Finally you are dying, and now everything
Is up for question: your breath, my belief,
The way sun pours down
Upon the earth, turning dull fields to emerald fire.
You lie half paralyzed in your sterile bed,
Unable for months to reach the window.
For weeks now, I have searched Rilke,
With his careful construction of the certainty
Of God, as if through his faith
I could find my own.
I read to you from A Book for the Hours of Prayer,
While you turn your face to the wall, offering
Me your back, a useless arm, and a small kiss
On the hand before I leave. Then I drive out to walk
In October countryside, drenched with the light
Of glazed cider, sweet and dark, the final sips
A little murky, and no way to bring it to you
My words have left me—
Certainties I thought were mine have proved
That I don't own them; and breath after breath
I watch the muscles of your throat thicken,
Strain, the last force in you that still responds.
Such labor to suspend your bones, lift
The sill of your ribs for air to enter and leave.
I watch the creases of your crepe skin
Begin to dissolve, and think
How slight, how infinitesimally small
This slow ticking down of life:
The peony finishing its outburst of silk begins
To drop away with the metal of its own tarnish;
A greengold apple, unmarked and firm, softens,
Etched from within by its own withering;
The last green rays of sun push through the slats
And cross a room, and on a narrow bed, facing away,
A man breathes the clam breath that will be recalled
As his last.
I thought I knew what the body was: the root place,
The anchoring, the burning wick of life. But I touch
The outer stillness of a man, to find
You have slipped away inside, down
Some inner corridor that perhaps was always there.
Later I will find words for this. Now I listen
To silence with rapt attention, my body bent
Toward this stillness, this calm.
Looking for proof of God's existence, I
Would still be looking. But the presence of God
Was here, still holds your shape, and your absence.
How small the unimaginable has become,
Closer than heartbeat, than thought:
Your breath, my disbelief—two small shadows
Lapsing into light.