My Mother Says No

My mother is withdrawing from the world. The tires of her car know only short distances now and just a few turns: right on Brick Road, left on 73, left into the supermarket parking lot; right on Brick, cross 73, right into the shopping plaza where she gets her nails done. A few minutes out, a few minutes back. Most of the day and night the tires wait in their spot outside her apartment. Do they long for the days when they burned up the expressway to Caesars Atlantic City sixty miles away?

My mother is withdrawing from the world. When I connect with her on FaceTime now, there’s no face or voice. Something’s wrong with my phone, she says, when I reach her on her landline, her voice for now still tethered to the earth.

She sits on her couch. Her hand trembles as she struggles to fill in the tiny boxes of the day’s puzzle. Most days she solves all the crossword’s clues. Some days, she sits on the small patio in front of her apartment. Other tenants come and go. They smile at her; she smiles at them. She doesn’t know their names.

She adds another day to her life. Today makes 33,537 days, 91 years plus 235 days. She adds another breath to her life, though each breath is harder to draw in than the last. My mother is dying. If not today, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then soon.

She’s not like the dog of Jerry Stern’s poem “The Dog,” “whistling / dirges, shrieking a little, terrifying / hearts with my whimpering cries before I died.” She’s not shrieking. She’s not whistling dirges. Her speech is slow and slurred.

Why am I thinking of Stern’s dog now?

…I don’t know why I lay beside the sewer
so that lover of dead things could come back
with his pencil sharpened and his piece of white paper.

This morning, I want to work on my essay about Andalusia, my recent trip there. My essay that circles around and departs from what ibn Verga, the fifteenth-sixteenth century Jewish refugee from Spain and Sephardic historian, writes, “Judaism is one of the incurable diseases.” There’s a pomegranate in that essay, there’s a girl with auburn hair “like ruby / over a moistened crystal brow,” the girl of Yehuda HaLevi’s poem “That Night a Gazelle,” in that essay. In my life, too, there was a girl—a young woman—who looked like “dawn’s fire rising—reddening clouds with flame.” My mother’s a blonde.

…The lover of dead things
stoops to feel me, his hand is shaking. I know
his mouth is open and his glasses are slipping.
I think his pencil must be jerking and the terror
of smell—and sight—is overtaking him;
I know he has that terrified faraway look
that death brings—he is contemplating. I want him
to touch my forehead once and rub my muzzle
before he lifts me up and throws me into
that little valley.

My mother is withdrawing from the world. The day after my father died, a little more than a year ago, she bagged up my father’s clothes and gave them away. She lives now with three empty drawers and a half-empty closet in her bedroom.

…until it passes or I pass, she said to me a few days ago. Sciatica has accelerated her process of withdrawal. I just spoke with your son, she said, her voice reduced to a single, thin thread of sound. A week ago she’d ask about Gabe. Now he’s my son. I don’t know if she remembers the names, fictional or actual, of those with whom she spends most of her day and night: Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), Fin (Ice T), Amanda (Kelli Giddish), Elliot (Christopher Meloni): Law & Order, SVU.

…I hope the dog’s way
doesn’t overtake him, one quick push,
barely that, and the mind freed, something else,
some other thing, to take its place.

A difficult drive to the vet, about ten years ago, when, knowing it would be her last dog, she had to put Cotton, a Bichon Frise, down.

…Great heart,
great human heart, keep loving me as you lift me,
give me your tears, great loving stranger, remember
the death of dogs, forgive the yapping, forgive
the shitting, let there be pity, give me your pity.

Nothing to forgive, countless things for which to thank her. Including the simplest, most fundamental thing: life itself. I remember standing over your crib, she told me, like it was yesterday. You were born with a heart condition, she told me for the ten thousandth time, and we couldn’t let you cry. Then, in debilitating pain, she went to sleep.

A few days before the sciatica presented itself to her hip, I asked if she had sat outside. It was an unseasonably warm November day. No, I didn’t feel like it, she said. The curtains were open to let in some sunlight. But, continuing her withdrawal from the world, she remained on the sofa in a dimly lit section of the room.

At the end of Stern’s poem, the dog speaks of what it gave up to become someone’s pet.

…I have given
my life for this, emotion has ruined me, oh lover,
I have exchanged my wildness—little tricks
with the mouth and feet, with the tail, my tongue is a parrot’s,
I am a rampant horse, I am a lion,
I wait for the cookie, I snap my teeth—
as you have taught me, oh distant and brilliant and lonely.

The physical pain my mother is living with now: it’s wild, rampant, snapping its teeth. It refuses to be domesticated. Maybe the right dose of Tramadol will momentarily tame it. The existential pain of living longer, in her words, than someone should live: nothing will alleviate that.

Will mother still mother me after she dies? To prepare me, to protect me, will she somehow tell me the story of her final hours? What technology makes that kind of communication possible? Maybe if I listen to the ocean, mother’s favorite place on earth, the way Stern listened to a dying dog, it will speak to me in her voice. Maybe it will tell me the full story of her life—what she did with the wildness that was in her to become a good wife and good mother to three sons.

“When mother died, / I thought: now I’ll have a death poem,” writes Stephen Dunn, another of my poets, in “Routine Things Around the House.” My mother’s still alive. My essay on longing to return home—Andalusia for Sephardic Jews—as an incurable disease can wait. I’m picking up my phone. I’m calling home.


Richard Chess directed the Center for Jewish Studies at UNC Asheville for 30 years. He helps lead UNC Asheville’s contemplative inquiry initiative. He is a board member for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. He’s published four books of poetry, the most recent of which is Love Nailed to the Doorpost. You can find him at