O father! I see a gleaming light,
Oh say, what may it be?”
But the father answered never a word,
A frozen corpse was he.
In Ma’s dialect, corpse became a very earnest “caawpse” and I had to suppress my delighted laughter or she would not continue to my favorite part:
Lashed to the helm, all stiff and stark,
With his face turned to the skies,
The lantern gleamed through the gleaming snow
On his fixed and glassy eyes.
I loved the lantern. I loved the snow. I loved the odd repetition of “gleamed” and “gleaming” and I loved death’s glassy stare.
I woke this morning and decided to wear a ring my mother gave me when I was a teenager, a ring I have not worn in years. Later at my writing workshop, I stared at a pattern on a plate. A Chinese man looked down from an open window to a garden where two women seemed to be gossiping. A road disappeared into the red porcelain distance. I thought of patterned tea pots and plates and keepsake boxes patterned with gardens, swings, and scenes of muted romance. I thought of a thousand thrift stores and yard sales and auctions, of my mother’s difficult life and her simple joys. I indulged in pre-emptive grieving as if it could shave off a fraction of future dread. I thought of her hands and how every time I see her at the nursing home in Peterborough, New Hampshire, I slip some kind of ring on her finger, a ring with a cloudy green stone or plain silver.
In her confusion, my mother cannot always remember who is alive and who is dead. She can’t write her name. But she can still solve difficult crossword puzzles if you read her the clues. I bet she could remember nearly all of Longfellow’s poem. I remember once she recited it during a power failure on a Christmas night. The falling snow outside seemed to match the snow in the poem. The shadowy candle-lit room felt as cavernous as a ship. I don’t remember how far my mother had gone into the journey of the Hesperus, to the “cruel rocks” or the “bleak sea beach,” only how startled I felt when the lights came on, how lost.