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Agnostic's deathbed


Late Afternoon

To please me, my son tries on this coat
out of the wardrobe dark after five long
years. It rests awkwardly on unfamiliar
shoulders and I imagine he's feeling the
weight, deciding if this is gift or burden.

Adopting the body builder's stance he
tests length of sleeve, strength of seam.
The stitches hold. He grins. Something
of dad's. As he strides to his car from

a distance it could well be you, absurdly
alive, always with so much to do, places
to be. Energy is still in the winter air as I
lean on my gate until the light has gone.

What you tried to tell me

Your breath fogging up the mask,
skin stretched over cheek bones,

what you tried to say I did not know.
I could only play games, run through

the alphabet, guess words as we did
in the car with small children, those

ridiculous pleasures of long ago.
But this was quite different. You

wanted, needed something and I
couldn't crack the code. Grabbing

my hand you drew a line on your
chest, moving on to make the sign

of the cross. Or so it seemed.
Priest! You want a priest? I said,

puzzled yet pleased to read your mind.
You rolled your eyes, looked up to

the ceiling, slowly shook your head.
I never learned what you tried to say

as we reached out to each other,
and words deserted us.

One day

Not tired, not lazy
wanting no more

than the warmth
of familiar flesh

a closeness nobody
else can give.

A sign on their door
siesta: do not disturb.

All that's needed
is in this room.

Late afternoon
a struggle to remain

awake; they cling
one to the other

as if to stay
the moment


For forty years I saw myself through John's eyes ...
Joan Didion, 'The Year of Magical Thinking'

I too saw myself through a lover's eyes.
To him I was the girl of fifty summers ago

although he, my mirror, at times reflected
a woman I did not want to recognize or

even be. This December morning I bend
to a mirror to face what five years exactly

have written on my skin. As I speak
to him of grief, its persistence,

my breath on glass blurs my image
and that appears to be as it will be.

Thoughts of death in a bookshop

So many titles bearing this word
and I recall that we seldom spoke

of death, passing on, ceasing to be.
Believers no more we kept God

at arm's length. You were in ICU
when a poet offered to pray for us,

speak in tongues. Then a cascade
of syllables falling over each other

like excited children wanting to be
heard, if not understood.

Your colleague brought a rosary
blessed by Pope John Paul only

months before he died. Closing
my palms on crystal beads,

chains of silver, Brian pressed
marks into my skin.

His gift I put away in a drawer.
The top one.

This the best
I could do. 

Lorraine McGuiganLorraine McGuigan has been published in Quadrant, Island, Southerly, Cimarron Review, North American Review, Antipodes and Psychopoetica. Since 1995 she has been managing editor of Monash University's Poetry Monash. Her first poetry collection What the Body Remembers was runner-up in the Anne Elder Award.

Topic tags: new australian poems, Lorraine McGuigan



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Existing comments

On Sunday my sister died.
"A merciful release!"
Is all I could say.
On Monday her son rang
To fill me in on
The funebrial arrangememnts:
Thursday evening, the Vigil Service;
Friday morning, Requiem Mass
Followed by the Funeral.
Today, Tuesday, I was alone
Until I read:
"Thoughts of death in a bookshop"
Which led me to Seamus Heaney's words:
"And we all knew one thing by being there,
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open."
There I heard my sister
Talking to her mother
And her grandmother.
"It's good to see you both
After all this time."
And I knew she was at peace.
It was indeed
A merciful release.

Uncle Pat | 08 November 2011  

Deeply moving verse. Thank you.

Joe Castley | 08 November 2011  

I'm saving these poems.
They are worth keeping and savouring.
The paradox of saying good bye to a loved one.
We just don't know how.

Jenny Esots | 10 November 2011  

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