"The Salvation of Humor" by Barry Sternlieb

When the past broke down
in the wake of her stroke,
my mother couldn’t come up
with a single noun for anything
not a watch, or a pen, or herself, such
small words whose sudden weight
made me see gravity in a whole
new light as if loss played
out like fire, and ninety years began
burning their bridges. For those first
few ER hours, her reply to each
question was more body language
than language, less sound than fury
until, around dawn, a solid word
against the emptiness came
close enough to love. Maybe
syllabic brainwaves clicked,
or a late-breaking drug kicked in,
but it didn’t matter. Across that limbo
between lost and found, while
shaky vitals blipped, I finally heard
a coherent response: “Cow,” she said,
when asked what she would order
in a restaurant, and her split-screen face
half-laughed along with the rest of us,
so right on cue the young neurologist
smoothed his hand across her blanket
asking, “Now what do you call this,
this thing that keeps you warm?”
Digging deep, gung ho as always
to please, my mother frantically
ransacked the tomb of her memory,
and then, almost calm, grasping
some fugitive peace of mind,
she looked at him the way stoics
look at weather, and answered
with embraceable logic,
“I call it,” she said, “I call it…
the thing that keeps me warm.”

Published in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association

Barry Sternlieb is the author of four chapbooks, the latest of which, Winter Crows, was awarded the 2008 Codhill Press Poetry Prize. His work appears in Poetry, The Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Prairie Schooner, Commonweal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, and others. He is also the recipient of a 2004 Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship in Poetry. Finally, he edits Mad River Press, specializing in the very slow creation of handmade limited edition letterpress poetry broadsides and chapbooks since 1986.

He lives in Richmond, MA.