The Book of Numbers
~And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai" …count the heads of all the community of Israelites…”
I too, take the census—count the years and months
and days, add and subtract the moments of his life, the mundane pieces,
first tooth, first word, first step, bruises and band-aids,
candles on a chocolate cake, ice cream in a turquoise bowl.
I calculate the arc of his delicate ears, the crook
of his elbow, the scar on his nose, his hands that once fit mine,
I count each parcel and part, search for a mystical number
hidden beneath Hebrew script, written in ancient dialect,
locked in the mysteries of Kabbalah.
A number I can manipulate, weave among the hours,
and like Moses drawing water from a rock, perform a miracle.
The Judaica Store
Aisles of yarzheit candles:
packs of four
kosher candles from Israel
handmade and painted
designs of pomegranate
Jerusalem scenes on pottery
I choose the same small one.
Simple glass. Unadorned.
Four inches tall
a cylinder of sorrow.
No birthday candles
for a grown son.
A strike of a match
a wick trembles
burns in silence for 24 hours.
Then, like him, gone.
When I was a girl, a young girl,
I went on a class trip to Marietta, Ohio
to see the Hopewell Indian burial mounds,
smooth green arcs of grass and dirt.
Beneath, in dark soil, remnants of bodies--
metacarpal, skull, half a tibia.
I loved maps as that young girl,
paper ones with precise pleats
like the skirts I wore to school.
They had colors, straight and broken lines,
legends that marked railroads, mountains,
coal mines, lakes.
I wanted my mother.
Wanted her to explain myself to me,
decode my moods,
teach me how to be comfortable
in my skin.
Show me her secrets.
How she smoothed ruby color on lips,
left an imprint on a glass of scotch.
I am no longer that girl, no longer young.
My mother has no more secrets.
I trace the map of her body,
its changed topography,
sagging muscles, wrinkled flesh, vacant eyes.
Electrodes under skin spark her heart,
a rainbow of pills keeps pressure steady,
calms sugar’s spike, thins her blood.
The looming mass of her wheelchair
casts shadows on the floor.
Science Friday on NPR
The impossible-to-wrap-my-mind-around facts of the velocity
of earth as it spins on its axis and orbits the sun,
1000 and 67,000 mph, simultaneously, spinning
like I did as a child, on the flat land of Columbus, Ohio
twirling in mad circles as fast as my young legs could move,
round and round, me and the other kids who lived
in those cheap apartments with cracked blacktop parking lots,
little whirling dervishes screaming with delight in the open field
that was our playground, certain that if we kept at it
we would simply soar straight up, defy gravity
touch the clear blue sky right above our outstretched arms.
You lie on the narrow berth, stare
at the bottom of the bunk
above. Tears form, overflow,
roll down the sides of your face,
dampen ears, neck, the flat pillow
beneath your head.
You make no sound.
Silence has been burned into you.
Don’t tell your mother’s lullaby.
Your questions shuttered behind lips
stitched with the thread of your breath.
Never an explanation--
A dead father, fraud, poison, suicide.
You are 18, away from home for the first time.
The troop ship rips through rain-drenched waters
across the dark skies of the Atlantic,
bound for Europe’s battlefields
and broken bodies.
You will survive this war, bury
its horrors in the hidden place
under your bones.
But now, on this night, you curl
in on yourself, contort
your body into the man
who will become my voiceless father.
I stand before the small space
where your remains live,
a soft bag of dark velvet, what some
might call the color of wine,
but I call the color of dried blood.
A small, soft bag of ashes
locked behind glass.
Your photo sits next to it,
and when the light is just so,
my face reflects in yours,
merges with yours, becomes
the way we once were
when you lived in my body,
absorbed my atoms and cells,
the bits of stars,
long dead, we all have in us,
tiny molecules of light
that travel the veins
and arteries of our bodies.
I want to say, my darling boy,
do not be scared
in the silence of that bag.
I want to say I am with you,
hanging bits of stars
to light the dark.
Dear Nathan/Grand Teton National Park
Your dad and I wander along the Gros Ventre river as it curls
its way through rock and trees, water so clear
we can see small fish, gleaming tumbled pebbles.
An eagle soars in isolation, bison graze by the side of the road.
Cumulus clouds pile on top of razor-edged peaks streaked with sun.
Swallowtails dart, small dainty birds with muscular speed.
We breathe in pine and sage, take photo after photo.
You would like it here, where the air is thin and crisp, the sky a cobalt blue.
This wild grace might soothe you.
Before Things Were Named
there was no cardinal dancing red on a mud-brown branch,
no flash of flame against grey sky.
There were no azure lakes or turquoise seas,
no slush-filled streets or cancelled schools.
There was no larkspur or lavender-scented air,
no one’s mother sitting with her loneliness.
Before things were named there were no stories to remember,
no photos to be traced with aging fingers,
no heartache or sorrow, no strawberries
or apples, no glaciers or mountains.
Nothing to cherish or regret, no empty arms or vacant eyes.
No word yet for grief.
In the car with my brother, my father begins to sing
There’s no business like show business
accompanied by Ethel Mermen’s ghost,
his voice quivering and cracking with emotion.
He is content with a box of tissues on his lap,
with soup for lunch and dinner
the most delicious soup ever, he booms
to an empty dining room.
He proclaims himself Chairman of the Board
of his successful imaginary business,
tells my brother they need to order uniforms
for the employees.
He might remarry--a nice woman he says
not Jewish, but she’ll convert.
Tells my brother the woman across the room is his mother.
Your mother is dead, my brother says gently.
My father scornful--I know, it’s just pretend.
My brother asks how he fell from his wheelchair.
My father contemptuous--I was climbing up a truck
and jumped off.
As if my brother is blind to his stunt,
his amazing ability,
his wondrous new life.
It is called The Chapel,
a circle of three massive Redwoods,
slightly off the trail
of crushed leaves and rock.
We are there early,
before the buses of tourists
wearing high-heeled sandals
or flip-flops, before
the barrage of cell phones
and too-loud voices.
Layers of mist
still haunt the lower branches.
The air smells holy,
carried by the breeze.
We speak no words,
keep our thoughts private.
But I know what our blood
A prayer to these trees,
this sheltered place.
Silent words of love
to find the ear,
of our vanished son.