This from the heart-breaking poem called “Washing the Elephant.”
And here’s the heart-breaking part:
What if Father Quinn had said, “Of course you’ll recognize your parents in heaven,” instead of “being one with God will make your mother and father pointless.“
Lily sent this to me after a weekend in Florida, visiting not one but two in-laws in not one but two Memory Care facilities in not one but two cities, not one but two hours away from each other.
In many ways, mother-in-law Mary is already gone. She who rests her forehead on the tabletop as we converse with her, falling asleep, startling awake, drifting off again to who knows where. Come to think of it, we didn’t even think about taking a photo of us together.
On the other side of the state, father-in-law Al is all too aware of his decline. He is failing, before our very eyes, but so slowly, that it comes as a hard surprise when whole functions disappear: walking, conversation, self-feeding. He wants to tell us a “cute story,” but its meaning evaporates after a set-up that involves a company, its sales force, a trip to another city.
Perhaps to compensate, we took many, many photos of him. As if to keep him with us? His last few words with me were so lovely: “You classed up this whole operation,” he said of me about my role in the di Costanzo family.
So here’s to “the ones that have etched themselves in the laugh lines and frown lines on the face” And here’s to the rest of the poem:
Washing the Elephant
By Barbara Ras
Isn’t it always the heart that wants to wash
the elephant, begging the body to do it
with soap and water, a ladder, hands,
in tree-shade big enough for the vast savannahs
of your sadness, the strangler fig of your guilt,
the cratered full moon’s light fueling
the windy spooling memory of elephant?
What if Father Quinn had said, “Of course you’ll recognize
your parents in heaven,” instead of
“Being one with God will make your mother and father
pointless.” That was back when I was young enough
to love them absolutely though still fear for their place
in heaven, imagining their souls like sponges full
of something resembling street water after rain.
Still my mother sent me every Saturday to confess,
to wring the sins out of my small baffled soul, and I made up lies
about lying, disobeying, chewing gum in church, to offer them
as carefully as I handed over the knotted handkercheif of coins
to the grocer when my mother sent me for a loaf of Wonder,
Land O’Lakes, and two Camels.
If guilt is the damage of childhood, then eros is the fall of adolescence.
Of the fall begins there, and never ends, desire after desire parading
through a lifetime like the Ringling Brothers elephants
made to walk through the Queens-Midtown Tuunnel
and down 34th Street to the Garden.
So much of our desire like their bulky, shadowy walking
after midnight, exiled from the wild and destined
for a circus with its tawdry gaudiness, its unspoken
It takes more than half a century to figure out who they were,
the few real loves-of-your-life and how much of the rest—
the mad breaking-heart stickiness—falls away, slowly,
unnoticed, the way you lose your taste for things
like Popsicles unthinkingly.
And though dailiness may have no place
for the ones that have etched themselves in the laugh lines
and frown lines on the face that’s harder and harder
to claim as your own, often one love-of-your-life
will appear in a dream, arriving
with the weight and certitude of an elephant,
and it’s always the heart that wants to go out and wash
the huge mysteriousness of what they meant, those memories
that have only memories to feed them, and only you to keep them clean.