washing what’s dead

for mothers

Mothers are beginnings,
certain as life is movement,
that first felt spin
in the pit of the pelvis
more directed than bowel gas,
a twist with purpose to it;
an introduction more real than EPT,
sore breasts, or missed periods.

We have no experience
with letting go, besides the small
letting goes of birth and school and college and marriage,
not that final one, my mother
tracing my sister’s stone face
with fingertips and kisses,
saying I don’t want to leave her alone
that last night before her funeral.
She would have followed her
into the dirt, ready to do it
since part of her was already buried.

No mother should do this, another mother said,
sponging warm water across cooling skin,
kissing eyelids that won’t open again,
his cold, small lips under hers already hardening.
This was her goodbye, not the ritual
with prayers and family.

We should all wash what’s dead,
clear away the dust we are made out of
from what’s left of who we love;
a shroud the last swaddling gift
from loved hands that always held
before matter meets dirt
or becomes ash in its unmaking.

There are no words for this.  Never say
your child is in a better place now
to a mother.  She won’t believe it;
because the better place, the safe place
was always the beginning, under her heart.

About Susan L Daniels

I am a firm believer that politics are personal, that faith is expressed through action, and that life is something that must be loved and lived authentically--or why bother with any of it?
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61 Responses to washing what’s dead

  1. jmgoyder says:

    Oh I am crying.

  2. Bart Wolffe says:

    Susan, this act you have described of the mother washing the dead child is transcendental across faiths. A wonderful poem.

    • Bart, thank you. I think an act like this speaks to a core of truth in each of us, close to where faith springs from. Thanks so much for commenting. Means a lot that this spoke to you.

  3. yeoldefoole says:

    it is a testimony to the work you’ve so obviously invested in your craft that this communicates so powerfully – utterly uncompromised by any sentimentality – and even as I write these seemingly cold words of analysis my heart is broken!

  4. We lost my sister when she was forty-two and I was twenty four. I felt this piece vividly Susan. Not like Ronan’s story, but as a glimpse of my own and my mother’s. Another story I have yet to tell.
    Good poems speak in many voices. Thank you

    • Johnny, thank you. We have talked briefly before about our shared loss of sisters–I saw Ronan’s story through my mother’s eyes, losing my sister at 29. Loss is the same for all of us–loss of a child, my God, I can’t even think of it. Breaks my heart.

      • Ah yes, I thought this rang that kind of bell. That phrase about a mother never having to do this…it always seems to come up. And perhaps we should all have to wash the dead. At one time it was a given and I wonder what we have lost of our selves in this lack of connection to this aspect of life. Much to ponder so thank you again.

        • Good point. So much of what we were deeply and personally connected to is given up in our rituals now, as well as our lives. We don’t wash our dead. We don’t grow our food. We don’t birth our babies in the bed we sleep in. Damn, there’s another poem in this that I have no time to write today.

  5. Beautifully power poem Susan.

  6. davidtrudel says:

    Susan, you distilled tears into balm with this powerful and brilliant piece.

  7. Beautifully put, Susan, brilliant.

  8. Sus…your words have brought me to tears as they did for you when you wrote it.
    Being a mother, the grief and pain would be too much for me to physically and mentally bare if I lost a child.
    This –
    not that final one, my mother
    tracing my sister’s stone face
    with fingertips and kisses,
    saying I don’t want to leave her alone
    that last night before her funeral.

    OMG my entire being is shivering on the inside re-reading. In fact I cannot say anymore only that you are brilliant and this, though so gut wrenchingly painful, is, in my eyes your best work. xxx

  9. Doris says:

    Sad but beautiful poem, read the story beautiful tribute to a mother, she so right, and the way you ended this is perfect, a love of a mother is always there…in her heart. Thank you for this Susan

  10. Reblogged this on Ramblings From A Mum and commented:
    Susan L Daniels. An amazing talented writer. If you haven’t seen her work please I ask that you do http://susandanielspoetry.com
    This piece is gut wrenching, painful and I know those who may read it
    will be effected. I had to share for her brilliance.

  11. Alice Keys says:

    Heartbreakingly beautiful. I kneel at your feet in wonder at your words. Alice

  12. unfetteredbs says:

    Susan — your words and emotion, wow. You really have a gift. I sincerely mean this.
    Where is Ronan.. gasp. Heart-wrenching.

  13. sakuraandme says:

    Oh no! I’m really sorry. How beautiful and sad at the same time. I hug you…hugs Paula xx

  14. Beautiful poem, and yes, we are very disconnected in so many ways from what we are.

  15. kingmidget says:

    Seems awkward to say it, but it is a beautiful poem.

  16. Oh, it’s perfect. I don’t think I have more words…

    • Thank you. Thank you for leading me to that blog, that post, that pure grief, and for your words. There are no other words I have–it just about killed me to write this, but I had to. I think you know that, and why, from what her experience brought out of you.

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  18. Oh Susan. What can I say? Heartbreaking as only you know how to churn it. 🙂

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