for Lois 1942–2020
At the grocery store Lois searches
in her wallet, her pockets, her planner,
her purse, her phone…
The girl at the register
eats Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Her fingertips are stained bright red.
What Lois searches for
bleeds through the paper and the paper
has faded away.
From 8,000 feet up
in the basket of a hot air balloon
this town could be OK.
Beside the propane’s roar
the dementia ward could be
just another rectangle fume
of white elastomeric roof
dotted with swamp coolers.
From the middle of the troposphere
this town may be even better.
If I concentrate, my left foot can feel
like a water moccasin on my right.
The phone rings and the nurse says,
Lois punched a man in the face.
They’d been laughing.
It’s cold in hot air balloons
so much closer to the sun.
Suzanne writes a novel inside her head about her mom, Lois. It’s called Sister
Amadeo. There’s being born in Pittsburgh, 1942. There’s leaving the convent with
an acoustic guitar. There’s her and Tom’s babies scrabbling on the floor. There’s a
divorce. There’s a bungalow on the South Side of Chicago with sandwich fixings
in the fridge: Lebanon bologna, Limburger cheese, horseradish, stone ground
mustard, butter lettuce, bread and butter pickles, pumpernickel rye. There’s a jar
of fire roasted red peppers glowing on the counter. The dining room is soaked
with soft light and poetry. Marge Piercy open on the table. With a pen from
Chesterfield Federal, Lois underlines a line. She makes notes in the margin for a
dissertation she couldn’t finish. I tell Suzanne to start the brain damage part like
this: That year the yellowing of the trees came on like an aneurysm. Suggesting line edits
for a novel in your wife’s head is dangerous. Is it empathy or something worse?
There’s the live-in lesbian lover. There’s the pop-up trailer in Saugatuck and the
clatter of Yahtzee dice on the laminate table. There’s the sway of Merit cigarette
smoke out the mesh window. There’s the year she moved to New Mexico, and the
year we gave everything but her clothes to a family who lost their home in a fire.
There’s the Memory Care Unit, and there’s the lime-sherbet-Sierra-Mist punch of
the Christmas party. Suzanne says, easy for you, I can’t write those things until she’s
There’s walkers studded with gutted
tennis balls. There’s women half sleeping
in a row of recliners. One clutches a wolf.
One sucks her thumb and cradles a baby doll.
There’s John Denver on a SANYO stereo
with detachable speakers: Take me home,
country roads. There’s an efficiency kitchen
though lunch rolls in. There’s coffee, aerosol
freshener and pee. It’s nobody’s fault.
There’s Lois meeting her granddaughter
every few minutes for the first time.
There’s a nurse telling us, Lois needs
new shoes. There’s us looking for the size
in each one. There’s no use, she’s rubbed it
from the tongue.
Lois kisses you goodbye
on the forehead and on the neck.
This the only skin showing
between the shower cap
and disposable goggles
that keep fogging up
and the robe that ties
and folds around you.
Lois whispers, mother
and dad and a few others,
but you can’t hear
because the shower cap
over your ears
and your 45 years
over your ears
and you race to the bathroom
and scrub her kisses
from your forehead
and just above your collarbone
with antibacterial soap
until your skin rips from the cracks
and 45 years pour out
as you walk past the nurses
and in the hospital’s
parking garage you disrobe
and burn your clothes.
Suzanne says to her sister, mom died
A train punches
through a moving blanket
of fog. Richton Park, the last stop
south of Chicago
along the main branch
of the Metra Electric Line.
See all the people
shifting from one
to the other.
The optic nerve of a hummingbird
on a spool with common thread.
It smells like wire burning.
It hisses like a Ziploc bag
of vinegar and baking soda
taped to the showerhead.
It sticks to my fingers
like tapioca pudding.
The Memory Care Unit
puts her stuff in 2 boxes
with a lamp on top.
All her stuff
in 2 large U-Haul boxes
with a lamp on top.
How many boxes
would you be?
How many lamps on top?
They call Suzanne, say,
ready for pick up.
Suzanne burns Lois’ papers.
Phone numbers. Dates. Addresses.
Fax cover sheets to the neurologist.
Polystyrene windows. Blue flames.
Suzanne says goodbye to Lois’ papers.
I tell her, create more area
crumple but not too tight.
Suzanne rips and crumples.
Fire pages flex and glow
like bellies of ruby necked turkeys
leaping sometimes the pit completely.
Ember toes dissolve in cut weeds.
Is there overdraft protection in heaven?
Staples of unused checkbooks
pop at the moon.
Parts of this poem were originally published in The American Journal of Poetry and in Staley’s 2nd full length collection The Pieces You Have Left.