When She Wouldn’t

When her recorded voice on the phone
said who she was again and again to the piles
of newspapers and magazines and the clothes

in the chairs and the bags of unopened mail
and garbage and piles of unwashed dishes.

When she could no longer walk
through the stench of it, in her don’t-need-nobody-
to-help-me way of walking, with her head

bent down to her knees as if she were searching
for a dime that had rolled into a crack

on the floor, though it was impossible to see
the floor. When the pain in her foot she disclosed
to no one was so bad she could not stand

at her refrigerator packed with food and sniff
to find what was edible. When she could hardly

even sit as she loved to sit, all night
on the toilet, with the old rinsed diapers
hanging nearby on the curtainless bar

of the shower stall, and the shoes lined up
in the tub, falling asleep and waking up

while she cut out newspaper clippings
and listened to the late-night talk
on her crackling radio about alien landings

and why the government had denied them.
When she drew the soapy rag across the agonizing

ache of her foot trying over and over to wash
the black from her big toe and could not
because it was gangrene.  

When at last they came to carry my mother
out of the wilderness of that house

and she lay thin and frail and disoriented
between bouts of tests and X-rays,
and I came to find her in the white bed

of her white room among nurses who brushed
her hair while she looked up at them and smiled

with her yellow upper plate that seemed to hold
her face together, dazed and disbelieving,
as if she were in heaven,

then turned, still smiling, to the door
where her stout, bestroked younger brother

teetered into the room on his cane, all the way
from Missouri with her elderly sister
and her bald-headed baby brother,

whom she despised. When he smiled back
and dipped his bald head down to kiss her,

and her sister and her other brother hugged her
with serious expressions, and her childish
astonishment slowly changed

to suspicion and the old wildness returned
to her eye because she began to see
this was not what she wanted at all,
I sitting down by her good ear holding her hand
to talk to her about going into the home

that was not her home, her baby brother winking,
the others nodding and saying, Listen to Wesley.

When it became clear to her that we were not
her people, the ones she had left behind
in her house, on the radio, in the newspaper

clippings, in the bags of unopened mail,
in her mind, and she turned her face away

so I could see the print of red on her cheek
as if she had been slapped hard.
When the three of them began to implore

their older sister saying, Ruth, Ruth,
and We come out here for your own good,

and That time rolls around for all of us,
getting frustrated and mad because they meant,
but did not know they meant, themselves too.

When the gray sister, the angriest of them,
finally said through her pleated lips

and lower plate, You was always
the stubborn one, we ain’t here to poison you,
turn around and say something.

When she wouldn’t.

More Poems by Wesley McNair