Saturday, September 10, 2016

September 10: The Principal's Office, Billy Collins, "The Iron Bridge"

It's difficult to watch your parents age.  Even as an adult, I have a sense of security knowing that my parents are still around, in case I fall and skin my knee at the playground.  Or run into some bullies at work.  My mother was always the one who would march into the principal's office and set things right.

Like my sister with Down's syndrome, my mother has problems with her memory.  Most of the time, she just asks the same questions over and over and over.  She straightens and puts things away, but then she doesn't remember what she put away or where.  Last night, I was sitting in her living room, and my fifteen-year-old daughter was across the room, talking to my wife.  My mother leaned over to me and said, "Now, who is that girl over there?"

"That's my daughter, mom," I said.  "Your granddaughter." 

She laughed and nodded.  "Of course she is," she said.  "She's good looking just like her father."

These moments are happening more and more often.  When my sister from Washington state was visiting with her kids last year, our mother acted like Donald Trump at a Mexican border crossing.  She was ready to throw up a wall and deport everybody.  My sister from Washington was "that nice lady" at times and "why don't you leave me alone?" at others.

I've heard Alzheimer's described as "the long goodbye."  I don't think my mother has reached that stage yet.  She still remembers who I am.  But she sees me almost every day.  She also sees my daughter almost every day, as well, and my daughter is "that pretty girl" to her.

My mother is still my mother.  She's still strong and stubborn, rolling her eyes when my dad does something that irritates her.  And she still tries to take care of everybody around her.  One of the first things she always asks me when I come through the front door is "Are you hungry?" or "So how was work?"  She hasn't forgotten those mothering instincts.  And I think she's still prepared to march up to school for me any time I need her.

But Saint Marty hasn't been called to the principal's office in a long time.

The Iron Bridge

by:  Billy Collins

I am standing on a disused iron bridge
that was erected in 1902,
according to the iron plaque bolted into a beam,
the year my mother turned one.
Imagine--a mother in her infancy,
and she was a Canadian infant at that,
one of the great infants of the province of Ontario.

But here I am leaning on the rusted railing
looking at the water below,
which is flat and reflective this morning,
sky-blue and streaked with high clouds,
and the more I look at the water,
which is like a talking picture,
the more I think of 1902
when workmen in shirts and caps
riveted this iron bridge together
across a thin channel joining two lakes
where wildflowers blow along the shore now
and pairs of swans float in the leafy coves.

1902--my mother was so tiny
she could have fit into one of those oval
baskets for holding apples,
which her mother could have lined with a soft cloth
and placed on the kitchen table
so she could keep an eye on infant Katherine
while she scrubbed potatoes or shelled a bag of peas,

the way I am keeping an eye on that cormorant
who just broke the glassy surface
and is moving away from me and the iron bridge,
swiveling his curious head,
slipping out to where the sun rakes the water
and filters through the trees that crowd the shore.

And now he dives,
disappears below the surface,
and while I wait for him to pop up,
I picture him flying underwater with his strange wings,

as I picture you, my tiny mother,
who disappeared last year,
flying somewhere with your strange wings,
your wide eyes, and your heavy wet dress,
kicking deeper down into a lake
with no end or name, some boundless province of water.

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