Your birthday gift is late this year. It’s not that I forgot the day.
I’m plodding in a weary truck, weighted down, low on gas.
You say, “I hate this old age thing,” as if it isn’t really us.
I’m the left shoe; you’re the right.
Both feet hurt. Facts are flying straight at us—buzzards
after what is weak, bailiwicks of long obits.
Too much knowledge, much too quick.
If we didn’t love so much, we’d skid like roaches from the light.
Under stoves, between the cracks. The asphalt on our street is old—
mostly gravel, mostly dirt. Does it really matter now.
No one pulling in the drive, just for lunch,
or munching on pistachios to wile away an afternoon—
double-duty pondering just how pale our faces are.
Owl eyes we’ve grown to know are deeper brown,
staring in the dark so long they’re swollen closed.
I wince to read and so do you. Typos are forgiven crumbs.
I’m an ancient Christmas wreath still hanging tilted
on a wall above our dusty patio. May is almost over now.
Needles fall in mounting piles. You sweep them up.
Our husbands bend to hold the dust pan in its place,
penumbras as eclipse draws near.
Clouds are thick potato chips that line the sky.
My bones will call and tell you if it’s raining yet.
I hear a window slamming shut all on its own.
Who took spikes around a clock,
sped them up like hamster wheels
we thought were cute when we were young.
We’ve traded matching baseball cards of tragic times,
like other women try each other’s lipstick tubes—
aching backs, swollen joints, sciatica,
cancer scares, all the scars that come with that,
surgeries that make a longer grocery list,
longer than we ever planned.
I’m your scaffold; you are mine.
Floors grow weaker as we talk.
I once saw hemlock as a tree,
no different than a pine or oak.
I’m squeezing down this old balloon—
listening as hydrogen releases into cleaner air.
by Janet I. Buck
The Leaning Topiary Tree
How do bodies go from sleep
to lightning rods of garnered pain.
Stone pillars fall across my lap,
sponges of wet cotton balls
between each sanded vertebrae.
My head begins to pound its drum;
no songs with any higher notes
appear upon the empty page.
A heating pad is all I have
for morning suns across my back.
Just years ago, I would have had
a long, hot shower, stood straight enough—
like tended topiary trees
in luscious gardens of Versailles.
Flower baskets tied to hooks
to keep the wind from dropping them.
My daily job—deadhead each petunia flute,
shrunk to limping arrows now, just overnight.
That’s how quickly death can move.
I cut back every single leaf with edges turning
brown and crisp, the texture of potato chips,
focused on each shifting shade of verdancy
still left above the thirsty soil.
I think about an easy out: exit earth before the rot.
Our garden’s only steps away, but blinds are closed.
Spears of light disturb me now.
My husband cracks them just a touch—
opening pistachios since fingers
can’t retrieve the meat of nuts inside a world
that’s leaving me behind too soon.
Now I just imagine green, memorize
curled pages of old diaries—
when everything the color of the deepest lime
seemed to hold it in its cheek.
Defeated, sad, and struggling, I close my eyes,
dripping with inconsequence.
by Janet I. Buck
Softer Chairs Than Wooden Pews
Imagine drying spatulas
beside an empty mixing bowl.
I used to turn a perfect crêpe,
fresh from skillets lined with butter.
Dad would eat a dozen in a single hour.
These were wafers in a church
with softer chairs than wooden pews,
mahogany of trees he didn’t really trust,
taught me how to do the same.
I was such a greedy mouth,
thirsty for the two of us,
without a sermon interrupting
laughter bursting in the air,
as bubbles settled into moons
the color of an autumn leaf.
A bowl of powdered sugar there,
quartered lemons in a pile,
I removed each seed I found
to make the day a flawless dawn.
I never rinsed a single dish
until he left, one moment
of a rushing faucet
interrupted hearing aids.
Even then, I left the ring
he left upon a countertop,
from just his single coffee cup,
ran my fingers over it,
worshipped it to call him back.
Now, he lives inside an urn
upon our hearth.
I haven’t washed my apron yet.
by Janet I. Buck
The Hospice Nurse
Knock, knock, knock.
“Come on in,” our step-mom says,
as if she’s set to have a simple manicure.
“It’s just another hospice nurse.”
Floor me with a baseball bat
between my ribs. “This isn’t small.
This isn’t you. This is Dad.”
I really want to say these words,
yet stuff them like a turkey breast—
sewing skin with heavy thread,
choke on bitter celery chunks.
My sister puts her palm on mine.
All I see are goldfish floating in a bowl.
Death is non-negotiable—
my brain knows that; my heart does not.
“You can’t have my father now.”
I’m always nice, but not this time.
I’m wearing ice cubes in my eyes,
throw the pamphlet on a chair, may as well
be pitching rocks right at her face.
She can see the scorn in mine, doesn’t even
twitch a lid. I detest the rock she is.
I listen to this hospice nurse, sit close to Dad,
so close my flesh could melt right into what is thin
and left of his—warm remains of candlewax.
I guard him like a German Shepard
watches over baby cribs, as some invader
opens doors that should be closed.
Both feet in a wishing well,
water up around my waist.
He’s skinny as a hanger’s wire,
one petal left on daisy wheels—
November’s cold comes rushing in,
crawling up my sweater sleeves.
I will stay up all night long,
race between his bed, the walls—
reach and reach with withered arms,
just to grab that secondhand,
just to turn that clock around.
by Janet I. Buck
The Buddha Dream
He’s sitting on the plushest grass,
a small square patch,
no bigger than his single frame,
surrounded by tall brittle reeds.
Gardens in a desert portrait on my wall.
What comes to him, he understands
and I do not. A green cicada lands upon
his shoulder blade. They lay their eggs,
take several decades just to hatch.
What’s wrong with me?
My patience gone the second
I drop paperclips, anything I cannot reach.
Cicadas have such owl eyes,
marble-size, seemingly too heavy
for their stringy limbs to carry them.
Maybe wisdom holds their heads.
Another lands upon the Buddha’s stalwart arm,
rests quietly—I’m guessing that their eyes
have met like friends who never ever leave,
where distance holds no consequence.
An insect full of arias, perfected in consistency
up to moments of demise.
I think of getting hospice care, a morphine drip
to kill the pain, to quiet my inquietude.
We seldom leave this earth of ours
on wings of scaling lullabies.
The two of them are so at peace
with summer ferns and autumn leaves.
Seasons bringing life or death—
it’s all so damned acceptable, proportionate—
confuses me like some advanced geometry
I wouldn’t touch, certain I would fail the class,
even if I ate the textbook, page by page.
A dozen crickets crawl his robes.
Buddha knows the living chew and swallow
all the dying ones in front of them;
he does not wince, just takes a breath
I cannot feel, soaks in sunlight with the clouds,
equal in their pertinence—
I complain of dreary days and graying hair—
doing nothing in the rain.
I long for Calla Lilies now.
Their stalks are there, no color yet—
simple spirals coming soon, not soon enough.
Every step I try to take, a groping motion
with no grace. There he sits, that yoga pose,
does not worry where he goes,
since everything comes straight to him
like vees of geese en route
to somewhere safe and calm.
I wonder if he’s stiff and sore
upon his throne of verdant blades.
Now a flitting hummingbird—
I expect an argument:
it’s hunting for the nectar’s blood.
The only flower on Buddha’s lap,
a soggy stem, a bygone bud,
from roses someone put across
his neatly folded bulky knees.
A stunning flower, up and gone.
Time and thirst drew their claws
and that was that. Finished, done. Indelible.
The hummingbird hovered kindly over loss,
as if a spirit changed its tune.
Transcendence is a gift so rare—
it could be moons inside a rock
I walk right by, do not notice in the dirt.
A simple fly lands on my cheek.
I swat it off; later I will chase it down,
flatten it, wallow in the power I own,
pretend I’m not a murderess
or just a callous passenger.
I yearn to morph, shed my skin,
but it won’t leave. There are no hands
upon the shining Northern Star
to shape my path, to show me roads
I might have taken years ago.
I don’t match the simple urge
to love each element of life that grazes me.
The puppet with the loudest voice
is still a puppet in the end.
by Janet I. Buck