Mama's Promise

Marilyn Nelson

 
I have no answer to the blank inequity
of a four-year-old dying of cancer.
I saw her on TV and wept
with my mouth full of meatloaf.
I constantly flash on disasters now;
red lights shout Warning. Danger.
everywhere I look.
I buckle him in, but what if a car
with a grille like a sharkbite
roared up out of the road?
I feed him square meals,
but what if the fist of his heart
should simply fall open?
I carried him safely
as long as I could,
but now he's a runaway
on the dangerous highway.
Warning. Danger.
I've started to pray.
But the dangerous highway
curves through blue evenings
when I hold his yielding hand
and snip his minuscule nails
with my vicious-looking scissors.
I carry him around
like an egg in a spoon,
and I remember a porcelain fawn,
a best friend's trust,
my broken faith in myself.
It's not my grace that keeps me erect
as the sidewalk clatters downhill
under my rollerskate wheels.
Sometimes I lie awake
troubled by this thought:
It's not so simple to give a child birth;
you also have to give it death,
the jealous fairy's christening gift.
I've always pictured my own death
as a closed door,
a black room,
a breathless leap from the mountaintop
with time to throw out my arms, lift my head,
and see, in the instant my heart stops,
a whole galaxy of blue.
I imagined I'd forget,
in the cessation of feeling,
while the guilt of my lifetime floated away
like a nylon nightgown,
and that I'd fall into clean, fresh forgiveness.
Ah, but the death I've given away
is more mine than the one I've kept:
from my hands the poisoned apple,
from my bow the mistletoe dart.
Then I think of Mama,
her bountiful breasts.
When I was a child, I really swear,
Mama's kisses could heal.
I remember her promise,
and whisper it over my sweet son's sleep:
         When you float to the bottom, child,
         like a mote down a sunbeam,
         you'll see me from a trillion miles away:
         my eyes looking up to you,
         my arms outstretched for you like night.
 
From Mama's Promises, published by Louisiana State University Press. Copyright © 1985 by Marilyn Nelson. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Poems by This Author

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Churchgoing by Marilyn Nelson
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Five daughters, in the slant light on the porch,
Dusting by Marilyn Nelson
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Which reminds me of another knock-on-wood
The House on Moscow Street by Marilyn Nelson
It's the ragged source of memory,