Poetry Drawer: Still Alive: Missing You: The Language We Speak: I Will Remember Tomatoes: Tongue and Throat by Lori Levy

Still Alive

She’s dead, but her Facebook page
is still alive, still there,
no comments, pictures, likes deleted.
Her friends leave her messages today,
wish her a Happy Heavenly Birthday.

I stick to the living
with my birthday blessings,
but pause at the names of the dead
on my list of friends, eight of them gone.
A few classmates from 50 years ago.
An old boyfriend. A poet friend. My father.

I click on their profiles, feel a stab,
as if they want something from me.
I could post an emoji: a glass of wine
to celebrate a loved one. A row of red hearts.

A pang, a longing—but also a lifting,
as if I’m being welcomed, taken by the arm,
pulled a little closer. There they are, smiling,
hugging spouses, grandchildren, pets.
My father in his red suspenders,
my mother at his side. Happy, healthy.
No walker in this picture,
no sign of Parkinson’s.

I am not ready—yet—to wish him,
my atheist father, a Happy Heavenly Birthday.
Still, I’d rather visit him on Facebook
than in the cemetery.

Missing You

You missed the war, Da.
You died a month before Russia invaded Ukraine—
not that the world was at peace
when you left it.

I miss the depth of you, Da.
It helped, in our moments of joy
or sadness, to feel the warmth of you
sharing our ups and downs.
It helped, in this falling-apart world,
to know you were there, thinking about things—
able, somehow, with just the right comment,
to clear a path for us through the mud, the mess.

We are making a book of your Potpourri essays:
your thoughts on everything from truth and
gratitude to old clothes, words, politics, aging.
I am the proofreader, mostly adding or removing
commas, dashes, spaces—the little things
you were sometimes careless about.

Who knew your last days would be spent
wilting on a bed in the hospital where you worked?
Small, thin, shrunken, you lay curled
like a comma beneath the blanket.
I want to believe you ended your story
with a comma, Da, not a period.
A comma is a promise, more is coming.
Your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren
will continue the story,

The Language We Speak

I don’t speak her language, but she speaks mine.
We bond within seconds, joking that we’re the only two
grandmas in Playa Venao, haven for surfers and lovers
of nature and music on the beach.

She is Fatima, who grew up in Paraguay,
one of ten siblings in her Catholic family.
I am American, Jewish, my second home in Israel.
She laughs, says we have nothing in common.

Maybe not, but we talk and talk,
share the stories, the lessons of our lives
until it’s clearer and clearer:
we do speak the same language,
but it’s not about the English she learned
from her years in England. We speak the language
of coffee and cake. My son calls it a playdate when I
meet her for cappuccino at her daughter-in-law’s Cafe.
We agree that coffee without cake is boring, so we
share a slice: chocolate, pumpkin, or passion fruit.
We speak the language of walks on the beach,
flip flops in our hands at the edge of the sea.
The language of mothers and grandmothers,
the ones who come running to help,
who stay for months if we’re needed and wanted.
The language of women growing older.
We have seen what life has to offer:
the joys and heartaches. We take what comes,
as long as there’s coffee and cake
and a friend at our side when discussing
men or kids or the white age spots on our legs
as we laugh and console and laugh some more.

I Will Remember Tomatoes

Is this how it begins?
A name gone AWOL. Fog. A blank stare.
Twice this week I’ve had to ask my daughter
what the weird-looking vegetable in our fridge is called.
Pale green, round and tough, leafy stems sticking out.
Kohlrabi. Kohl-rabi. Will it help next time
if I think of a rabbi? I am certain
I will always remember tomatoes,
lodged firmly in my mind with cucumbers,
spinach, cilantro—but endives are slowly
slipping away, and it takes me a minute to name
an artichoke, my least favourite vegetable,
bitter when I scrape each leaf with my teeth.

I remember Mrs. Mosely, my first grade teacher
and how she visited me in the hospital
when I had my tonsils out, but most of my college
professors are hiding with kohlrabi
in the place of forgotten things.

I want to remember kohlrabi
the way I remember my tenth grade biology teacher—
not what he taught us, but how he held his hand out
and rubbed his fingernails with his thumb while he lectured.
I want to remember my teacher—
but not the crash that killed him
when his car hit a deer. Not the sleepless nights
when I couldn’t stop thinking
about him and his long-haired son:
my crush, a witness to his father’s death.
Will I ever forget how he barely spoke to me
after the accident? How he favoured someone else?

Tongue and Throat

          For Irene

Sometimes my friend is a bonfire.
Her laughter blazes, warms, lights the dark.
Sparks mirth all around till I’m glowing too.

Sometimes she’s a wildfire, worry raging
up and down the hills of her life,
burning all hope—a charred earth left behind
as she imagines the worst, always the worst.

I feel the first hint of heat when she fears
there’s something in her throat. Hotter
when the doctor spots it on an X-ray:
a small, globular mass in her neck
at the base of her tongue. Mass, she says,
choking on terror, as if the word is poison
and can’t possibly mean anything but
cancer of the throat or vocal cords.

Google doesn’t help. Surgery, disfigurement.
Tongues cut out. Vocal cords excised.
Succumb to silence? She’d rather die,
she tells me, than lose her tongue.

Five days after her birthday, she’s headed to a specialist
for a scope—and, most likely, a biopsy.

Flickers! Flares! Orange leaping and dancing when I read her text:
no need for a biopsy. Not cancer. Not. Not.
I call her to celebrate. Balloons for her being wrong again.
Still alive, still talking. A toast to her tongue,
to this birthday blessing, her best gift this year:
a cyst, benign, harmless. Who could ask for more?

Lori Levy‘s poems have appeared in Rattle, Nimrod International Journal, Poet Lore, Poetry East, Mom Egg Review, and numerous other literary journals and anthologies in the U.S., the U.K., and Israel.  Work has also been published in medical humanities journals and has been read on BBC Radio 4.  Lori lives with extended family in Los Angeles, but “home” has also been Vermont, Israel, and, for several months, Panama.

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