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Her hair had become too sparse to hold a pin

           Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

She died in her sleep at one-ten, an hour and ten minutes into the far half of her ninety-first year 

           The first afternoon, an Astros-Marlins spring training game

A carefully precise nurse phone in the night

           Florida fluff-cumulus spring skies. Scrub jays, grackles

A half hour after she died, helped an aid wrap her in a shroud, kissed her forehead, covered her face, lifted her from bed to gurney, pushed her down long halls to the nursing home morgue for the cremator in the morning

           Ospreys nesting in the light stanchions far out in left-center

Two days later—left for the mourning trip that afternoon - went back to clear out her alcove, family pictures, the sweater her sister knitted her, her watch, shoes, the rest for the home’s common pool. Many old people have no idea what clothes they have on

           Behind and above the quick slashing symmetry of major league ball

Almost all are women, many in wheelchairs, all want more than anything else to leave. Forgetful of time, their possessions, the day of the week, the seasons, even their families

           Thousands of coots that second day fussing around in tight rafts

Five months after her stroke able to eat minced food but her speech diminished, unable to stand, one hand useless. Incontinent. Happier to be nursed and cosseted than she allowed

           More than a dozen basking alligators that afternoon

Her mind far out beyond her capabilities, although like a child she smiled at attention given her, waved and grinned to all while coming in the lobby and down the hall as her gurney was pushed into the home from the hospital

           Pied-billed grebes, blue-winged teals, small rafts of lesser scaups

Her voice incrementally slurred, a good bit of what she said in her last weeks tacitly not understood and toward the very end even unremarked

           The gantries off to the southeast on the across the Banana River

Toward the very end communication seemed not to matter to her at all

           A shuttle in place for launch

The ultimate isolation, to talk and not be understood, to demand and not be heard, what alternative except to scorn and die

           Double-crested cormorants, a common moorhen, a few white pelicans

“Who would have imagined my life would end like this?” to an old friend visiting her three days before the end. Her next sentence, “I wish I had gotten to know you better”

           Brown pelicans, the usual three species of gulls, mallards

Often took her in an elevator to the unoccupied upper floor where we sat knee-to-knee in the quiet and tried to talk

           Fleeing the familiar, time away, a mourning trip

Sometimes she would wave bravely as I left, often gave the same hesitant gesture when she watched me arriving. Often she would be in her wheelchair in the hallway by the nurses’ station

           Relief away from the usual

One nurse, a Chinese Jamaican woman of authority and calm, scolded her as she was beseeching me to take her out of there, “This is your home now, you are staying with us and we will always take care of you”

           Awe at what has been launched from Cape Canaveral in a single generation

           She answered, “You’re right, thank you.” They liked her there. She thanked them when the did things for her

           The big barrier island so empty just up the coast, sawgrass swamp lagoon

But often loudly enough for many to hear but to no one in particular, of the clearest things she would annunciated, “I have a house, my own house. That is where I want to go”

           Great blue herons, little herons, tricolored herons

Find her light two-pronged hack with her tools there, its prongs worn down to stubs, the left shorter than the right. She was unnaturally right-handed, switched violently by the nuns when she was six

           Yellow-crowned night heron, green-backed heron, reddish and great egrets

Gardening was one of her persuasions after she was widowed in 1944. Except for an iris bed she did not cultivate flowers

           Wood storks, sandhill cranes, glossy and white ibises

Coming home, in from college or a trip or to visit, typically she would be standing rigid in her vegetable garden or asparagus bed with that hack

           Roseate spoonbills, flamingos, gorgeous black-necked stilts

Alert and looking full face at me the instant I appeared. It was extremely rare to catch her unguarded or unawares

           People who walked here next walked on the moon and nobody cares

With those crazy, accusatory eyes, without smile or gesture, her hands atop the handle of that hack

           Florida’s banal urbanity, motels, food joints, the beach

After her breakdown the summer of her husband’s April suicide, her bouts of paranoia were a constant

           Florida highways, Florida skies

My brother and I could always see it in her eyes

           Ruddy turnstones, semi-palmated plovers, willits, lesser yellowlegs

Her insanity lurking, there in her Strindbergian attacks on our father, but as child I rarely saw her that way because I would be shuttled out of the room by somebody or sent upstairs

           Swash wonder, in and out, the empty Canaveral beaches

The two voices from under my bedroom door, around the corner and down the stairs. His beery pleas

           Single spotted sandpipers now and then while driving north

Hectoring my brother and me after her chief object of control was no more

           Northern harriers, red-shouldered hawks, one short-tailed hawk

Childhood years of arguing, justifying, and watching her eyes go button-round and crazed, that when her paranoia had passed hours on, lashed and lidded again, intelligent and calm

           In the top of the citrus country, a woman from Sorrento’s groves

Her awful accusations most difficult to handle in the loneliness of coming home from school. Fleeing to school to get away, my brother would curl up and plead stomach aches

           A daughter of Campanian citrus warbrided to Florida citrus

Suiting whatever was her immediate design, sometimes she would apologize, most of the time obdurately held her ground

           A grove through the pines off State 11 north of De Land

She always tried and she sometimes had a wonderful way of laughing at futility

           Not far north of where it forks from US17

Between bouts with bitter resentments and angry flash-outs

           17 was a fifties north-south road slower than 301

If she’d only been honest, if she’d shared

           There in Volusia County, a darting pair of swallow-tailed kites

Easier if I’d been a trusted son instead of always a player, entering on cure, from stage left

           Running out of northeast Florida through St. Augustine

She tried, and in much of her mothering, like any mother, in the sum of things she was most positive than not

           Coming up on Jacksonville’s startling skyline

Complained tiresomely about loneliness in her forties, her hair and teeth in her fifties, her liver spots in her sixties, her rheumatoid aches in her seventies, her eyes in her eighties. After she turned ninety, one say she sobbed, “What a miserable being I am”

           Florida’s blankness stuns

In her mothering, hypersolicitous about dry feet, colds, warm clothes, propriety, swimming safety, and jobs, but she let me go early, probably to get me out of the house, to hitchhike to Ft. Lauderdale at fifteen and spring breaks from then on, to hitch west at sixteen when I got no farther than the westslope of the Sierras and back

           Condo culture, golf, cars, trash

Hitched to LA at seventeen and stood frozen at first site of the Pacific, stood for half an hour on the bluff at the top of the ramp from Ocean Boulevard to the Coast Highway

           Golf’s nirvana, the negation of the other

Gerry Mulligan in a club in Pacific Palisades one night of that trip. Bar outside, the ocean horizon behind under the moon, Mulligan’s quartet close-up close-in, cigarette smoke coloring his sax to copper swirls

           History and place unimportant, no politesse, nothing nontopical

Out of the house to avoid countering her sometimes sadistic goads with my own vitriol


On and on and on each time as far away as possible, but would always come back

           Up SC170, rural a few years ago, now it’s just more Hilton Head

She often seemed perplexed and angry and who I was and what I was about

           In Beaufort across the estuary from Parris Island

Her last afternoon alive, a man with a dead black wig was about to entertain with what he announced as “big band songs.” When I began to wheel her out of the recreation room to go off somewhere to talk, she said she wanted to stay to hear him and we said goodbye

           Red-breasted mergansers on Beaufort’s tide in direct morning light 

Her strange stiff wave, but without looking at me as I parked her wheelchair toward the singer with the wig

           Cedar waxwings in a high pecan a few yards on 

She apparently had no inkling, but then who knows, generally she was never taken unawares

           A clapper rail for an instant on the marsh, tide already out

The nurse’s precise phone call in the middle of the night

           Bluebirds nesting around a large marshside grassy square

It wasn’t the Chinese Jamaican nurse. There were many, most congenial, most harried from overwork. The American ones almost all mightily overweight

           Live oaks, Spanish moss

Many of the nurses would go outside by the loading dock to smoke, where her body was pushed on a gurney the morning after she died

           Beaufort was a Huguenot colony in the early fifteen hundreds

The nurses’ aids, many West Africans and Haitians, and a Pole, an Ethiopian, were the most compassionate

           Self-contained Episcopalian serenity

The summer of her husband’s suicide my mother tried to kill my brother and me but didn’t manage it

           In a Southern Baptist world before Charlston

He was barely four. We were almost unscathed, some minor cuts and burns. When she gave up she collapsed

           Black vultures and turkey vultures wheeling over swamp forests

In our teens she told us that she had planned to kill herself too that night, that she was going to burn the house down with herself inside

           Kingfishers, red-bellied woodpeckers, mockingbirds, and fish crows

She told me in her later years that she would never, never be a suicide

           The sheer splendor of the esturarial coast

If I’d been older than seven when she tried to kill my brother and me, now I realize now that I would have attacked her in order to survive

           Charleston, not New York, could have become the metropolis

She put us to sleep in the same bed together than night. It was confusing, we didn’t know why

           Charleston lacked a Hudson Valley but it’s hinterland was plantation rich

We woke with the mattress burning. When we got up and ran she came after us with a kitchen knife

           But for slavery. So many things but for slavery

A long, thin carving knife with a black-bone handle. We ran from her. She’d torn out the phone before she started to kill us

           The forebears of almost half of black America landed in Charleston

When we ran, she went in and out of her resolve, broke off into screams and wails. It went on so long into the night that I remember when hiding with my brother in the back of a closet the snug scratchy hanging darkness of wool in the closet even made me want to sleep

           Who arrived enchained treated like valuable animals

Deeper in the night between hiding from her and pleading with her, left my brother hidden well between a wall and the coal bin’s boards and made it outside and away across fields and through an orchard in the moonlight to a neighbor’s farm

           Generations of Americans sanctioned slavery

She tried, often ineffectually falling short

           Generation after generation, black men beaten and black girls and women fucked

She was locked in a room at another neighbor’s. Glimpsed her crazy eyes through a tall and narrow four-paned window next day, didn’t see her face again for a year

           The boys in slavery whipped and buggered

She was in an asylum for a year and a half as a “depressive indigent”

           Soft spring evening into dusk at the ferry slip for Cape Romain

Indescribably fortunate that no criminal charges were filed. Either the neighbors got together to keep it from the police or she was coherent enough to cover up what had really happened from the neighbors, or both. I told them the truth, but I was seven years old

           A marbled godwit, semipalmated plovers, three oystercatchers

Sometimes lucky and often ineffectual, common qualities among those who moved to the country from New York in that generation. The stalled artists, the writers who didn’t write, the aspiring chicken and beef-cattle farmers, the clumsy fixer-uppers of old houses who liked antiques 

           A long way up the coast to get out of the South

They would visit one another’s houses in post-Prohibition silliness to drink a lot and talk about drinking, “the locals,” and “fixed incomes”

           Crying very little, very infrequently, considering that she is gone

Smoked, gossiped, discussed wartime rationing. It was the people who had always lived there who were sturdy, resourceful, consequential

           Bereaved relief that the wicked witch is dead

Depression Americans lived something like Europeans, passive about what came at them down the line

           A single wild turkey low over the interstate, Halifax County, NC

The Depression was the best excuse to fail that Americans have ever had

           On the lawn downslope from Jefferson’s Capitol in Richmond

Now it’s this century-hinge era of peculiarly fatalistic and ruthless opportunism

           She arrived in Virginia fifty years ago to reclaim her sons

Perhaps it’s the middle generation, mine, that’s been unusual

           She came back to claim us with stubborn dedication

In her late eighties, when it first came to her that she could no longer live alone, she said that it was “only the beginning,” and that she would “be a great deal more trouble before it’s all over” 

           She made it up to us with the rest of her life

Which she was

           It’s all over. Her ashes are at home

She was put to bed the night she died, in the dusk that vernal equinox evening, by one of the gentle nurses’ aids, with whom she talked a bit before the aid turned off the light and left the room

“With many hundreds of credits I’m beyond what I hoped to do as an independent writer. The only thing I’ve ever taught is swimming, I’ve never studied writing, and I didn’t even major in English. I’ve never had a pedestrian job since college, and never published anything I’m not proud of.” —D. E. Steward