The family was down to two, plus Dan.
This morning, she became a co-signer
on the bank accounts. Learned what
to do with the car, the trailer. Found out
her mother believed her father returned
as a hawk, as many hawks. Massaged
her mother’s back, seeking out each
fading patch of muscle, listening for her
mother’s relief. I used to hate the sound
of her pleasure, she thought, surrounded
by pills, candles, ashtrays, TVs, Dan’s ex-
wife’s ceramic owls, and the punchbowl
she’d always known she’d inherit. Even so,
There will come a time you can’t believe it’s you.
More than 40,000 penguins rescued from
a single oil spill. The Asian Unicorn, first
discovered on a hunter’s wall. Her mother’s
moonlit stories. Donald Duck and the alleged
malapropism. Abduction and the mountain cow.
Her mother needed a surgery. She didn’t want
to tell her the risks. The solemn northern
sportive lemur, homesick. The world’s two
remaining Northern White Rhinos, both
female. I may lose my voice, her mother texted,
the words fording the multiverse between
her mother’s hand and her own. Pangolins
poached for their armor. Christopher Cross
in the tape deck from Arizona to New York.
The first panel shows a small girl with a man
cutting down a tree. On the drive home they stop
in a parking lot, tree in the bed of the truck. Cut
to his sweatpants passing through the automatic
door, the girl following inside to return the cans.
Cut to home, tree decorated, closeups of his beard
and pine needles, then of his brown eyes staring
out the frame, then one hand holding a smoke,
the other shaking with its small glass. The girl
in bed. She wakes, goes into the bathroom. Cut
to the halo of elastic around his ankles as he sleeps
beside the toilet. Cut to his vaporous arms around
her as they dance at her wedding, his fine suit, his
only words, I don’t need to worry about you anymore.
The Team Player
"Mustn't" was a mantra, the continuation
of her long adolescence, endless semesters
afraid of her armpits, nipples, white pants,
and the way her thighs puckered across a chair.
Her friend had hair on her chin and the boys
said she "cultivated it." Why can’t I be transparent?
she thought, though when they ignored her
she wished to be stared at like an accident.
She mustn't be artlessly hostile, mustn't tell
on her parents for the booze and how she
took care of them. She opened her mouth
and fog came out, not on cat feet but elephant.
She nodded when a girl on her track team said
going to school or home could be suicide.
She gets up for warm oatmeal or tea,
but her legs are eyes, her belly a troubled
urn of endlessly winking eyelids. She tilts
toward the sink, a rack of cups, the seizing
spider plant and disco beaming sponge.
The window hovers, its glass grazes on
lemony purslane that used to be grass.
The sun putters. She leans like a waiting
thing, an umbrella, a racquet, and sees
the smallest physics of light: each particle
in private agitation, its own discrete eternity.
A twitching blue flame, a trembling blue
kettle, each warm atom within powerless
to slow down or to disappear.
My mother has a tumor in her throat that prevents her from eating or breathing in the conventional ways. She is dying. My father died a few years ago of a heart attack. I’m 41 but sometimes still very much what my 6-year-old calls a “lonely child.”
Both my parents drank a lot every night, for as far back as I remember. Many people drink, but I would sometimes find my father passed out in the bathroom, or need to rescue my mother from the blades of a spinning ceiling fan that had entranced her. My dad drank on his hour-long commute. My mom, when she traveled for work, brought a suitcase full of booze. They both denied any kind of problem, though when I was a teenager and stole a beer from the fridge, my mother chased me into a cornfield to prevent me from drinking it. I like to think she wanted something better for me.
My mother continued to drink during chemotherapy and radiation. At one point, I spent a day in the Emergency Room with her, and then two more days in the Intensive Care Unit. When she finally got to go home, the first thing she wanted was a drink. But there was no liquor in the house. She said, with as much force as someone who can barely speak can muster, that she would drive and get it herself — definitely not an empty threat or a safe prospect. I went with her partner to pick up a six-pack of hard lemonade.
A little later when I tried to talk with her, she said her partner should have known she would want a drink. That’s why she was so mad. I could tell she was not bullshitting me, only herself.
That was during Thanksgiving week, the last time I visited. I live more than 2,000 miles away. I miss her constantly, and worry constantly, and can never get enough information about her condition or her care. Now that she’s had a tracheostomy, which means doctors cut a hole in her neck through which she breathes, I don’t know whether she still drinks. She eats through feeding tubes inserted into her stomach, and I know she has put coffee in there. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t matter. I’m no longer dependent on her. Also, she’s dying. Why begrudge her anything? Mostly, I’m just grateful to still have her in my life, and that she has morphine to help with the intolerable pain.
I feel guilty for writing about her, like a tattletale. I feel guilty about wanting more. I feel like I’m wrong to insist that my parents’ drinking hurt me. I know they didn’t want to hurt me, only themselves. When I confronted them in college, finally realizing they might be alcoholics, my father told me I couldn’t tell them how to live their lives. It wasn’t my place. He was right: It was their place to tell me how to live my life, which, chaotically and imperfectly, they did.
I’m lucky. Other than one brief separation, my parents stayed together. They regularly told me they loved me. Most of the time, we had enough money. My mom came to my track meets. I did well at school. I attended eight colleges. I married three times. I stopped doing acid after hearing my second husband sobbing on the other side of a door — and not recognizing the sound because I was so high.
However strong and rational I try to be, these poems, and the other 50 or so I’ve written in this sequence, are me sobbing on the other side of a door. And I’m happy, because finally I recognize my own voice, and that’s a start.
Kelly Dolejsi’s work has been published in Cincinnati Review, North American Review, Denver Quarterly, Fifth Wednesday, Under a Warm Green Linden, Landfill, and Metafore, among other journals. Her poem “Loyalty” was nominated for the Best of the Net in 2017. Her chapbook, That Second Starling, was published by Desert Willow Press in 2018. A graduate of Emerson College in Boston, she now lives in Los Alamos, New Mexico.