Deathbed Triptych (RIP Ronald Baggs, 1941-2014)

I.

Early days
Just diagnosed
Will he live out the week?

I wanted to make a sacrifice
To show him how much he meant to me
And I knew
Though will never understand
That the sound of my voice
Is everything to him

So I
A functionally nonverbal autistic
Practiced all day, all night
Called him on Skype

Typed “Listen closely
This is hard
It will only happen once”

Said out loud
Halting
Brain-rending
“I — love — you — Ron.”

He cried.

He cried again when I told him
My brother was trying to find
A way to get me out to his house
So I could see my dad
One last time

He cried hard —
We both knew it wouldn’t  happen
Just like during his last visit to Vermont
We cried our eyes out when he left
Because despite no diagnosis or even symptoms
We knew it was
The last time
We would see each other alive

And this time
We both knew
I would never make it
To the Siskiyous
In time to say goodbye

II.

I told Ron in a letter
I was packaging up all my love for him
And storing it outside of time
Where he could always perceive it

I lamented all the things
That I would leave unsaid
Until it was too late
All the questions unasked
And unanswered

But I knew the most important
— I love you —
Had already been said
So many times
But never too many

We Skyped that day
And he told me
I didn’t need to say anything
He could read all my thoughts
Through my eyes
So nothing, nothing
Nothing was left unsaid

He said he could see a glow
Around anyone, including animals
Who was experiencing love
I opened my heart to him completely
Without even thinking about it

He laughed
He said
“…and you can do it on purpose!”

We both laughed
I tried not to cry
I had put forth so much effort
To speak out loud in his language
Now he was becoming fluent in mine
Finally
On his deathbed

III.

He was almost too weak to talk
And could not read the words
I typed in the Instant Message window

I could not repeat
My original feat of speech

So I trilled
The way a momma cat trills to her kittens
And they trill back
Like a voiced purr

“I wish I could do that,”
He said

I opened my heart
As wide as it would go
And trilled, and purred
And purred,and trilled
And poured all of my love
Into each sound

I know he felt it
Even through the pain
Even though I could tell
How much effort it took him
To even attend to my purring
How much his body just wanted to rest
I’d been there
I knew the signs

I knew it would be
The last time I saw him alive
So I wrote a goodbye letter
With everything I’d ever wanted to say

My mom wrote back to tell me
When he heard my name
His eyes opened wide
And when she read the letter
He tried hard to smile

I love you. And I understand what it’s like when you’re just too exhausted to take visitors, or even to think about other people. When your mind recedes inside itself because there’s no energy to think, and your brain is overworked just running your body.  I Skyped you last night to say goodbye to you.  I couldn’t say it out loud of course, but I did purr at you an awful lot. I know your brain can’t handle a lot so I’ll keep this short. You’ve been the best father I could ever hope to have. I wish you luck wherever you are going when you die, if you go anywhere at all. Remember I have put all my love for you into a place you can go whenever you need it, before or after you die.  I love you more than I can say. Remember to surrender to love and you’ll be fine no matter what happens. And in case I never Skype with you again, goodbye.  I could say more, but I’ve been saying it all with my eyes the last several times we’ve communicated. You know what I mean. I love you. Goodbye.

So she read it to him twice
She said it was a good start to their day

I felt as if I had dropped a rock
Into a bottomless lake
Then turned and walked away
Without looking back

Not looking back 
Was the hardest thing
I’ve ever done

IV. Epilogue

There would be no more letters
No more video chats 
No more sent from me to him
Except the blazing white-hot love
That he said he perceived from me
Every day now
As if I was right there in the room

I had learned to kythe with him
So late in his life
I once said I wished we had learned
To love each other this way
And perceive each other’s love
When we were younger and healthier

He said maybe the time wasn’t right until now
Death made him wise 
Beyond even his considerable years
Death can do that
If you open yourself unconditionally
To the Love that is the other face of Death

I was bursting with pride
That in the months since diagnosis
He had progressed from terrified of Death
To embracing Love
And conquering his fears

So when the time came
He crossed over so fast
It startled even my mother
Who had been holding his hand
Coaching him through
The last phases of dying

But as for me…
I never spoke to him again alive
My letter really was goodbye
And it took everything in me
To press the send button on the email
Because I knew I would never be around
To hear the stone hit the bottom of that lake

Walking away
Never looking back
Only looking forward
To await the news of his death
Was the hardest thing I’ve ever done

That’s what saying goodbye
The final goodbye
Means, when you’re 
Thousands of miles away
And trying not to show him
How weak you get under severe stress
With adrenal insufficiency

(The day I got the news
He was going into hospice care
I got so weak I needed
My bipap as a makeshift ventilator
But he had enough on his plate
I wanted him to die knowing
I was finally safe.)

I will continue to write you letters
For my sake more than yours
Wherever you are, you don’t need them
But I do
And so do others 
Who have a death in the family
I need my letters and poetry
Because it takes the turmoil inside
And turns it into orderly strings of words 

Goodbye Ron — God(s) be with ye
Lovbye, Ron — Love be with ye 
In our family God and Love
Mean the same thing
That’s what you and Anna taught me
I love you 

And every time I see Love in action
I’ll know you are a part of it
And I’ll kythe to you the knowledge
That it’s good to see you again. 

Return to sender: no longer at this address

My mother is a wizard with plants
I kind of knew it already
But when my father was upset
Because he'd never see the morning glories
Bloom again in his life
My mother secretly coaxed
A morning glory vine
Out of season
To bloom, and climb, to bloom, and climb
And she took him outside
To show him the magic she'd done
And that's how much my mother loves my dad

My flowers are my poetry
I coax the words to bloom and grow
And climb and climb into his heart
Even out of season
I use words to express the wordless
And that's one kind of magic I have
And that's how much I love my dad

But one of these days
I'm going to write a poem
It will be full of obscure mountain lakes
And treks across the mountains to the sea
And forest floors that were so much more
And owls hooting up in the trees
It will show him every place
That I could feel his love
Without the emotional bombardment
Of living in the city

And it will be a perfect poem
For that time and that place
It will certainly be better than this one
It will show him that I care for him
(As if he doesn't know by now)
It will show the depth of love
That death can dredge up when you're lucky

And then i will get a phone call or an email
It will start out:
“Go and take your dexamethasone right now.”
And I'll have a sinking feeling
But I'll take the syringe of steroids
And put it in my feeding tube
Then go back to the phone or the computer

Then they'll say
“The news is bad
Your father has passed away
He was far too tired this morning
To check your blog today.”

And all that's left of my magic
Will be words on a screen
Words he may have understood
But will never hope to read

From that point on forwards
We'll be separated by time
We both will have existed
But from that point in time onwards
I will be here and he won't

I wonder how much dexamethasone it takes
To avoid adrenal crisis when your dad dies
I wonder how much magical love it takes
To stand the pain you feel when you realize

That you will never talk to him again
You'll never hug him again
You'll never sit next to each other
With an elderly cat spread across your laps
You'll never ask the questions
You forgot to ask when he was alive
You'll never play with his beard again
And there's so little time
There's so little time

But I'm wrong
Like people are often wrong about time
Eternity is all around us
That's all the time in the world
Eternity is where love exists
Outside of time and space
So even if he never reads my best poems
He'll feel the love that went into them
Just as he feels the love
From that morning glory vine

He feels the love from his two pet dogs
He feels the love from his wife
He feels the love from his three adult children
He says he's lucky to be surrounded
By so much love

So I'm terribly sorry, Ron
If some of my poems don't reach you in time
And i'm terribly sorry Ron
If I try to Skype you and it turns out you're gone
Just know I love you more
Than even the best poet can convey
I love you more than I could ever say

And love is the magic that made my mom
Able to grow those morning glories
And love is the magic that makes me able
To write poems daily after years of dormancy
And love is the magic that connects you to me
It's the way we can feel each other's love
Without any form of contact at all

I hope the place I built for you outside of time
And filled to overflowing with my love
Will see you through

And I hope that I'll continue
Writing poetry to you
Long after you've gone

And I hope it reaches you in Eternity
Or wherever it is you're going

And I hope that even the worst of it
Conveys this message:

I love you
I love you
I love you

We Fear The Coming of Winter

My father has terminal cancer
My mother has myasthenia and neuropathy
And a list of conditions so long
It would fill a whole page

They live in the backwoods of the mountains
Where there are no home care programs
And my mother takes care of him
As well as herself

She does this because she loves him
She does this because there’s no other choice
She does this because they’ve been together
Over fifty years now and are still in love

She drives with one hand at a time, sometimes
Because the other one has given out
Then she switches hands, hoping by then
The other has the strength to tough it out

Her eyes close so tight they’re like slits
She holds them open with her hands
By pulling up on her forehead
Or putting her fingers on her eyelids

Sometimes she needs oxygen
Sometimes she’s landed in the ICU
One time she stopped breathing
And they had to call a code blue

And every morning I wake up
And I wonder if she’s still alive
Every morning I reach out with my mind
And try to see what I can find

Because sometimes she feels like a cloud
That could dissipate in the morning breeze
And sometimes she feels like a film of ice
That could crack into pieces on top of a creek

And sometimes she feels like a tiny star
Too far away to see
And I wonder if she’ll get the chance
To say goodbye to me

Does she know that we all know
The sacrifice that she is making?
Does she know that we all fear
That taking care of dad will kill her?

Does she know that sometimes she looks
Like a shadow dissipating in the noontime sun?
Does she know that sometimes she looks
Like a story ending before it’s begun?

And she’s always been stronger than strong
When I was young she worked two or three jobs
Just to give us kids more opportunities
Coming home too late to see her drive in

She’s doing the same thing now
Taking care of my dad, herself, and the house
That’s three jobs at a time, still
It’s still that sacrifice

But I am so scared she will melt with the snow
I am so scared she will crack like a frozen branch
I am scared this time she won’t have the strength
In those huge reserves she’s so often tapped

She has love and grit and determination
But can those things be enough
When you can’t even open your eyes
Without using your fingers?

The winter is coming and that’s what we all fear
The winter is coming and will she disappear?
The winter is coming and what can we do?
The winter is coming and I love you

I love you more than the frost loves the ground
I love you more than the ice loves the branch
I love you more than the snow loves to whirl
I love you more than blizzards could ever destroy

Love may not save you but love will hold you up
Love may not keep you alive forever
But it will keep something of us all alive
But, love or not, the winter scares us all

But, then, winter or not, we have love
And winter or not, we have strength
And winter or not we have a bond so close
It’s impossible to break

We all fear this coming winter
But we all love our mom
And maybe that love will be enough
Maybe something will be enough

Mom, I hope you know we love you
That every single one of us
Knows the things you do
To make Dad’s last days as good as they can

We know what you are sacrificing
We know what you are risking
We know how scared you are of the winter
We love you every day

I love you more than I could ever say
I want you to survive my father’s death
I want to be able to see you every day
I love you more than I could say

I love you
I love you more
Than I could say

Love Be With You

What do I do
When I know anything I say to you
May be the last thing I ever say to you
But at the same time
I never know
Which day will really be the last?

How do I say goodbye
When I don’t know if this time
Is really goodbye?

How do I know what to say
When all I want to do
Is crawl into your lap
And play with your beard
Like I did when I was too young
To know what goodbye meant?

What do you say
When you know this time
One of these times
Goodbye will be forever?

Goodbye — short for
God be with ye
And that much
Is appropriate enough
Love be with ye too