Stella Reed on her Mother’s Death–actually a meeting with a remarkable poet

My mother self-published her first poetry chapbook about twenty years ago, before it was a popular thing to do. She’d been raised on Dickenson and Frost and it was her foundational belief that poetry needed to rhyme. She was not a “remarkable poet” but she loved poetry and she paid attention, particularly to what she found beautiful. Writing for her was a hobby, never seen as a possible vocation. When she was in her sixties she joined a local poetry society. Occasionally she would share with me by mail the poems that she had written for the society’s get-togethers and sometimes the poems that others brought to the table. She taught me that poetry creates community. That creativity connects you to something larger than yourself.
For the past few years she has been speech aphasic with a touch of dementia. She always knew my sisters or I when we arrived at the home to visit, but she couldn’t express what she was thinking and feeling. This frustrated all involved, but especially her. Most days she would be lucky to speak one fully formed, sensible sentence. That’s why I found it significant when I came across this untitled poem while looking through her papers. By the handwriting I’m guessing she wrote it about ten years ago.

Once you imagine a word is a cloud unseen
that somehow connects you to where you have been
a few wingbeats ago,
or to a noplace where you must go because it is a place you don’t yet know,

You scribble more clouds of music
misty with dew
a quiet river becoming a pool
of deepest blue

And though the clouds intend
elsewise you will swim
to the stars reflected there
when you reach days end.

Word clouds. My mother always had her head in the clouds, even while she loved the earth beneath her feet. When I read this I thought that this place, with its misty music, its rivers and pools, was very much where she had been living, internally, for the past few years.
I received a call last week that Mom was in the process of dying. I flew to upstate NY to join my sister and be with our mother if possible, hoping she would hang on until we arrived. When I got to my sister’s house we discovered that a solitary white swan had made a temporary home on the pond on her property. Three times I attempted to photograph it. But it was elusive. On the last try I was rewarded with a photo of it as it lifted away from me, massive wings stretched above the water, graceful neck thrust forward.
I spent six days at my sister’s house. Each morning when I woke I would use binoculars to scan the pond for the swan. Every morning it was there…until the day I was to return home. When, on the last day, I couldn’t catch sight of it I felt anxious. Its presence had become part of the routine that had made the vigil at my mother’s bedside bearable. Mom died that afternoon just hours before my scheduled flight. I held her hand and watched as the wingbeats, the waiting stars, the noplace she had to get to, all came together in her final breaths. Her death, like her life, was a poem. Simply remarkable.