The Seven Last Words
Poems by Terry Minchow-Proffitt
Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)
Looks like we’ll spend the better part
of Valentine’s Day together
at the cancer center, sitting
with our backs against the window
beneath this morning light angling down
warm across our shoulders,
our serious sighs exiled
back to our senses.
You’re crunching the ice chips
while the nurse thumps your wan arm
for that one vein that doesn’t roll.
In my head I’m off doing my best
math with your blood count,
while my face and mouth do their most
optimistic shtick to distract
you from coming undone:
This’ll make you stronger, honey.
But you’re not buying any of it—
only this held hand
the infusion of iron.
The skimpy curtain they’ve drawn florid
around us is no wall. Strangers on both sides
suffer by a distance of inches.
No matter how hard we try to imagine ourselves sub rosa,
how low like a confession we keep our voices,
we can’t help but eavesdrop
on one another making do:
Here’s your pillow from home . . . How’s that?
We suffer discreetly, relax and lie
back with our juice
before all the determined
needles and tubes, the plastic sagging
bags, and the pester of beeps
that never quit bleating about
how some fluid has gone
and clogged up, pinched to,
won’t go again until
measured by the numbers, recalibrated,
set straight just so
we can resume talking and taking
into our veins the latest toxin as ransom.
If I close my eyes, I can all but see
the two of us back from the brink.
Say, at dinner,
maybe at Ruby Tuesday,
assorted sentiment in hand:
chocolates in a heart-shaped box,
a Hallmark card, a single rose, dessert for two—
there they are, and just us too,
above all this tin-foiled red
as your color returns.
Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise. (Luke 23:43)
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet
was quick to answer when asked,
“If you could meet Jesus, what would you like to ask him?”
He replied: “What is the nature of the Father?”
Not so fast, Your Holiness.
Ask me if I could meet Jesus, and I wouldn’t
ask about the Father, wouldn’t even
rag on Him like I used to.
Really. I’m done with that.
I’m down with the Father.
Am one, in fact, the hapless
grateful sort that’s still married
at 57 with two kids raised.
It’s the nature of the son
that gets me.
I’ve been missing of late
the son I was—wondering where he’s gone,
how the innocent moment’s solid hold
keeps dissolving like Tibet,
Early on, a boy,
that summer by the ditch
under the cottonwood in the front yard,
finds himself out of the blue
lifted by his own daddy’s arms
into the green-diamond shade
while birdsong and breeze clatter
silver in the leaves over his head.
Is this where you first felt the rough bark?
I seek for God’s sake
not what happened, or even what might happen—
I want the happening to happen again
back inside the moment without why
when it’s not yet dawned
that there are words
to invite back Paradise,
this boy, Father-whisked
as if by whim, whorled
within the canopied tree
by the wrung, wracked middle
of his most fluent longing:
Jesus, remember me . . .
Woman, behold thy son! . . . Behold thy mother! (John 19:26-27)
When Jesus looked down and saw
Mary’s face tilted up—
pale blue, disconsolate,
what would you guess he said?
Maybe at first he fumbled, Your face.
Or flinching, tried to console, Mama,
don’t cry, don’t.
Chances are, out came, Mama,
you cannot . . . because she could not bygod
get her hands on those in power, not get
back at the betrayers in the body
as they surely could her.
So he begged,
Don’t, Mama, don’t.
So she did not, but did
what she could: stared up
through the long dying
of her first vow to the Angel.
The Bible says Jesus said,
Woman, behold . . .
then stole a far cry from that stable,
family trips to the lake,
his first fish, that first dive,
always tending too far from shore,
Mary’s nervous bead on his buoyant head
bobbing distant on the face of a lake
so bright and immense it hurt to look.
Whatever later was said Jesus said,
my money’s on Mama,
behold your son: his friable body
grimed with spit and gall, still
in her eye who he was
before the world
got to him,
how he tenders the distance down
with a voice as familiar and laden as the One
her hands can no longer reach—
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)
That miserable night in the boat,
as Lake Gennesaret pitched gray against
the Apostles, their hearts hardening with each stroke
till they slumped, huffing over the oars
in that grim blue hour before daybreak, you strolled
across the white-capped rile
with the calm nerve of a ghost, as if
you might have passed them by.
That day in Jericho, blind Bartimaeus
hunkered by the roadside in the heat
with his hand out, all but
lost in the crowd’s ire
and dust. He cried
until you heeded,
but not before it seemed
the scales might never fall
from his eyes, or yours, as if
you might have passed him by.
But now you stay put,
pinned to the point of shriek, bereft.
Elijah will not come.
We wag our heads and walk on.
How our days can be long;
we are as derelict as you once were.
Nothing is as it appears.
Your cry and our cry,
my God, is always and ever only one cry, as if
from the Garden to the Tree
we are all rigged for reprieve,
calling and calling on the fly,
My God, do not pass us by.
I thirst. (John 19:28)
Come to me, Lord, those nights
when you might find
me at a loss, sitting
close in the quiet,
at the dinner table, staring
into the next lamp-lit room
over a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats.
It might be the tail end of a great day.
Friends called and my stock rose.
Maybe all day long the sky was blue
and I was able to say exactly that,
with words, on paper: The sky was blue.
Or it could have been one of those days.
You know, like when your puppy mauls
the extension cord in the backyard
that snakes to your pond’s pump,
which means seven goldfish might asphyxiate
by dawn, and the sorry culprit now lies at your feet,
fevered and moaning, with a mangled
lock of 16-gauge electrical cord
powering up her belly
to a gurgling pitch, all staticky,
like your first transistor radio.
You were twelve, turning the dime-sized dial
with the pure intent of a monk, the prayerful
dexterity of a thief about to crack
the safe of a lifetime, your longing
held ear-close but never quite tuned in,
The Monkees always off, garbled
between stations—maybe it was a day like that.
It doesn’t really matter what kind of day it is, Lord,
when you come close and I’ve grown quiet
in my wanting, out of words enough now
to quaff up your silence and call it a night
with our naked thirsts intact,
as you countenance away
It is finished. (John 19:30)
Rabbi Herschel Schacter, a chaplain
in Patton’s Third Army, rode a commandeered Jeep
through the gates of Buchenwald.
Smoke was still rising, flesh
burning, bodies strewn
everywhere still . . .
a week after Passover. It seemed all done,
as though no one was left
alive. He found himself running
to know: “Are there any Jews alive here?”
when he came to the place, Kleine Lager,
where thin Juden were alive, lying
stacked to the ceiling on raw wooden planks.
They stared down at the rabbi, frightened
taut by his unfamiliar uniform.
He could not cry quickly enough,
Shalom Aleichem, Yidden, ihr zint frei!
Jesus, in your livid love,
with eyes that see some semblance
of victory, you cry, “It is finished!”
We hear your cry but
can’t quite make it out:
Yiddish? Latin? One word in Greek?
Something foreign rooted
as all words in all languages:
The one word that death
cannot bear and fear
cannot shake: Consummation
rides through our forced gates,
allied suffering runs
at this late hour
breathless, barracks to barracks,
as if obtained from air: “Peace be upon you,
it is finished!”
Jesus, at this ninth hour—
thrashed, jabbed, racked—
you appear to be done.
But even now you look long,
as though through
body you hold all
horror as the charred brunt
of wrecked hope.
You are a new kind of enemy.
Our final undoing
you are, as we are
Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. (Luke 23:46)
Here, Lord, fixed on this Friday of our oily unction,
where the clouds never part
but settle in low over this copse of crosses,
we breathe in wet cement:
Our lungs harden like two small fists.
Here the mercy you threatened us with
ends up in the thick of it, down where embers still
what only you and maybe a terminally-ill cancer patient
can see: how the chest wall, stricken,
winces to nothing and outs
the blue-red cavity, the rib-barred hold
in the middle where something liver-colored
glistens and thumps.
And everybody’s got one, a heart, you see.
Try it—your ass-buster boss taking a long lunch,
Commie Democrats, Republicans even, blow-hard
preachers yipping red-faced about jeezus.
It’s how we get home, even now, maybe
without a dime to our name in this land of want,
or without a word in our mouth for what
we might say for ourselves once we’re found out.
We press on, less driven than drawn
by the trust that maybe, Lord, you see only hearts.
But how can I abandon myself to you, Lord, except
while hurling my defiant cry at your absence,
how it is
to pray and pray
while Nick’s cancer splits his throat
in three places and sprouts through the wounds.
Whatever’s next, this happened.
I hold you to your word, just as you held the Father to his,
not knowing to this day whose hands these are,
or even who prays these words:
I come to the end,
and you are still with me.
Poet’s note: The story of Rabbi Herschel Schacter’s entrance into Buchenwald came from an obituary by Margalit Fox in the March 26, 2013 edition of the New York Times.
Editor’s note: Terry Minchow-Proffitt has since published these poems as a chapbook. Information on where to purchase it can be found on his website: http://terryproffitt.jimdo.com/.
Images: artwork by Emily Mitchell