Unanswered Letter #81

river in November light between bare woods and mountain
Entering the spice markets I smell 
the simmering energy of yellow and red: 

turmeric, ground annatto seed, anise 
and sweet clove. I don't buy anything. 

I remember only how, once, not 
so long ago, I drew a warm bath for you 

with eucalyptus and cinnamon bark. 
Live your life, friends admonish me.

What does it matter that night dips
into darkest vats of color, that day

shutters the stars with light? I want 
to believe there were many things we shared 

that still make you feel sweet, that make you 
feel something when we say your name.  


river in November light between bare woods and mountain
"It is the memory of love we love."
                                            ~ Sandeep Parmar

if it's true death binds us                                            closer to history
then we've always studied                                                                elegy

schooled in grief                                                 the moment we break
from the womb we squint                               through the first door

overcome by light                                                and air— i dont' know 
how to describe                                      the first cry that left my lips

how long it bannered                                                        until subsiding 
a friend asked if i could remember         how it felt to be carried

in my mother's arms                                       what color and texture
how time felt then                                                         how it feels now

Stages of Grief

river in November light between bare woods and mountain
What you find is there's no definitive
progression from 1 to 5. You knew

acceptance long before the last time 
you guided her slowly to the bathroom 

(she had begun to fold into herself,
like a bird; could still walk, but not 

on her own) and sat her down on the cold 
toilet rim. You never thought to offer prayer 

that was plea; bargaining—for what? more 
time, more days of the mind's awful fading 

away, flashing less and less in random bursts 
of remembrance? As for anger—it came 

much earlier, learning of the forms of cruel 
neglect at the hands of kin supposed to be 

caring for her. Long years of bereavement, 
prior to the fact of her actual passing; 

coming upon fragments of her life in such
sad disarray. Until just before the end,

there was no denying the strength of her spirit.
Seven months ago, she'd asked for a swipe 

of lipstick, loved on slices of custard pie;
declared she wanted to live to be a hundred.

Until just before the end and the body's failing, 
still fiercely unwilling to let go yet of this life. 

Death in a Different Time Zone

river in November light between bare woods and mountain
In Latin, the word equinox means equal night—
there are two times each year when day 

and night are the same length in all parts 
of the world. On one side, she was dying.

On the other, she was already dead, 
her breaths having slowed until 

they could not mist the mirror anymore. 
The three women who cared for her until

the end folded the sheets and prepared 
her body for its last ceremony of fire, 

for sifting into an urn bearing her name.
On this side of the world, on that first 

day of her actual crossing, alarms sounded 
on all our phones as we sat in offices 

and classrooms—they signaled potential 
coastal flooding in the next 36 hours, 

from a tropical storm bearing down 
on the eastern seaboard. But what 

do you call the room in the sky where 
the sun's circuit and the celestial equator

intersect? The earth turns, and light
can't bend. It's dark in that half of the earth 

not facing the sun. Could you just keep 
traveling west so tomorrow never 

catches up? Yesterday, she was only dying; or
she had only just died. Today she is dead. 


river in November light between bare woods and mountain
"...we carry everything with us
when we go"
                              - Brian Turner

All your folded triangles of cloth; notions, zippers,
buttons, shiny rick-rack trim from dry goods stores

All your mended-unmended holes in sheer mosquito netting

Months of rain, thunder and lightning;
the cravings they gave us for sardines, vinegar, rice

All your rehearsals, your dresses and gowns

The stories you threaded into our ears,
boiled noodles buttered till they tasted like milk

I cannot slit a seam without hearing your voice

Every blade sheathed, lengths of thread knotted thrice;
thimbles tucked into an empty cookie tin

Someday the silence will reel us all in


river in November light between bare woods and mountain
Think of the dovecote as a prototype
of the columbarium—rows of small hollows

stacked in soft rock or clay to house 
these small-breasted birds. Slender-billed 

and dusky, purplish-backed, russet-crowned. 
Shining Imperial, Pompadour Green, Bleeding 

Heart pigeons and Emerald Doves of the family 
Columbidae. Some are bred for their homing skills, 

a kind of innate sense that is both compass 
and map: guarantee they'll find a way to fly 

home and not to any other place. Perhaps
today is the day my mother finally finds 

her own way home, after months of illness 
and years of tribulation. Her skin is almost 

the sheen and featherblue of birds. Like theirs, 
her bones will hollow out, the skull become 

lighter so it does not weigh her down in the air. 

Sky Grief

river in November light between bare woods and mountain
Noctalgia is the term scientists have coined
to describe the pain we feel, and will increasingly
feel, as it gets more and more impossible to see 
the night sky— Its vast, mysterious stretches
pinpricked only by faint galaxy glow and the show 
of constellations our fathers first taught us to find,
assembling like a cast of familiar characters against 
dark velvet curtains. Now, we shade our eyes 
from the blare of city lights, the gaudy jewels
decorating every monument and tribute
to wondrous architectures. Now, we seek places
where it might still be possible to commune
with the dark—open stretch of beach far away
from tourist boardwalks, mountaintops where
the sky at night still looks like an inverted cup
pouring indigo into the throats of valleys.
In some cultures, the newly dead are given
sky burials. Birds of the air break down
the flesh of the body before the bones
are ground to dust. In the hill country 
of my birth, on shelves of limestone 
the dead are wrapped in gauze and seated 
in a row so in their passage between worlds,  
they have a view of both earth and sky.


river in November light between bare woods and mountain
At night, its base was ringed
with simple light. Only a slender 

column of water, frothing up 
from the center of the man-

made lake. Yet it seemed 
larger in my recollection, 

even more than others
I've seen in well-known parks—

elaborate sprays tumbling outward 
in the shape of lotus flowers,

rhythmic jets chasing each other 
in scallops. Perhaps by nature, 

our memories are flawed all the way 
through. Perhaps they're true only 

in so far as we need them to be:
promise of eternal return, water

that keeps giving though it draws
over and over from the same source.

The Caregivers

river in November light between bare woods and mountain
                         ...We are learning
how to care for the dead, each
in our own way.
                                     ~ Brian Turner

They are so young, so patient:
the three who give eight 
hours of each day to caring for 
our mother, our grandmother, 
because we can't be there 
ourselves. They take turns
dampening her skin, changing 
her diapers, urging sips of water
and blended Cerelac and banana;
laying a cool cloth on her forehead
in answer to the sometimes fevers.
This is the stage called the end
of life: we read that the body
starts to need less and less 
of what it relied on for decades,
flesh trimming away excess
until we can almost discern 
the keel on which the hull 
was laid, the delicate bones
of the wrist laddering up 
to the fingers. In phone videos,
she shakes her head or calls
the names of her ghosts;
sometimes she has no clue.
We say no more to the constant
drawing of blood, to the checking
of sugars. The body is folding into
itself like its own prayer, heedless
of time however long the transit.

Ritual for Leaving

river in November light between bare woods and mountain
We have our rituals, our ceremonies:
what color of rice to make into sweet

cakes for arrivals and departures, 
weddings or funerals. Why we place 

money bills in a pocket, or break the rosary 
cord before wrapping it around the hands 

of the dead.  We say, go now; go sweet 
into the fields without borders, closing the old 

wounds as you go. Go without rancor, softening 
at last under the moon's copper sheen. Your face 

will remain as a lamp to all who are left in your wake; 
the flood of ache release from the dams in your feet.