for Aya, September 2021

Be kind to her. She’s eleven & already
wants to turn you back. She wished this
after she squeezed a drop from her index
& read me the number. She always insists
I close my eyes & guess
what her blood is saying—
sometimes I’m wrong & sometimes not.

I kiss the tiny tears on her fingertips.
I kiss her arms & thighs before the insulin.
When I ask her to inject herself, I’m asking her to live
without me, & she knows it. When her legs trembled,
& I soothed with “I’m here, I’m here,”
she reminded me: “But you can’t do anything.”
Perhaps she meant “undo.”

Who am I kidding. Time, I demanded your undoing too,
that first night in the hospital before dawn,
when I woke up having forgotten, then remembered
where I was, what had happened.
The neon corridor light, the nurses’ chatter,
the potassium’s slow burn in my daughter’s vein.

Time, I know
I can’t reason with you. You go on and on.
Instead, I’m wishing her
astonishing slowness, softness
inside the arduous & unfair. Like this:

the dog’s limp, the cold coffee, the struggling
baby bougainvillea, the winged ant on the floor,
the half-eaten sandwich, the tenderness
of the 5am light, the daily departures,
the basil plant’s shadow on the wall,
& her hair, the swing of my love’s hair
as she runs, shaking her head
left & right, left & right,
how she always ran like this, always ran
as if swaying, No, No.

There, There, Grieving

Where are you from?
      There.

Where are you headed?
      There.

What are you doing?
      Grieving.
            —Rabia Al-Adawiyya

Little brother, we are all grieving
& galaxy & goodbye. Once, I climbed inside
the old clock tower of my hometown
& found a dead bird, bathed in broken light,
like a little christ.

Little christ of our hearts, I know
planets light-years away
are under our tongues. We’ve tasted them.
We’ve climbed the staircases saying, There, there.

Little brother, we are all praying. Every morning,
I read out loud but not loud enough
to alarm anyone. Once, my love said, Please
open the door. I can hear you talk. Open the door.

Little christ of our hearts, tell anyone
you've been talking to god & see
what happens. Every day,
I open the door. I do it by looking
at my daughter on a swing—
eyes closed & crinkled, teeth bare.
I say, Good morning good morning you
little beating thing.

Little brother, we are all humming.
More & more, as I read, I sound
like my father with his book of prayers,
turning pages in his bed—a hymn
for each day of the week, a gift
from his mother, who taught me
the ten of diamonds is a win, left me
her loose prayer clothes. Bismillah.

Little christ of our hearts, forgive me,
for I loved eating the birds with lemon,
& the sound of their tiny bones. But I couldn’t
stomach the eyes of the fried fish.

Little brother, we are always hungry.
Here, this watermelon. Here, some salt
for the tomatoes. Here, this song
for the dead birds in time boxes,
& the living. That day in the clock tower,
I saw the city too, below—

                    the merchants who call, the blue awnings,
                    the corn carts, the clotheslines, the heat,
                    the gears that turn, & the remembering.

Related Poems

On the News of Your Illness

The slivers run their course,
And the bad eye can now burn with accuracy.
The cough? What cough?
What stinging rubber band against your wrist?

The sneeze moves the leaves of the potted plant.
A dab of lotion solves the scaly hand.
The knuckle accepts the rap,
The knee goes only so far
And walking is so overrated.
Heal yourself, daughter. Kisses help,
Handholding, snow caught in your hair.

Daughter, lovely daughter, be with us.
Let the thing inside you pass without warning.
Don’t be like the cloud, thin and sailing away,
The dark birds like commas,
Then ellipsis in the far distance,
An uncompleted life.

Four Years After Diagnosis

Suddenly, rain. Our heads
  bowed together like monks
in this hot green place.

   I study the slow script
of her movements. The cross
   and uncross of her legs,

fingers forking together,
   pulling apart. Secret dialect
of her face—a firefly flick

   in the iris, lips curling
like kelp. Speak, mother.
   Your daughter is listening.

The Bell

The lights in the bedroom flickered off and on.
I lay in our bed listening to a heavy thumping
coming from somewhere, quickening.

In a half-dream, I created the idea of walking to the door
and shouting, Who’s doing that?

Even the thought of it was tiring, and I rolled over with eyes half-closed,
lucid enough to be afraid to sleep but longing for it

with the same urgency I longed to take a deep breath
without pain, or to be able to sit up
without my lungs feeling crushed.

I tried to fill my thoughts with something other
than the every-second-of-half-breathing, the crushing and stupor.

Was the sound growing near?

Was it a foot banging a door, my daughter running circles in the living
room, feet pounding in a rhythmic pattern?

Was it the neighbor at some task again that required loud repetitive
pounding and screeching?

The questions were something to latch onto in my mind. I entertained them.

A slit of light broke from the bedroom door and my son crawled in
beside me, wrapping his small limbs around mine

underneath the coat of blankets. He was whispering but I could not
hear because of the thumping.

Who is doing that, I said. I slept.

My husband woke me to feed me soup, water from a straw.

I sat up in bed, the room bluing. Our five-year-old
jumping on the bed, adding a beat to the drumming

that started again when I opened my eyes (though I was sure
I heard it in my sleep).

It had been weeks since I’d left either the bed, or the couch,
laying, blinking, and when awake, staring through the window,
at a wall, at one of the children’s faces.

Breath came as if through a tiny sieve, which I gulped in small pockets.

You’re here, the doctor said one morning on the phone.
Be grateful. So the air like fish eggs, like the meager rationing
in the form of pills.

Sucking, coughing, my chest strained and ready to snap.

Nebulizer hush and burr. Inhaler sip. Eight more times.

Times seven. Again. Times sixty days.

The world shimmered in blue, the faces of my son, my husband
and our girls, cast in that same blue.

One morning or one night, or the next day, or the night that was yesterday
and before, tomorrow, I dreamt of running at full speed
down our street, past the school, toward the bayou ten blocks away.

The banks were filling with rain, ready to break over the edge
of the concrete embarkment, and I ran so hard every part of me
ached and I knew that this feeling, familiar, happened yesterday,

today, and tomorrow. I woke up wheezing and choking.
The thumping in my ears, my own heart racing,
like I was running, every second running.

At the insistence of my husband, I sat outside wrapped in a blanket,
feeling shorn. I watched my children play in the front yard
while the light flickered through the leaves of the tree on the lawn.

Underneath the world—or was it beside it, along it, between it?
(There was no relative space to pin it)—I saw the pulsing of blue,
an under-color to the kaleidoscope of reality’s rough imagery—

my son’s kid sneakers of black and red and white, flashing lights
when he jumped, my-eight-year-old’s plastic sandals, both of the children

dangling off the edge of a spider swing, their small hands flayed out
and waving. The laughter, her sigh.

Underneath it all was this color, not an earthly blue, blue of ocean,
precious stone or gem cut into rock, a sky flanking a horizon. No.

This blue which was not blue was the color of sacred, deep,
with a center to it, blood of childbirth, the whitened lips of the dead,
the infant’s purple wail—

all of it mixed together, long and unraveling, a cruel silence
with a terrifying bell inside.

I rested my head back on the chair and stared at the sky
that was no longer the sky.

I blinked and felt close to that color—this underwater, the blue eggs,
blue veins on an infant’s foot, the black feather of a blue jay that feigned
blue, the blue mouth of a glacier.

Was this what ran parallel and twinned to our lives,
a universe linked with a battered rope to this one,
where I had died, and hanging by a thread
to the universe where I lived.

The giant bell in its cruel silence behind the blue,
and my rollercoaster heartbeat readying me for the terrifying drop
to the ground. I longed to hear the bell.

I would not share it, only save it inside my body,
and never, even to my worst enemies, (but is that true?)
tell anyone the sound it made that killed small parts
all at once with a blow.

I opened my eyes, heavy pinned.

I had already heard the bell.
I had already imagined my children without me.

I sat feeling the holes of it,
growing cold.

Light overhead grew brighter
until wind threw the branches together,
a dark shadow enveloping our family.

Spin faster, I said to my children.
Do it again.