Before I Forget


I show up Tuesday night after
bawling in the car—every last
Indigo Girls song, trying to
keep my salty eyes on the road

Straight to the hospital,
do not delay do not pass go
Dad here now, and my brother Mark, here since morning
Text his wife: Trying to get this tired dope to go home

Her mouth is slack on one side
her dentures are out,
never again to be found

It drives my Dad crazy
to see his wife’s face like that

I lug in boxes of old letters,
my laptop, a purse jammed with energy bars
greasy Dubuque Dunkin’ doughnut for Dad
(he won’t stop shoveling sweets)

My brother goes, I settle in

The old man refuses to leave
abuses that toilet all night
sounds from the gaseous depths of hell
smells like the back of a cab

Neither of us knows the couch folds out
nobody tells us that
regardless, we might not fit

Shocked out of any chance of drowsy
the minutes creep by
each one filled with the world

This is the night I announce I am
Starting a book
culled from the letters she wrote

I read so many lines,
the chuckles begin
my dad from the other side of the room

My mom joins in her own way,
I rawly insist she is still with us now

I don’t know how, she just is
pull out a crazy picture of my brother Doug in a scarf

When we tire of that
I poke around,
find her purple rosary
glance at the sky, say what the hell

Hail Mary full of grace
Our father who art

Then later I squeeze in to nap on her bed
holding one of my hands in hers
torso curled at her feet like a cat
legs stretched out long on
adjacent empty wheelchair
my body a question mark

The temps outside are dropping hard

Suddenly Dad gets up to go,
I brace him, those goddamned knees

At times I’ll step into the hall,
nurses silently watching
Netflix between their chores

Whether or not to catch their gaze,
depends upon my need

Claim this kingdom as my own,
my mother’s final home
not their place to share
one light word could be their last

Thrust my heavy sword through levity
though one kind word could save my life

Mama’s lips so dry,

I track down petroleum jelly
she licks her lips with relish,
the nurse and I smile


Mom pulls at the breathing tubes, we remove them
try to give her a sip of water,
but this doesn’t quite work out

Coughing, aspiration
a haunting voice tells me all this could have started
with a big slurp of soda pop
plaque like a roulette ball
rolling into place
my heart still panics with a drop

They teach me to dip a sponge
affixed to a stick in water
that Mom closes her mouth around

No more straws and no more sips

Soon a neck pillow saves the day,
the lights are
too goddamned bright

I take cloths and put them over Mom’s eyes, then Dad’s,
pull my hat down over mine

Then the nurses come and ask, do we want it all dimmed?
Fuck YES (we didn’t think such a thing could be), and then we three,
settle in, for the first of last nights.


Wake at 5 with a back
not as aching as I’d thought
minor miracles at play

To my father
and his doughnut cravings
pushing me out the door

You see there’s a family lounge
in the hospital, and when the
early morning comes,
the doughnuts get delivered
100 percent FREE

A fact that is commonly known
among the often ailing
and the frugal pastry-loving Dutch

Every half-hour on the hour
he sends me out to take
a look

The delivery finally comes
cross between a long-awaited
lover’s letter and
a baby, birthed
minus the blood and screams

Disembodied postal magic
bundle of long-awaited joy

I am my father’s daughter
holy communion of the glaze

I radio my brothers
Dad needs to get outta here

Our vigil abruptly concludes
due to rigors of a husband’s age

Heavy lifters arrive on the scene
followed by my brother Doug
for years a hospice angel
in the guise of a surly cuss

Kiss my mom goodbye, head
straight to Taco John’s

I eat this breakfast burrito,
I eat these potato oles with cheese
I drink this orange juice

Not knowing in almost 24 hours exactly
her breath will stop

What arrogant behavior is thiswithin sight of a burial vault?
Shoving chunks of deep fried bits in my mouth
as the pendulum slows to a halt?

You know the day she died I finished another full breakfast
sitting in her room

Meanwhile back on the farm
my brother and sister-in-law
are blowing insulation
or something of that sort
into the basement walls

Family on the way from all directions
closing in on the scene

I take a nap

Late afternoon I return to my vigil
my brother Doug’s has come to an end
nowhere to be found
not a shadow not a ghost

By now I’ve absconded with the nativity
taken it to her hospital room
ad hoc décor is taking shape

Cover Jesus up with a blanket
until he’s born

I started this tradition along with many more
my mother too exhausted for such trivial things
though she’d cheerfully climb on board
the power of a good idea

When I was a little girl
my mother used to sing
a song about three little fishies
and their mama fishy too
Boop boop dittum-dattum wattum CHOO

Everybody loved that thing
thought it was an old nursery rhyme
turns out it was the Andrews Sisters
saucy trio of her time

We sit and listen to this
on my phone,
and another one after that,
then Nat King Cole’s Little Drummer Boy
and other carols too
Fuck it, this is Christmas, right?
Certainly her last
I decide to call my girl
she’s been known to take requests

She sings “Rudolph” to Grandma,
like she has at least six times before
cut my husband unceremoniously off
when he tries to join
to isolate her little voice

What can I do
my mind asserts
all she has left are her ears
I still chirp like her little bird

As if
just another day of fun
though after Nat King Cole
just can’t take much more

“Mom I’m gonna check out the cafeteria”
the place is completely closed
shut down to wax the floors

“Mom I’m gonna go get some
supper the cafeteria’s closed”
I mention this to explain
I’ve been backed into a corner to leave,
she understands I have no choice

Drive off into the night
to the drive-in and
get a chocolate malt
(maybe she can take a sip?)
and other stuff

Take a plain hot dog to Dad
say I don’t want to eat in front of her
considering she can’t too

When you’re at someone’s death bed
that’s just rude

By the time I get back
she seems to be at rest
quiet breathing, maybe sleep
no longer gripping the rails in pain

Thank you morphine drip

I pop a pain pill
a nice new nurse tucks me in
helps me turn
couch into a bed
water into wine

Gives me a Lazarus-thin gauzy blanket
a pillow for my head
an angel to the end

Pull up
The Walking Dead on my phone,
Episode 1
then turn it promptly off

Unholy resurrection
is such a poor, poor fit

Doze off, woken by my brother,
his daughter and hers arriving,
tired trio kneeling in the dark
minus frankincense and myrrh

Bethlehem’s star a hospital parking lot light

My grown niece quickly notices Jesus
we unanimously remove his shroud
welcome into the world baby
10 days before you’re due

The two of them, both nurses,
solemnly assess the scene
light touch on a drip bag
fine print leaning in to read
I pay a visit to the bathroom and the lounge

Upon return I show my niece’s baby girl
a battery-lit ornament that changes colors in the dark
Says Grandma across the front
we’re all mesmerized

I become my mother now
her hands pass it to Josephine
the great granddaughter she loved
(days later from across the room
I catch Josie holding it at the wake)

So many children over the years
so much love, the same techniques
always perfectly present and kind
a warm cookie, and a grin like a wink

Soon they all take leave
I lay draped over Gethsemane’s rock

Vicodin dulling the dreams
of a daughter’s final night
Judas you are a kidney, blocked


Sunlight, something
jars me awake
probably a sudden sliding curtain

The kind nurse returns again
offers me something to eat
anything you want

An omelette, toast,
a coffee, and some juice

I remark how the coffee is hot
Mom, just how you always like

Eat my plate clean to please
her, can tell the tasty smell now
matters not

so quiet

Nurse Jodi comes in
whispering I think today’s the day
you might want to call family in

I dart out after when she leaves,
my voice clutching her skirt in the hall

How do these things work?
What are we to do?

Say goodbye one at a time,
she says, let her know
you’ll be okay
when assurances are issued
you’d be surprised at how they go

Image of my mother
at the door
jaunty head scarf and a bag
on her way to
a well-earned weekend getaway

Waving a checklist   wagging a finger
don’t forget
don’t forget
don’t forget

I call my brothers
then turn with purpose
back into her room

Begin to stroke her forehead,
tell her that all are
coming soon, on their way
just want to say a few things before it gets busy

As if we’ll meet later on the couch
after the commotion
when the others all go home
gossip about the day

My words, they pick up speed
how the world needs more of her kind

Especially now, I say

I say there are points of light that get thrown out
that they always save the day

Each batch of popcorn you made,
each tomato planted, each weed pulled
each bucket of water hauled
in a rusted children’s wagon
to the plot

My mind is racing
Her breath is slowing
gently to a brake

I can’t believe it’s so
it’s happening here and now

I stay with it and do my best,
she keeps slowing and then

She stops

I imagine behind her a gust

swirling, standstill

“Go!” I cry, “Go!”
“As fast as you can!”
“Don’t look back you butterfly, fly!”

A Gandalf hanging one-armed from my ledge

And then that was that

She forgot her headscarf & bag
the screen door closed behind her,
I sat alone with my list

I still wonder were our
hands entwined
in that very moment then

Remember our final phone call,
grab her pen now
before I forget

My mother’s
soothing, last conscious
words to me:

I’ll write you a letter

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  1. Janice Kellen Mahoney
    March 24, 2017

    Beautiful words, thank you! She was my Dad’s favorite. Maybe because she was the first. All I know was that he thought she was special. The world needs more like her for sure.

  2. Celia Kool
    December 20, 2020


    “Were your ears burning today? They should have, we were talking about you!” (Not sure which side of the family to give credit for that particular saying, but I bet you know!
    Staci shared this with us today, after we talked on the phone, she sent a load of teeny-tiny photos to my phone. No way was I going to attempt reading such a beast on my phone. And it was easy to find, since her first photo included this website.
    So I must inquire, how goes the book about your mom? I feel she would enjoy your poem more than me, since it’s about HER.
    Reading it brought back memories of my mom’s passing, less the attendant family; all of my siblings-blood, step, adopted-passed before me. It was all my show, and, like you, I had no idea what to do. So I fumbled along, and the nurses and CNAs gave me guidance when they saw I was floundering. The onsite doctors (my mom was in Memory Care) explained the physiology; science was something solid I could understand. I had my quiet time with mom because that what I am, most of the time, quiet, a listener. Well, also because she flushed the first two books I tried to read to her, before settling on “The Little Prince,” which she accepted peacefully.
    Thank you for putting into words bits and pieces of my mom’s passing. I shared the link with Alder and Avery, too.
    Email your address and we’ll send a Christmas card your way! Best, Celia

    • January 14, 2021

      Celia! I received this message belatedly. Thank you. It really means so much to me for you to share your words and your own memories of being alongside your mother. I’m finding that sharing this poem brings up a lot for folks who have gone through it. My hope is that some connection, some solidarity can be found amongst those of us who have experienced the most intimate of connections with our loved ones: saying goodbye.

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