Suzanne Kay Grigsby 1921, nee Helen Suzanne Kay
Summer nights she sleeps on the porch.
Light as a breath, cool air
from the snow-capped moonlit mountain
that seems to float above the earth
in black sky beyond her feet
drifts over her cot, leaving
a taste of sweetness and the faint fragrance
of her mother’s hand, before flowing on
to the big river miles below her head
that takes everything down to the ocean.
A board creaks in the house, her father
moving from room to room as if he could leave
his grief somewhere. Today he changed
her name. “Helen,” she’d been, for her mother,
but in this year’s flowering of the apple trees—
“Beautiful,” her mother said each year,
“but not something to wait for”—
she died. “Did the baby kill her?” Helen said.
“No, no—just an accident. I wish
they could’ve let you see her.”
But they took her to Portland and she died.
“Now,” he said at the supper table,
the level sun hot through the window
on the sides of their faces and on the framed
drawings of the River Highway, “you’ll be Suzanne.”
She gets up from the cot and stands in her nightgown,
its grey washed almost white, a few glints
from a dim houselight catching in her dark hair,
then, shivering a little, hugging her chest,
steps down from the porch, soothed
by the shock of the damp grass on her bare feet,
and walks into the orchard. “Helen,” she says,
“Helen,” under her breath.
Maybe that’s what I sometimes saw in her eyes
when I came home from school to give her
a bunch of violets I’d picked carefully
with clumsy first-grade fingers
as she turned from a window and looked
at me with a half smile: a presence
that was also an absence, a knowledge
from Mt. Hood in moonlight cold above the world
that took grieving freedom to gain
as it entered her when, light spilling
across the porch from an opened door,
his lean shadow called, “Suzanne! Suzanne!
Where are you?” and she didn’t answer.
The night chill went through her gown.
She fingered a leaf’s fine-toothed edge,
stared at its glossy surface shining with dew,
felt the familiar rough crumbs of dirt
under her feet, and then, closing her eyes,
still saw her own shadow like the shadow
of a tree printed on the ground.
And when he called again, the sorrow in his voice
sweet and dark as the air she stood in,
she said in a clear voice, like the night
itself speaking to him, “I’m right here.”
Young, I gave each Christmas and birthday
for years the same thing—a small bottle
of “Evening in Paris” perfume I’d saved up
part of my allowance to buy
at a drugstore in the 69th Street Terminal .
that she especially liked—the fragrance,
the name, a memory, the special color
of the bottle But years later,
when I’d had to move away for school
and the GI Bill, and she, who’d worked
after the war for years because my father,
discharged in his late 40’s, couldn’t get his old job,
or, for a long time, anything like it. She
got a job driving our old car around most
of Philadelphia for a diaper service
until slowly worn out from small strokes.
When things got somewhat better,
they only traveled a little—once or twice a year
to the Navy Yard Officers Club and a few times
to a run-down farm up north in Pennsylvania
west from the Delaware River, to relive,
maybe, a little of the happiness they’d had
at a small canoe club on the Potomac
just northwest of Washington
in the first years of their marriage.
She died in her early 70’s, both hands mostly
crippled, and only then
I learned she’d never been to Paris. But
each time, back then, when she opened slowly
my small present, she’d smile and say,
“Just what I wanted,” turning slowly in the light
its midnight-blue glass. How happy I was
I could please her and didn’t know anything
but one meaning in what she said.
At night no release, no sleep for pain.
At dawn kindness burns all around her,
cheery voices, new drip bags, new pillows.
But her eyes stare at the walls
like a witch at the stake
when her hair starts to flame. She
tries to say “end…end….”
It’s too late. Her hands,
stiffened to claws, are fixed at her heart
and can’t reach the table
where pills that might kill
rest at peace in a bottle. Nothing
works anymore except ears, eyes,
a vivid brain that still fears
(though my father said no)
the pneumoencephalograph blowing air into her skull
like an electrocution that fails to kill.
They think there’s something wrong with her mind.
If she could only lose it, close that last eye,
make even her death disappear.
But night creaks again into fire
on nurses’ white shoes.
I stand by the bed. Blood-thickened
from hanging useless, my hands
twitch toward the tubes
that feed in her nose, arms, drain
from her thighs. Instead I bend down
and kiss her forehead—it’s clammy-hot
like a child with a fever. She’ll live
another ten months, half present, half gone,
like one of my childhood sicknesses
she calmed with a beautiful hand
that now no love can end.