You Don’t Have to Sing 

by Madeleine Spivey


Listen Eb, when your mother dies,

you will be expected to plan the funeral,

and as much as everyone insists they don’t, 

they do quietly judge which pictures you choose

for the clumsy poster board portfolios, 

and how they were organized, so just say “fuck it” now, 

and pick the ones you like best. 

And listen, no one remembers the goddamn eulogy. Ever.

So it’s okay if you’re crying when you give it

or if you don’t have anything to say at all, and 

pass the responsibility off to someone else--

everyone secretly wants funerals to be about them anyways.

They raise the microphone in white-knuckled grip

and assure everyone, 

No, really,

I am the one taking this the hardest.


It’s okay if you still hate your mom and a part of you 

feels like it’ll be easier to be alive now that she’s dead. 

It could be that in the moment you finally unload the last box

at Goodwill -- rusting garden tools and mismatched, greying gloves 

that somehow still smell faintly of her lavender lotion

piled together in a too-small heap -- 

it’ll feel like all of the momentum has left your body,

like every reason you’ve ever had to succeed died with her, 

and you have to find something other than spite 

to keep yourself breathing in and out.


And it’s okay if despite it all, you miss your mom more 

than you’ve missed anyone before, 

and a part of you wonders if you’ll ever be whole again.

No one knows who they are anymore when their mom dies

or who they’re supposed to ask now when they forget.

When your mom dies it’s like she never stops dying,

like when you realize your child will only ever have 

the story of her -- a story you must decide how to tell --

and grief feels like a chasm, 

but there’s also the times when you see 

a potted purple petunia in someone’s garden 

and she dies another small death, just enough 

that you get one true, violent taste of absence.  


Other times it’s like it never happened at all, and you 

spend Christmases laughing, and no one screams, or throws 

homemade ornaments away,  and instead you all decorate the tree

wearing felt santa hats,  and your dad smiles with his whole mouth.

They don’t tell you that having every example of what you 

don’t want is equally important as having the example of what you do, 

and that the absence of it can feel more consuming 

than any of the other grief you’ve felt before, 

and if that means that at this funeral, you’re going to 

sit rather than sing, then do it, 

knowing that if your mother could see you, 

she would close her eyes and wither her mouth in shame.

back to University & College Poetry Prizes