823: Salmon

823: Salmon

823: Salmon


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

After my mother, Gloria Ann Matthews, passed away, for several years, I reached for the mustard-colored landline on the wall in my kitchen to call her. It was as though my body had not caught up with my broken heart.

Her funeral brought out legions of old friends who testified to the gentleness of her soul and strength of her bonds. She died of cancer which emerged out of remission. Her impending death was expected. I was still shocked at the swiftness of her decline. I am still haunted by images of her loneliness. I saw it in her pleading face the evening I said my last goodbye where she lay in a hospital. Her eyes begged for understanding in that way in which you know the final journey has begun.

Those days of mourning are a blur. My sadness was manifold. I get the sense she did not know the depth of love around her. I distinctly remember wishing that she could have heard all the people who admired her immense spirit, who took joy in her company, who wished they could have been more like her: patient, forgiving, intelligent.

Living funerals and celebration of life ceremonies are common practice these days. Irrational or not, I truly believed had we queued a line that would have easily run down the hall, through the lobby, and out the hospital doors, had we filed passed her bed while she were alive, and had we told her the contents of our hearts, that powerful force of healing words would have reversed the tide of her disease, a living injection of love.

My father took me out to dinner in downtown Philadelphia several days after her funeral. They had not been a couple in many years, so I heard for the first time how they came into each other’s life. It turns out my mom made the first move. After seeing Dad’s picture on her friend’s dresser, where snapshots of other boys were similarly placed, my mother asked if they were dating and if not, could her girlfriend, maybe, introduce them? Their first date was a movie, the film To Sir, With Love with Sidney Poitier.

I loved this story. It was the small gift of his memories of her that began my own coming to terms with her death. Part of what I took away was the importance of remembering those innumerable, on the surface, insignificant times with my mother, which I hope to share someday with my own children.

Today’s poem imagines a father’s future funeral and voices an intention to both preserve and remember the small moments, that which becomes large once our parents are no longer present in our lives.

by Gabrielle Bates

My father and I sit at a sushi bar in my new city
sampling three different kinds of salmon nigiri.

He tells me about a great funeral speech
he recently heard a son give for his father.

The speech was structured around regrets
everyone assumed the father didn’t have,

interspersed with hilarious stories involving boys
crashing the family van and fishing mishaps.

The ivory salmon is pale and impossibly soft.
The sliver of steelhead, orange enough

to pretend it’s salmon. How else to say it.
I am my father’s only child, and he is my mother.

We dip our chopsticks into a horseradish paste
dyed green and called wasabi. I know his regrets.

I could list them. But instead at his funeral
I will talk if I can talk about nights like this,

how good it felt just to be next to him,
to be the closest thing he had.

“Salmon” by Gabrielle Bates from JUDAS GOAT © 2023, Gabrielle Bates. Used by permission of Tin House.