I was a bystander in every sense
excepting only at the thrusting start:
My contribution dying to past tense
after that brief spasmodic shock of heart
and breath where each of us is first begun.
Then I stood back and helped out where I could
at ease expecting now these things to run
their course as twice before they had, they would.
But not this time, and so I changed midstream
from loving observer to a horror-
filled bystander at a crash of genes
that left its victim neither undone nor
complete and whole and fit for healthy life.
I just stood by: to wait upon my wife.
When I picked up the phone the odds were good,
one in at least two hundred 'gainst, or near.
Her voice was calm but tense, I understood
with clench of gut and thump of primal fear
the odds had closed to something wildly worse:
To less than one in ten, or even eight
by any road significant reverse;
we'd waited long for this, perhaps too late.
I ran the reassuring numbers then:
when was the last time she had got an 'A'
on an exam and felt she missed those ten
last points dropped off somewhere along the way?
My stats gave voice to optimistic hope,
but still she knew her place in sample's scope.
Numbers have simple truth, exactly known,
but the body tells a richer tale of
blood and kidney, heart, stomach, liver, bone
that holds truth complex, which we can't resolve
with spectrograph or blood work instruments.
And still we listen to the number's lies,
with all their missing facts, and ignorance;
but truth lurks dark behind her shadowed eyes
when now she says, "I know something's not right."
I try to reassure her, futilely --
I can't deny her blood-and-bones insight --
but I crave hard number's reality
for she sees future's shape with every breath:
The growing child within her doomed to death.
Down's syndrome has well-known distributions,
of defects, limitations, mortal causes
that all result in early dissolution
of living breath and laboured heart's slow pauses.
There are those lucky few who live full lives
at least as rich, rewarding as their brother's,
and then there are the more who fail to thrive,
die young, too soon, and finally the others
who dwell between, live out truncated years
but mostly take their own care on themselves.
What value has uncertain life, and fear,
'gainst other children's happiness and wealth?
O how to calculate: fold or stand pat
when all she knows: this "might"'s worth more than that?
The children want to know what's going on
when Mom and Dad stand in cold kitchen now
and puzzle over odds too short or long
to end in silence, always wondering how
they'll find their way through thickets and beliefs
and reach an honest answer that will serve
as something to remind them in their grief:
they made their choices and they kept their nerve.
She must choose the best for all concerned,
I must choose whatever choice she makes --
"To have, to hold, to honor"'s in my ears.
I must not show her how my body shakes
as time approaches fast. The moment nears,
and finally when phone rings with news
I know how much there is for us to lose.
The last thing I remember of outside
the hospital is the soft scrunch of snow
beneath my booted feet. The icy slide
of powder packed by patients' paths and plow
into a firm, gently yielding crust of
fresh clean white. The sky above was going
black with mother night whose enfolding glove
was rising to take me in her grasping
hand. She was a quiet night, but angry
then, I felt her wrath as she loomed over
the dark bulking hospital; infirmary
where my wife lay still under cold cover.
Within these walls the three of us had gone
but only two would live to see the dawn.
"There'll need to be certificates filled out,
as it's twenty weeks today. Birth and death
both -- you chose a name?" A flash of doubt
crossed then the nurse's face as I held breath,
said, "Nineteen weeks, six days, she was admitted,
and that will do for other dates as well."
She looked at me, small nod, I was committed
to this at least, if helpless in all else:
To spare the painful rituals and dire
mubbling of priest whose faith we do not hold,
ignoring midnight's pass on ticking spire,
by act of will escaping from time's fold.
And now my heart gives one more timeless lurch.
The form required: "Donation For Research."
I lie awake half dozing on the cot
wedged in small room at foot of private bed
where she lies so still, holding off the thought
that we are keeping watch here for the dead.
My mind is drawn to other nights like this
when I took care of long experiments,
detectors, spectrometers, tape's soft hiss
as data gathered filled out few, small rents
in ragged fraying tissue of our knowedge.
Then: reading Thomas Hardy passes time,
far from the madding world, in cloistered college.
Now: my soul is rendered down in lime.
But memory of those nights sustains me here
in loneliness, in emptiness, and fear.
Cold rosy-fingered dawn, the winter's light
leaks into the sky; I stand at the window
wondering: do I know this choice is right?
Then like a whale, fast surfacing to blow,
wells up desire to call out now to God;
to know that this is right, and to give up
my mind, my soul, for one small certain nod
from omnipotent disposer. I refuse this cup;
'twas offered once before, when as a youth
I panic'd on a dive in ocean's deeps,
wrest self-possession back from certain death
by uncontrolled assent toward light that leaks
into the winter sky. I stand alone:
bereft of God by choice, my soul my own.
She lies there dead in blue aseptic pan,
her tiny arms and legs, so perfect formed
except the unseen fold 'cross palm of hand,
and small eyes closed, now never to be born
to see the light of day. For here is my
beautiful child, full of innocence, to know
sin nor sorrow the more. As I write, I
cry, "Small part of me, you will always go
along, however far and fast I move;
your face, so peaceful now in death's repose,
where joy should reign, and joyful father's love
for cherished child should set the warming rose
of laughter on that perfect face, so still,
where now there only dwells death's awful chill."
Hours later, passing small talk in between
long bouts of silence, staring into space,
I felt the tears flood up and out, it seemed
from everywhere: my eyes, my mouth, my face
dissolved in liquid weeping, harsh racking
sobs and consumptive gasps as fluid raced
from every pore and duct where tears were backing
up behind dams of weak reserve that could
not keep them checked. A social worker paused
discreetly at the door, withdrew; she would
ask me later, "Are you ok?" My nod
was proof I wasn't, yet, for more than tears
would have to pass throughout the healing years.
Putting our shredded lives now back together,
walking wounded, sometimes hand in her hand,
more often space between, mourning never
quite the same; neither really understands
how much the other's lost or what it took
to stay the course we both agreed was right.
If simply standing by ripped like a hook
through gut, spine, heart of my external sight,
what must she feel, whose inner eyes could gaze
on fluttering life that died so slow within?
Our souls drift tattered 'round us, mourning daze,
the trailing tendrils touch and intertwine
and to the other we can't give comfort
with each encompassed in a shell of hurt.
Could I have done better if I was not
the person who I am? Now what looms large
are doubts about my character; keen sought
defense against too capital a charge.
I am not skilled at failure, it's too rare,
for all I have is built on, "Don't give up!"
But now I need to meet death's icy stare
and finally accept at least this cup:
learn to face th' inevitable with grace,
not wrack myself with fantasy of guilt
that somehow I should have found out a place
where she could fit into this world we've built.
I'll drink the cup of doubt down to the lees;
my victory: with grace accept defeat.
Short weeks before I'd been making some soup
and chopped an onion clean through living core
thinking briefly of this most literary root
and poor Peer Gynt peeling 'til nothing more
remained but emptiness. I'd put one half
away, not needing it. Now ordinary
life was going on, the simplest staff
of habit and routine, so salutary
to souls in need of quiet healing time.
More soup to make, found onion half in 'fridge
and sat down on the floor like startled mime
whose imagined chair vanished from the stage;
for onion's empty core was sprouting green:
In cold and dark, life still reigned supreme.
There is a time to let the seed of doubt
assail you, and a time to let it go;
a time to probe each alternative route,
and then a time to focus with the flow
of living motion: look now future hence;
we can only take one branch down the line --
no progress made just sitting on the fence
and waiting for the world to send a sign.
And I do the nameless dead no honour
if I can't get beyond my grief
and end up stalled forever in my pain.
So if I can build the joy she died for,
and not forget what it has cost,
then alone she won't have died in vain.