The Master of Loss

My old uncle Truman, a career military man
used to being in charge, was the first of us inside
my mother’s house, followed by Bonnie,
the high-school sweetheart he’d returned to
in the Ozarks after the sudden death of his wife,
next, his Ozark sister Dot and brother Wallace.

then me. We didn’t visit the greenhouse with its torn
plastic ceiling and desiccated plants on the table
and hoses on the floor tangled in pots and coffee cans.
Yet the house was all my aunt needed to have nightmares
for two weeks afterward, shocked that whenever her older
sister called her long distance from New Hampshire

late at night, telling her stories about the workers
at her nursery and big sales of the forsythia my dead
stepfather once developed, she sat at a desk surrounded
by piles of old bills and newspapers, or worse,
in the bathroom on the toilet seat’s matted, black fur
talking on the portable phone among magazines scattered

all over the floor. “How can she live like this?” Dot asked,
because everyone understood you had to keep things
in their proper places to know where they were.
But here, my stepfather’s overalls and shirts,
which belonged in the closet, were hanging on the bar
of the shower stall, and his shoes were beneath them

in the unwashed tub, and the floor was such a mess
neither she, unsteady on her swollen legs, nor Truman,
on his cane, dared venture beyond the door frame.
Back in the living room, I found Wallace, who wore
a wide bandage across his bald head, searching
through the bookshelf for the family bible my mother

accused him of stealing after my grandmother’s
funeral, having forgotten that she took it herself.
“Ten to one, it burned up in the fire she had,” he said
with a sigh, probably because now he couldn’t
carry it back to the rehab hospital and show it to her
as he smiled the same smile that my grandmother

couldn’t resist in her youngest son, and that my mother
always hated, thinking of all he got away with
when he was a child, and he, remembering all
she used to blame him for. Yet there was plenty here
for him to gloat about. In the kitchen with Bonnie,
Truman tried the faucet over the sink, which chugged,

then blasted black water on the encrusted pans
in the sink. “My God, they’s a big mouse trap in between
the cans on the floor!” Dot exclaimed. Truman shut
the faucet off hard with a scowl, more upset
than she was, for after living his whole life by rules
and order, he must have felt he was now standing

in disorder itself. “She’s lost her grip for sure,” he said,
the faucet still fast in his hand, and we others agreed,
because for each of us, life had to do with holding on,
however you managed it, against surprises and losses,
Truman returning to the past with his high-school
sweetheart, Aunt Dot, disoriented unless she knew

where things belonged, Uncle Wallace, distracted
for now from his growing cancer by a family grudge,
and I myself, who in my grief for a failing mother
had brought these dear, diminished siblings
from their visit at the hospital to see the stacks
and piles and pathways as if the house were a problem

that somehow we could fix. Bent to our purposes,
we missed the message right there around us,
that even as we held on by turning away from loss,
my old, exasperating mother, grown tired
of turning away, had reached out to embrace it, holding
onto everything she had so tightly it could never leave.

Follow McNair’s thinking about this poem through his revisions of it. (Line changes are highlighted in yellow; revised line breaks are indicated by yellow verticals.)

Hear Wes McNair read this poem.