The Afterlife

After my mother’s dying, after
the nurses turned her stiff body
toward me in her bed so I heard
up close the lengthening pauses

of her breathing, after even the hand
I held went slack, and her eyes opened wide
and sightless forever, I wandered
through the high, dead grasses,

past the broken spine of the house
she would not leave, and past
the overgrown shrubs and the raised
beds of weeds, to the nursery barn

she hadn’t entered for months,
except in her mind. In that twilight,
flakes of the first snow came out
of the wind like fireflies, and ancient

stained rags of canvas swayed
in the doorway. Where I was was
not there, yet there, not the living place
she remembered over and over,

but also dying, everything inside
releasing itself from the dreamlife
of her longing: up-ended greenhouse
windows, sprung garden rakes, chicken wire,

a mulching machine that no longer mulched
listing on two flat tires. Above my head
in a heaven of old, forgotten chains
nailed to the wall, a rigid choir

of potted plants hung on a wire,
and a hole in the roof which couldn’t
care less kept letting down snow
on the love seat my mother

and stepfather never sat in,
and his defunct rototiller, and the tools
on the shelf not stolen by the hired men,
who, year after year, reminded her of him.

Nobody was there to find it all
together reclaiming itself in the late light
as the given up and given out
but me, also returning from the sorrow

of her dreamlife, stunned by the clarity
of what it wasn’t, and what it was.

Explore an earlier version of this poem through a question about craft.

Hear Wes McNair read this poem.