Think Fuji, Denali, Kilimanjaro – gradual at first, then ever steeper.
Toward the top there are no trees, only snow and rocks,
and a wind that blows from the end of the world.
I watched my mother those last 20 years, eighty to ninety-nine.
I used to say she was declining, but now I know it’s not a
slow slide down. It’s a long, hard climb up.
Watch a child get up from the floor. She’s down, then she’s up. Badda boom.
Badda bing. When I try to rise from the floor, it takes a plan, and I grunt
as I man-up, heaving a heavy harpoon at the great white whale of my aging.
You climb higher, get weaker. Knees give out, and hips, backs, hearts.
Your eyes and ears fail to report danger. As your air thins, you think
you’ll see farther, but the world removes itself, grows distant, dim, confused.
Almost to the summit, it’s
like Norgay and Hillary on Everest:
Very slow, short steps.
Bend into the hill.
Catch your breath.
By the time my mother summited, she was talking with her parents
half-a-century dead. Then she was there – at the edge of that
huge, round, mysterious opening to the world’s heat and light.
closed her eyes,
and let go.
Some cast notes on the poem.
My mom, Juanita Ramey Ramsay, was intelligent, well-read, funny, and could be caustically observant, as when she said about an aunt who always said the first thing that came to her mind, “She can’t help it honey. She’s just stupid.”
Mom’s memory became increasingly confused in her 90s. When she was around 95, my younger brother Gene was visiting her and said, “Mom, do you remember my son John was here last week?” Mom said, “Well, now, that rings a bell. …… I’m just not sure which bell.”
She didn’t have any major health crises. She just got older and older, and smaller and smaller. In the summer of 2008, as she approached her 99th birthday in Evanston, Illinois, my brothers and I decided to visit her at the same time. Ken came in from Cleveland, I from New York, Gene from Anchorage, Alaska. We began to arrive early in the week. We were all there by Tuesday. Mom died on Thursday.
I live in Nyack, New York, but wrote “The Climb” in San Francisco in 2011 while visiting my bi-coastal partner Anita, who had introduced me to OWL, the Older Writers Laboratory. The “owls” at OWL, including Anita, constantly surprise me with the freshness, insight and honesty in their poems. They inspired me to focus on what’s important, to pare down what I wanted to say to what was essential. It was in that frame of mind and ambience that I wrote “The Climb.” I finished a final revision in June 2011, just after my 70th birthday.
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