|Oct/Nov 2002 spotlight|
Signing Away Your Death
Seeing both of her parents dead at 76
my granny at 75 began
to make plans. She was certain
her shadow would soon belong to the moon
instead of the sun, so
she asked the sons and daughters, all
the grandkids, a few friends
to lay claim to everything
she owned. We were instructed
to ignore my grandfather and
sign our names to whatever in the house
we wanted. Mirrors, photos, tables, chairs.
My aunt Ann signed the piano. Uncle Terry
almost everything else, but we learned
his signature could be erased.
I signed my name to four bottles of Crown Royal.
At 76, her death in sight, maybe
walking down Easterday Avenue in late fall, Granny
started actually giving away her signed things.
If my grandfather complained, she'd give him
a drink or tell him to cook dinner, although
she'd already given me his favorite pan.
At 77, she began wondering
what went wrong. Why did the air
continue to sting and soothe her northern nights.
In her 80s, the walls must have seemed bare,
especially in winter when the light almost
collapsed though the sky sometimes burned.
In her 80s, she signed away her husband,
a granddaughter, her left breast. Signed away
countless friends genuine and otherwise. Signed
away great distances and niceties and picnics by the big lake.
Her final weeks, at 90, were down to a frame of house, whiskey
and Canada Dry, and drives to the river where
she refused to sign away the freighters or me,
though she took great delight in finally
signing away the gulls and the feathery drifts
of their persistent screeks.
And now she's become nothing
more than the space
where the rest of the world lives.
I sign my name to that
every day. To tree, brook,
and track of snow. To the laughing
mouths of my own children. To my own
dying, somewhere north of the Brooks Range
as I write this, and moving
very deliberately south. And I think
often of how practiced my granny's hand
and signature became
in the many years after her death, as
she signed away, for keeps, and we signed on.
Warren Zevon and Townes Van Zandt Get Drunk in Heaven
This is where you can kick the dead dog
until it snarls itself awake,
licks its nuts, and then
heads to the creek
where the boys will be fishing
until the almost dark.
is where the whiskey's free
and the women are easy
company. The only hangover
is a canopy of tree limb
that shields you graciously
from God's wild and lonely eye.
Every day is your best lyric.
If I had a nickel
I'd find a game
If I won a dollar
I'd make it rain
And if it rained an ocean
I'd drink it dry
And lay me down dissatisfied.
Life'll kill ya,
Warren says. Warren says,
I'll sleep when I'm dead.
Except here he is, and Townes too, not
like coyotes stiff in the back of
a pick-up headed for a Lubbock taxidermist
but trading shots, never worrying about
the sober life or repercussions,
the cancers, the heart attacks.
And though the sun
will eventually position itself
exact and low in the sky,
it never sets. Instead
the sun will scuff along the horizon
like the toe of a cowboy boot
or the last piece of ice in
two fingers of bourbon
or the truth in a song
and the stories the song becomes.
So the bottle's never empty,
the glass is never full,
and the songwriters sip at their days,
Townes Van Zandt saying to Warren Zevon,
"Man, this crazy guitar of mine, up here,
she ain't ever out o' tune."
like the whiskey, offer themselves
graciously, asking only
for a couple of chords, a breath,
a hillside, a bit of faith.
This is only a walk through a field
although there's a creek, too, one wave
from the sea
and settling here
in its journey.
Since the field is probably
bears wait in the trees
which are over there
just past the spot where
last night the moon
stretched its legs.
When this field was in southeastern
Minnesota, I imagined bears
what I imagined
has become real.
That's powerful stuff.
But it is winter, this being
Alaska, and the bears
are sleeping. The creek
carries a white skin
and the shedding
is nowhere in sight.
Today the field carries me
the way I carry my son
on broad shoulders.
All of us are very tall
so we sway a little
in the easy wind.
We make our own path.
If we should start to feel
lost, we'll simply
to where we used to be
and the field will light
candles of flowers
which will flicker
ever so slightly
as we pass.