Dear Ethel,

I remember you saying that if Jesus showed up
unexpectedly for an afternoon visit, you would
serve him whatever was on the counter––
chicken soup? apple pie? And you were sure
he wouldn’t complain if one of the younger cats
who hadn’t yet learned the social graces
climbed up the side of his white robe, maybe
catching some skin along the way.

Now it’s been years since you left to meet
the guest of your vision, who sipped his soup
and ate his pie, unbothered by the cat who
gained the table and began to share soup
and pie. Jesus rose to give over his seat
while he moved closer to you for coffee
and you to him to share your apple pie.

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Captain/Seaman Heaney

Seamus Heaney commandeered language as captain
of a ship who knows the power of words to direct
the vessel he sails––whether to bridle or ride the waves.

He was also a seaman who saw stains on the foredeck
and scrubbed them out in service to telling the story
clean to those who read and see and listen
happily among the hearing herd.

Mid-May Day

Bluets first, then violets
backdropped by dandelions.

Daffodils going by, tulips
opening pastel wings.

Promise of iris in rising spears,
lily-of-the-valley set to bloom.

Across the field, the lilac tree
lifting soon-to-be fragrant cones

that one week hence in full bloom
will assault the eager bees.

April 15

Damien De Veuster, the leper priest
exiled himself on Molokai, the most
remote of Hawaiian Islands––
designated as quarantine––
to contain the contagion of leprosy,

its victims’ corpses left on the ground
to be consumed by dogs and pigs. Father
Damien reclaimed the land for burial,
to restore the dignity of those dead.

He and the colony built a church
to center community to replace hope-
lessness with joy in a sense of belonging.
He himself succumbed to the disease
and a century later was named a saint.

On his saint’s day, I bring him
the marginalized from mine and others’
families––the drunks, the junkies, the voiceless
ones, who carry a white and tattered banner

to announce they are coming, like Damien’s
congregants, their dignity restored
by recognition of their humanity,
by one man’s sacrifice of his life
that they might know the value of their own.

The Winter of Pneumonia

The winter I had pneumonia
the body-I was teetering. Hanging
between heaven and hell,
I couldn’t move a pinkie finger.

Call Kathleen, I told my husband.
She knew the room between life
and death, and if anyone could
stay the dark angel, it was she.

Through sweat-soaked flannel
of nightgowns, pajamas, day after
day, night after night, weeks
of wild coughing, crazy to catch

some breath between spasms––
water and juice, juice and water
food out of the question, ’til
my husband baked a chocolate

cream pie, and the healing began.
Six months gone, I consigned pneu-=
monia to the rumble seat, and good
health itself took over the steering wheel.

Lost in Limbo

Outside these cemetery gates
guarded by angels of stone, unbaptized
infants were once buried, unable
to be interred in hallowed ground
because of original sin not washed away.

Not knowing what to do
that was merciful yet just, rule makers
wrote them into the margin of books
that held the question open––in limbo,
Latin for margin, which hardened
to doctrine of a secondary heaven
where needs were met for these innocent
babes, who because no one thought
to baptize–– even with spittle,
in an emergency––would be separated
from God for all eternity.

Lord, have mercy on all of us
who subscribed to such a belief about you
who from the first and to the last
is source of comfort for grieving parents
then and now, when the height, length, and
depth of your love is present as medicament
for this grievous wound, as you on your knees
dig with your hands in the earth you created
to hollow out a hole the size of love
to receive the body; then do you gather up
the perfect soul and return with it to home.

Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness

Four children, one tub
no running hot water––
How did she manage to keep us clean?

With pots and kettles on the stove
heating after supper on Saturday night
in preparation for church on Sunday

morning. The heated water half-filled
the claw-footed tub, and whoever was
first in the week’s rotation stepped

gingerly into the steamy bath.
My favorite slot was number three.
Like Goldilocks tasting the bears’

porridge and finding the bowl of Baby
Bear not too hot and not too cold
but just right, so it was with the third

slot. Granted I sat in a growing scum
but I didn’t mind, what with the rinse
the warm rinse a comforting caress

after it all. Like animals nuzzling
their fresh hay on a cold winter night
and settling into their clean bedding

with quiet nickers and oinks, we
settled onto clean sheets, murmuring
to each other as we fell asleep.