The Last Time
The last time we had dinner together in a restaurant
with white tablecloths, he leaned forward
and took my two hands in his hands and said,
I’m going to die soon. I want you to know that.
And I said, I think I do know.
And he said, What surprises me is that you don’t
And I said, I do. And he said, What?
And I said, Know that you’re going to die.
And he said, No, I mean know that you are.
– by Marie Howe whose brother John died of an AIDS-related illness in 1989. She published her best-known book of poems, What the Living Do. The title poem in the collection is a haunting lament for her brother with the plain last line: “I am living. I remember you.”
What the Living Do
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days,
some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up.
Waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and then the sunlight passes through
the open living room windows because the heat’s on too high in here
and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
I’ve been thinking now: This is what the living do.
And yesterday, hurrying along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk,
spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.
When you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass.
We want whoever to call or not to call, a letter, a kiss- we want more and more and more of it.
But there are moments, when walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself
in the window glass, say, the window of the corner of the video store,
and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep
For my own blown hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.