February 17, 2009

Caught In Traffic


We'd strapped him to his bed for over a year,
Paid a fat, black woman to wear a white dress
Change his bed pan, and sit with him at night,
But when the bone white pigeon banked
Between the buildings in a pale twilight
The old man's brain liquefied.

Foam, whose tiny bubbles reflected my face,
Bloomed on his lips as he swallowed his tongue.
It said 5:47 on the red crystal clock by the wet bar,
And his breath rattled in the room like some
Tired exhaust fan from the Roaring Twenties.

His wife was out shopping at Woolworths,
Or trying to sell something back to Cartiers.
The black nurse was downstairs flirting
With Desi the tap dancing doorman.
Prince the chauffeur buffed the black Lincoln
And wondered what he do when the old lady died.
My wife was teasing our toddler in the living room.
Everyone else was trying to get home from work.

Somewhere inside his skull sore nerves
Kept sending signals down the spine to the heart.
I blotted his lips in that burnt orange room
As his arms flapped like a beached fish before
The fisherman brings down the club.

I turned from the bed, pulled up the beige blinds,
And gazed out the window wondering
Where the bone white pigeon had gone.

Then I called the Doctor's number listening
To his wheezing until the call was answered.
"He's dying," I said to the man I'd never met.
"You should send an ambulance and a team
Of medics right now. He's going. Going fast."

The calm voice answered from far across town,
"He's home. He's been dead for a year, you know.
We just change the sheets and pay the nurses.
I can keep his body going as long -- as long --
As long as you want. You need to tell me.
Look outside. How heavy's the traffic on Fifth?"

I looked down on a solid ribbon of oozing steel.
"Wedged," I said. "Hardly moving at all."
"Look at his eyes," the voice said. I looked
Down into his eyes and they had no bottom.
"Who's there?" the voice asked on the phone.
"No one I know," I said. "No one at all."

I held the phone and waited, looking out over the park.
"I'll send an ambulance when you tell me," he said.
The bone white pigeon came sweeping out of the light
And settled on the sill as calm as the quiet in the room.
"Send them when you can," I said.
"They'll just be caught in traffic."


Posted by Vanderleun at February 17, 2009 9:10 AM
Bookmark and Share



"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Any time I get to thinking I'm deft
Tapping out a clever phrase on keyboard
The word dancer steps up
And puts me quietly in my place.

Awesome. Just awesome.


Posted by: jwm at February 17, 2009 10:05 AM


That's my honest - embarrassingly inadequate response.

I think it's something to do with needing to exhale the breath that I wasn't breathing.

Posted by: Cathy at February 17, 2009 11:17 AM

I remember the day my grandfather died. I was home, I was doing my student teaching and I was living at home. Dad and mom were gone that weekend, they were taking a load of stuff up north and were due back that day. Grandpa was in a nearby nursing home and I went over to see him. He looked over and thought I was dad, his son. I didn't disagree, I just said I was and that I was there. I stayed with him until he fell asleep.

Then I went home and sat in the kitchen until dad and mom got home. When the door opened I told dad he had to go over right then. Dad went.

Later that night was the phone call. I used to sleep heavy, but that night the phone woke me. I walked to the door of my parent's room and heard dad speak into the phone.

It was all over for his father - farmboy, WWI pilot, dentist, father.

Now, my parents are old but still hale and whole. And I do not sleep heavy, because I wait for that phone call. It can come any time for either.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at February 17, 2009 2:17 PM

Powerful stuff. Eloquent.

My post-retirement employment has been in and around assisted living and skilled nursing environments and I know that no one needs to die at home except at their request. In this case, whoever called for an ambulance was not in the loop.

This is a sad portrait of what can happen when final directives are unclear and/or family members are in denial to the point that hospice care never enters the picture. Informed, loving care would have had this man in residential hospice long before he passed.

Posted by: John Ballard at February 17, 2009 3:32 PM

More moving than I wanted but as moving as I needed, Gerard.

They had Dad strapped to a table in a cold room, his broken heeart forced to beat by a device as large as an old Japanese transistor radio.

He asked for water but I said I couldn't give it to him.

His heart exploded that night.

Posted by: Lance de Boyle at February 17, 2009 6:46 PM

I just had to come back for a second comment. This piece was on my mind all day today. I have witnessed the moment of death, and it's an event that leaves one groping blindly for words to put on the experience. You captured the impossible fusion of beauty and horror shot through with transcendent grace that is the moment of passage from this world. Magnificent work.


Posted by: jwm at February 18, 2009 9:50 PM

Read the last chapter of Ecclesiastes, then read the whole thing. As an RN, I've seen hundreds die. The soul lingers much longer than one would expect. Say what ever you need to him (Him). They will both hear it. Of this, I'm as certain as the rising of the sun (Son). God bless you!

Posted by: Long Rider at March 4, 2009 4:04 PM

Thank you. I appreciate your kind words.

Posted by: vanderleun at March 4, 2009 5:29 PM