washcloth
will make amends or make things worse.
After, I wash her hair gingerly
knowing, soon she’ll have no hair to wash.
The water spirals down the drain
and my mom murmurs It will be all right;
the world is no larger or smaller than this:
these apple-scented bubbles, this stream of warm water
our hope, this scar, these hands.
Fleeing beeps and whorls, passing minutes till sunrise,
I snuck out of the hospital to smoke on the granite steps,
the night damp, giant moon hanging, a tin ornament
behind magnolias. Grateful reprieve from vinyl chair,
from curling on the laminate arm, waking to the pulse ox alarm,
nurse rounds, yawning chasm of hours, mom squirming on her back,
more infant than parent, everything unspooling.
I keep coming back to this night. The yellow of the moon.
Bitter coffee in a styrofoam cup. Something languid in the air,
Spanish moss like swaying kelp. Horrible yes, but also
oddly open, a starfish unfurling arms, anemone undulating.
Carolina August in our white mini-van, pleather sticking to my thighs, air thick
with salt and humidity, mom proposed a trip to the thrift stores off island.
As a kid I saved all my change for these adventures, lured
by hand-made signs on summer Saturdays. We drove, windows down,
air conditioner on, over the floating bridge, roads glinting with heat.
I babbled of my dog eating banisters, sofas, doors. Mom said her friend Pam
had a mastectomy, that there were special swimsuits now, from LL Bean I think,
with space for a prosthesis, so no one would know. I must have said, Wow,
what will they think of next, and let it drop. We hunted on: paperbacks with
yellowed pages, a lopsided dresser with peeling green paint. I fell in love
with a short sleeved shirt in chocolate polyester, cheap guyabera meant
for a guy clutching a sweating beer over a barbeque. She bought
it for me for $1.25. Driving back, she said, Pam ordered one of those suits.
In navy blue. It would be the next month before she told me of the lump,
before surgery and chemo. I keep the shirt, which stinks
of sweat and summer and smoke, no matter how many times I wash it,
pinches, a fiddler crab angered by my wading toe. This afternoon comes back still,
when everything changed and I didn’t know, salt water swallowed by mistake
when a wave knocks you down, stinging like a new sunburn.
Ruth Dickey’s first book, Mud Blooms, was selected for the MURA Award from Harbor Mountain Press (2019) and awarded a 2019 Nautilus Award. The recipient of a Mayor’s Arts Award from Washington, DC, and a grant from the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities, Ruth is an ardent fan of dogs and coffee. She lives in Seattle, where by day she is the executive director of Seattle Arts & Lectures. These three poems are from Mud Blooms, and “Wilmington NC” originally appeared in Ocean State Review.