1. March Prayer
What do I do to keep the image of her
bent over her dead son as alive as this bluebird—
elegant and simple, and perfectly made for delight—
releasing its blue to the sky? How do I speak
of a mother bent over her son’s body
as if he could still recognize it was she there
alongside him, ready to go wherever he was going…
and also of this morning that arrived fresh and new,
old piles of snow being eaten by a March sun,
water running everywhere, the hey sweetie of chickadees
leafing the leafless trees. O Lord, this is
what I know: grief is endless, delight unavoidable.
Teach me to live in this contradiction, help me
to keep seeing her desiccated mouth, the sorrow
in her throat she could not swallow, her eyes
that still, months later, cannot see
this bluebird which I cannot enjoy any less.
2. June Prayer
Pray for me, she said, and Lord I try.
I have no eye for eternity. I know
only this world, where May’s light lengthens
into June’s long days, and someone I love
keeps discovering that grief is a season
that leads nowhere. Lord, take pity
on this prayer which is meant to be plain,
to ask no more than what has always been
asked—that she be helped to bear the weight
she cannot bear alone. But I cannot refrain
from asking something more: Why,
if she can still perfectly recall the horror
she most wants to forget, why, as the months
pass, is she already losing the feel of her son’s
touch and the exact timbre of his voice
when he joked with her? Lord, the sun is
stronger each day and the trees have filled
with birds again, but all she sees
are the boys she must forgive each day
for living, for bouncing a basketball or
carrying their mitts and bats. And she does.
She does. Can you not, then, help her lift
her head and say again—Blessed is the day—
words, perhaps, that might release her
from her season of captivity in the dark
belly of memory where she waits for you.
3. October Prayer
It rains, it rains, and the leaves, more brown
than gold, come off like a child’s soaked
clothes. One season collapses
into another. For ten months, Lord,
I have gone down to the place where the dead
are shut away. I have wanted to speak
with the authority of It came to pass,
or verily I say to you to one I dearly love,
but I have no powers to restore the blood
that drained from the veins of her child.
Only, this must be endured, as if endurance
could lighten the weight of her grief.
She keeps measuring her grief against
the grief of others—one thirteen year old
against the thirty million children dead
each year, one son against the thousands
lost to starvation, to war, just one against
the tens of thousands lost in an earthquake.
Each day, she counts the losses; today,
a father’s three young children and his wife
to a mudslide that buried their home.
Why is it, she wants to know, that one
lost son can so empty the entire world?
Why, she asks, can’t she move forward,
find the strength, rise to the occasion,
get through it? Lord, she knows too well
she is not the center of anything,
and yet she remains, waiting still
at the place where her son left her, waiting
for the spirit said to ease us. I have
waited for a prayer, for some words to help
her believe what can never be changed can be
endured and made easier in its suffering
as I walked in circles in these wet woods,
the leaves down, here and there another
fresh stump where a tree has fallen over
staring upwards, the lines of trees against
one another like a child’s scribblings
that do not mean a thing.
4. December Prayer
For seven days the sword is drawn,
for thirty days it wavers, and after
twelve months, it returns to its scabbard—
the wisdom of the Talmud, a recognition
of death’s hold on the living
left behind. Lord, her year is done
and, if nothing else, your silence
has taught her daily that her son
must be given up sense by sense,
thought by thought, action by action.
Just a year and a day ago
he would have made her laugh
or argued with her or talked back.
Now December is dying once again
into the roosting dark: cold air, cold
flame, the sky burning itself clean.
Lord, I ask this much for her,
who knows too well she will go on
missing him until she dies: let rooms
made small by the violence of grief
be amplified by the wan light
the sun hoists up over the inch
of new winter snow. Let there be
laughter again at the kitchen table,
let the spoons and forks make a racket
on the plates, and the youngest’s
spilled glasses of milk be seen
as cups running over. Let her eyes,
blinded for so long by grief, see again
what is just outside her window:
a red and white clownish woodpecker,
two nuthatches spiraling headfirst
down a tree, the neighbor in her
nightgown who holds out her hands
with five different kinds of seed,
a suburban Saint Francis of the birds,
and another, like Moses, waving
and honking in clouds of white exhaust
as he backs out of his driveway and leads
a string of cars toward the station.
Lord, give her this day. For one year
she has waited out the empty rehearsals
of hope. And she will go on living with
the pain of what will never make sense.
But Lord, death’s year is up. Let the sun
pass over her face as she sits by the window.
When the early dark arrives, let her watch
the sky orchestrate the last orange glints
the day becomes. Let that be an end of it….
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.