1087: After She Died by Mary Szybist

20240402 SD

1087: After She Died by Mary Szybist

Today’s episode is guest hosted by Victoria Chang.


I’m Victoria Chang and this is The Slowdown.

I used to vividly remember the day my mother died. Nearly a decade later, my memories have detached from the event, so much that the remembering has become its own event. Now I just remember fragments. I remember how still she was. How gray her face was. How I was shocked that she couldn’t move. Couldn’t speak to me. I remember wanting to touch her everywhere, but being afraid to, thinking death was contagious.

I remember bending down and kissing her on the cheek, something I had never done before, as if it was only then, after she had died, that I could press my lips onto her face like that. I remember sitting outside the room, with my father who just sat quietly in an armchair next to me. Despite his dementia from his stroke, I could tell he understood what had just happened. I remember the men who rolled a gurney into the room, trying hard not to damage the walls. I remember when they finally came out with my mother covered with a white sheet. I remember the shock of seeing her head covered, proof that she was really dead.

I’ve written about these memories before in poems, but I’m sure that even the way I’ve written these memories down is different than what I am writing right now. The sadness and grief though, remain the same, if a little yellowed on the edges. But now I know this deep grief. It is inside of me now, or perhaps always was, waiting to become alive. What a strange concept, the idea that grief is born out of someone’s dying. That something can be born at all in the midst of death.

As the years have gone by since my mother’s passing, since my father’s passing, something else has bloomed unexpectedly, which is a connection with others who have experienced deep loss. The details of other people’s losses are always different, but the feelings are familiar. These shared experiences are the things that tie us to each other. I’ve learned that to see and share our experiences with others is to be alive and in the world.

Today’s poem, one about a mother’s passing, feels raw and real. I recognize so much in this poem, the speaker’s impulse to touch the mother in disbelief, the grief that the speaker feels, and that mother figure who, perhaps, once held us close to her breast as she gave us life and love.

After She Died
by Mary Szybist

Why did I want to hold her there.  
To slide my hand under her t-shirt.   
It was damp with her musky sweat, the lavender she’d washed in.  
I said to myself, touch her while you can still touch her.  
I sat beside my mother.  
Her hair had just begun to gray.  
I moved my slow fingers through it.
Put my palms to her still face.  
But it was her breast—how it relaxed 
into the shapes my hand made.  I let my fingers 
fan under it, press into it—
less like stroking a cheek than pressing a washcloth to an eye.  
Its softness spread over my flattened palm, curved 
into its cup.  Every curve my hand made, 
it became.  I felt without my eyes.  
She had just been alive.  I kept 
my gaze steady as the men summoned to take her 
entered.  Her t-shirt, a soft mauve cotton.
Her breast was in my hand.
It is not by memory I know that once I held it differently 
and put my lips there.

"After She Died" by Mary Szybist. Used by permission of the poet.