The Answer

When I awoke Saturday, the first thought was, ‘Today is the day that Ruth dies.’

Ruth is my mother-in-law. Thursday, she had a heart attack. Friday, my wife, her daughter, Phoebe, put her in a hospice.

Her hospice is in the country, in southern Illinois, an hour outside St. Louis. The old folks home, where Mario, Ruth’s husband, still lives, is set like an Andrew Wyeth painting, the house on the hill, an empty pasture rolling toward the viewer, only someone old in the foreground rather than a comely model. On the drive, Phoebe and I look across a soy bean field, and see The Arch oddly on the horizon. We stop at the old folks home to pick-up Mario. The hospice is ten minutes from the home.

Mario is ninety-two and blind. Ruth is unresponsive. I have to explain to Mario how his wife looks. Her lips are white. I ask him if he would like to hold her hand. Mario is of that generation of men never trained in reflection or expression. He sits. I put her hand in his. He kisses her hand, and simply says, “Good-bye, Ma.” Then sets his head on the edge of the bed and weeps. Sixty-two years of marriage.

The family gathers. We’re alternately chatty with life and denial, then quiet as we listen for Ruth’s next breathe.

the answer

my mother-in-law
R. C., 1923 – 2012

there’s no climate change in a hospice
the shadows the same the year round
the only sign of autumn is some kid’s hand turkey
taped next to the hand sanitizer on the wall
the wall is marred by a poorly moved bed
even death is dull when it’s measured

four breaths a minute
three then
there’s no memory in a hospice
no Kilroy died here! and So did Red!
there’s only the folks in charge of death
the chaplain, the daughter and the poet

but that’s how I learned what’s a death rattle
the nun who stops praying
the daughter who drops a book
the charge nurse who whispers This is it


Filed under: John Samuel Tieman, Prose