Karen Alkalay-Gut



SONG.. 3







As far as she’s concerned, she’d like

to have the whole thing over with—

At least that was the way it appears

when she moves into the ward,

clomping along on her walker.

And when I see the look on her face

I say, at least here you’ll be

the Olympic champion.  And she

smiles ruefully.  I think it was the first time

she’d ever seen people with those blank looks,

slobbering and tied artfully to their chairs.  For me

it was like being back home again with my father—

the hall of the brain-damaged in the geriatric care center,

the most degrading place I’d ever seen.  


It was fifteen years ago this week that he died

and the memory of his demise etches deeper

into my soul each year.   So when I say goodbye to her

sitting helplessly on her bed behind the screen

in the dining hall, my heart breaks on those dotted lines.

I go back and say "Come let’s have lunch first," and help her

and her stunned attendant to the table, pointing out

the basil in the garden just outside the door,

hoping a pinch of good herbs

will stay the decay of her soul.


For she doesn’t really want to have the whole thing over with.

The foot she sacrifices tomorrow is meant to appease the gods,

not whet their appetite.  “Take this damaged offering and leave me

the hair on my head, the ability to keep what’s left of my life

intact.”  It is a fact – the cabbages that grow from the scar

where was her toe, are still local.  Yet they return like wildflowers

with each new earth we turn over.


What no one seems to notice is that we are putting her in her grave

piece by piece.  The day the doctor drew the lines

on her foot and said, this is what we must get rid of,

was for me a little funeral.  Others thought differently,

I’m sure.  For them it was like cutting out an ingrown toenail,

a pesky source of pain.  We all face the truth, but the truth

is different, and theirs is much more bearable, more vital.


I mean it must be right to see life like an old snakeskin,

where you just leave what is dead behind and go on,

renewed.  And I am just an souvenir hunter,

saving snakeskins in labeled boxes and wishing

I had time to work on something positive and new.





The day the doctor agreed

it wasn’t worth operating

any more on her cancer,

he seemed to have lost

his ubiquitous sense

of humor and sat glum,

even when I made some excuse

after we left the building

and came back into his office

to ask how much longer she had.


He answered, but mumbled,

and I had to repeat the question

in a few different ways

before he gave a clear answer.


Of course he didn’t really know

because he didn’t want to scare her any more

with tests that would pinpoint

the villainous source.  So we figured

the parameters together and came out with

six months max. 


Then I went back to the car and took out

the cognac I had brought for this

very occasion.  But she didn’t dare

and I was driving, so we made

the long ride home in comparative quiet

as if concentrating on the road.


“Look at that sunset!” I heard myself saying

as if to a child and not a woman who would celebrate

her 91rst birthday that week.   And she replied,


“Well at least we won’t have this

miserable monthly journey

to contend with again.”  But I

would have given anything

to go back and forth with her—

sunrise, sunset – at least another

dozen times. 





Farewell to you our dear dear friend –

we hold your withered hand and you grip back

with everything left in you: the blood

dripping into your blue-black arm

only gives you strength to say goodbye.


You told me months ago you weren’t afraid to die—

even when we drove back from the surgeon who had hacked

part of your foot (a sacrifice to appease the great God Cancer).

I said that for me it would depend on how and why.


A civilized death, you said, dignified

like a kiss. Yes, if only we could create

it, stage the way we want to go.


And then there you were on your bed at home,

sleeping quietly in a fever we couldn’t understand,

wishing only not to be moved, surrounded

by pictures of seventy years of man and wife

the same scene for almost your entire life.


And we just couldn’t let you go,

not without knowing

there was nothing more

that could be done.


Could we let you die of thirst, starvation?

Years ago I heard it was a gentle way to go,

that old people sometimes release themselves from life

and the pain of dying is barely felt.  But we

feared to let you leave without protest – what if

in the hospital they found a medicine

to bring you back, and we would find you in the morning

reading your paper, wanting to go home.

Four years ago we put down our dog

and thought it gentle, humane.  But a human being

is not the same. 


So we caused you pain.  Despite the ghostly note you wrote

wanting to die, we cried and called an ambulance.

What if all that was lacking was Prozac, a drink, a reason

to live.  How could we not give you

that final chance.  


One day two days we still had hope

but now we know

every road we could have gone

would just lead you away.


So here in Intensive Care

we sit throughout the day


patient children waiting 

for Mamma to awake

and tell us what to do

for the rest of the day.





So much greater than the sum of your years

your love and wisdom

spreads over all of us now

with enough abundance to infuse

even the furthest stranger

standing cold in the rain.


Those of us whose lives were changed

forever for knowing you

can show those who did not achieve

that honor, that joy

how deeply you remain

in our hearts, in your sway.


Our ways are full of your directions,

your kind, gentle guidance.

We will miss you deeply, forever,

but each one takes you home with us

now as well.