Winslow Homer, Rowing Home
Three years before my mother’s final illness she had a major stroke. It was not a typical stroke—more cascade than cataclysm—but when it was over it had laid her low as effectively as a bolt of lightning.
At first, we didn’t know if she would live or die. She couldn’t move any part of her body, couldn’t speak, couldn’t swallow. This last was particularly distressing—swallowing is such a primitive function, but the stroke, it seemed, had struck a primitive part of her brain.
During those first few nights I sat by my mother’s bed in the dim double ward, the curtains drawn between us and the other occupant, who coughed feebly and rustled like an animal in the walls of a house. My mother breathed quietly, the lights on her monitors blinked and glowed. Occasionally an alarm would go off somewhere down the hall with the high, persistent beeping that hospital staff, remarkably, never seem to notice.
I sat there for I don’t know how many hours, drifting in and out of exhaustion and anxiety, and at some point a fragment of poetry came into my mind. “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm . . . ”
Over and over it played in an endless loop, while I racked my brains to identify it. It was definitely something I knew, but I couldn’t even think what century it belonged to. For some reason it became incredibly important to me to figure out what it was.
My first not terribly clever notion was that it might be part of a Shakespearean sonnet, it was certainly forlorn enough. But as anyone who knows anything about English poetry will instantly recognize, the meter was wrong.
My fragment was written in trochaic tetrameter—DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM—and the sonnets, like all of Shakespeare, are in iambic pentameter—da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Clearly, it had nothing to do with Shakespeare.
I ran through some other possibilities. Was it, maybe, Browning? Was it Donne? But eventually, I was forced to acknowledge that I wasn’t going to get the answer just by thinking about it. I was also annoyed that I couldn’t remember the rest of the poem. I was sure I’d known the whole thing once, and this made me think of stories about people in solitary confinement who discover that they can miraculously summon whole novels word for word.
As it turned out, I wasn’t in the critical care ward long enough to find out if this would happen to me because, against all odds, my ninety-year-old mother began to improve. First she started to move her limbs, then to utter a few indecipherable words, and even, after a week or so, to take a spoonful of food. My nighttime vigils gave way to daily trips with flowers and ramekins of chocolate mousse and Agatha Christie novels. My mother was moved to a rehab unit and we moved on to the next chapter of our lives.
It was only months later that I remembered the lines of poetry and went to look them up. They belonged, of course, to a well-known poem by W. H. Auden—how could I not have gotten that?—a modern work with a romantic slant from 1937.
What I had remembered were the first two lines. The next few, which had seemed in the gloom of the hospital to be floating just beyond my reach, ran as follows: “Time and fevers burn away / Individual beauty from / Thoughtful children, and the grave / proves the child ephemeral.”
How curiously the mind works. I had completely forgotten these references to illness and death and the sharp juxtaposition of childhood with the grave in what is, essentially, a poem about the erotic love of one man for another. Yet surely these were the very elements that had brought the poem into my mind by some subterranean channel.
The speaker in Auden’s poem, who is also awake in the night, looks on his sleeping lover with tenderness and something like pity. It is partly pity for himself, partly for the boy on the bed, but also pity for humanity as a whole, for the plight of mortal men and women who live and love and cherish beauty only to fade and die. At one level it is a poem about the anticipation of loss.
Which is, of course, why I had conjured it up. At the same time, it struck me funny that Auden’s lullaby for his lover—some handsome, sleek-haired youth in tangled sheets—should have seemed so perfectly applicable to me and my elderly mother. But love is love; that’s the point. You don’t care about losing someone unless you love them, and the more deeply you love them the more painful the prospect of losing them is.
My mother eventually recovered, not perfectly, but well enough to enjoy her last years, and I began to see her stroke as a sort of dress rehearsal. Having peered into the abyss, I was able step back, but I knew that it was there.
The stroke had altered her. She was smaller, thinner, more fragile, less vivid, though the sweetness of her personality still shone through, perhaps even brighter now that her vivacity was diminished.
I had been living with her for years already—my husband and I on one side of the house with our children; my mother and, until his death, my father on the other side—but after her stroke she was no longer really independent and it fell to me to look after her more and more.
Once a week I took her to the hairdresser, often stopping afterwards for a frappe. I picked out DVDs for her at the library and baked crème caramel, which she found easy to eat. I washed her cashmere sweaters by hand and helped her with her elastic stockings and filled her hot water bottle at night.
She still complained that my boys needed haircuts, but many of the things that had once seemed important had gone by the by. We had both become more agreeable, and there was really nothing to argue about anymore. She gave me advice when I asked for it; I tried to pay attention to her needs. After a year or two I realized that I had grown so used to being with her that I knew what she wanted before she even opened her mouth to speak.
And then, one day, it dawned on me that she was getting weaker. At first it was nothing I could pinpoint, she just didn’t seem entirely well. Then something happened that put her in the hospital and the next thing I knew she had been diagnosed. Pancreatic cancer: in her case painless but incredibly swift.
This time there was no chance of a reprieve, no hoping she would get better. There were no cures, no treatments, no other outcomes, just the imminent prospect of her death.
The night before she died I sat up with her, in a chair pulled close to the side of her bed. There was a nightlight burning in the corner of the room and I sat with a duvet wrapped around me, even though the night was warm. Her breathing was becoming labored and I could feel that she was in distress. I stroked her hand and told her that I wouldn’t leave her, that she could sleep and when she woke I would still be there.
Hour after hour passed. At some point I dozed off and woke, terrified. But she was sleeping, her fine white hair spread across the pillow, the muscles of her face relaxed. The Auden poem came back to me—how could it not? But this time it was not the first lines but the last: “Beauty, midnight, vision dies . . . / Find the mortal world enough . . . / Nights of insult let you pass / Watched by every human love.”
Again it came to me in that darkened room—not pity for my mother exactly, nor even necessarily for myself, but a deep, intractable sadness that our lives were changing and, at the same time, a wave of gratitude that I had been lucky enough to have had a mother I loved so very much.
Christina Thompson is the author of Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All and the editor of the Harvard Review.
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