On Nights When I Am My Mother

After poems by Meg Day

I have still not drifted to the center
of our California King as I lie awake, wondering
if that bellowing belly, those deep brown
eyes, that smile that could con the devil,
my husband, who died nine years ago,
after his seven years slow withering,
whether he loved me or just the presence
of me, the role of me going to Marshalls
to clothe the kids for school, cutting the lawn,
or having it cut, meeting with teachers,
filling the fridge, especially with ice cream
for when he’d be home on Sundays
and I’d take the boys to Matthew’s Church
as he’d lie in bed watching Bonanza reruns.
I wonder did I love him. And when I joke
to my sons that my first sleepover away
from home was my honeymoon I laugh
but suck back a breath and wonder
if that is why I married him. On nights I
am my mother I can still see him cigarette
thin in the face of my football coach father
in the soft lit and warm kitchen I grew up in
asking my father for my hand. My father
has just said he’s not impressed and the man
I will marry says he’s not there to impress
him. On nights I am my mother I hope
the boys will bring the kids by, that my oldest
will not be so short with me in the same way
the man I married was. On nights I am
my mother I am sorry that I am a fool
to my son who does not know what
it feels like to daily debride a wound that
will not heal in a sucking, sunken stomach.
On nights I am my mother I wonder
if I should have made them help me change
their father’s dressings, clean the blood, puss,
shit, and piss from the sheets. No, I did not
want to take that much of their father away
from them. No, I am not a fool. They are
becoming better fathers than he was, perhaps,
but on nights when I am my mother I don’t
like the way they bark, sometimes, at their wives.
On nights when I am my mother the broken
flesh that is still my husband asks me
for more pain medication and I say yes and
he asks for more and I give him more,
so a little extra oxy drips through his j-tube.
On those nights, I remember the way we looked
at each other that day we went to the pain
management doctor who told him I don’t even know
how you are alive and for the first time he wept
for the long days of hurt still to come. So when
the man I married looks at me, says a little more,
I love him, and so I do. And when, again, paramedics
show up to revive him, when our boys arrive,
terrified to hold his withered hands, when they leave
because they have the luxury to leave, when we
are alone again in his sleepless moaning nights
and he says more without saying more, I know
that he is my husband, that he loves me, knows me
enough to know that I will, that I am, always more. 

Matt W. Miller is the recipient of poetry fellowships from Stanford University and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He is author of Club Icarus, winner of the 2012 Vassar Miller Poetry Prize, and Cameo Diner: Poems. His third collection, The Wounded for the Water, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry (2018).