1082: A Certain Light by Marie Howe

20240326 Slowdown

1082: A Certain Light by Marie Howe

Today’s episode is guest hosted by Victoria Chang.


I’m Victoria Chang and this is The Slowdown.

After my mother died, it became harder and harder to take care of my father, who’d had a stroke six years prior. My mother, although sick herself, had still been able to care for him with a little bit of assistance. Once she died, my father increasingly became a danger to himself and others around him. For the next seven years, we moved him around from one memory care facility to the next. Once, one called me to say that my father had gone missing and was found on the median of a busy street, confused and lost. If I think too much about the details of those challenging times, I begin to feel quite sad.

That’s when I start thinking about the good times during those hard times, because there were many good times too. My own memories are filled with the people I met at those memory care facilities. One of my favorites was Bill, who had once served as the CEO of a large company. It broke my heart that, because of his mental condition, he was relegated to just one floor. I always called him and my father wild horses, needing large fields to run in. At some point, I actually looked forward to seeing Bill. Once he grabbed my arm and whispered in my ear, hey, when are you gonna bring around the getaway car?

My father’s gibberish also made me laugh because occasionally, vocabulary from his decades in the workplace snuck in. Words like briefcase or systems or papers appeared at random times. Once, I shared a meal with another resident and my father. We had an entire conversation about how this man had graduated from college just that morning. I congratulated him, asked him what he majored in. His responses never made sense, but somehow, that was a deeply memorable conversation. These experiences showed me that connection isn’t necessarily about meaning or comprehension. It’s about something else more primal — perhaps the pure humanity that emerges out of talking and interacting with another person.

Today’s poem always moves me. I love the way this poem so lyrically depicts the surprising beauty and connection that can emerge amidst the deepest darkest moments of illness.

A Certain Light
by Marie Howe

He had taken the right pills the night before.
We had counted them out

from the egg carton where they were numbered so there’d be no mistake.
He had taken the morphine and prednisone and amitriptiline

and florinef and vancomycin and halcion too quickly
and had thrown up in the bowl Joe brought to the bed—a thin string

of blue spit—then waited a few minutes, to calm himself,
before he took them all again. And had slept through the night

and the morning and was still sleeping at noon, or not sleeping.
He was breathing maybe twice a minute, and we couldn’t wake him,

we couldn’t wake him until we shook him hard calling, John wake up now
John wake up—Who is the president?

And he couldn’t answer.
His doctor told us we’d have to keep him up for hours.

He was all bones and skin, no tissue to absorb the medicine.
He couldn’t walk unless two people held him.

And we made him talk about the movies: What was the best moment in
On The Waterfront? What was the music in Gone With The Wind? 

And for seven hours he answered, if only to please us, mumbling
I like the morphine, sinking, rising, sleeping, rousing,

then only in pain again. But wakened.
So wakened that late that night, in one of those still blue moments

that were a kind of paradise, he finally opened his eyes wide,
and the room filled with a certain light we thought we’d never see again.

Look at you two, he said. And we did.
And Joe said, Look at you.    And John said, How do I look?

And Joe said, Handsome.

“A Certain Light” by Marie Howe from WHAT THE LIVING DO © 1997 Marie Howe. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.