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SunLit

SunLit Excerpt: The prose poems of “Bright Path, Dark River” meditate on family life and death

The pandemic moved poet Carol Guerrero-Murphy to a sense of urgency in relating observations about losing family -- including animals

Spring Tea Time, 4 o’clock

We sit in the west courtyard. We chat about the times we have nearly died over our long lifetimes.  Death is a tossed stone.  Memory is a pool.  The melanoma incident.  The two bloody births.  The numerous fatal car accidents mitigated or avoided.  The angioplasty.  Open heart surgeries.  Several resistant staph infections.  Three muggings at gun-point. My estranged husband’s attack with axe. We omit our dire childhood diseases, too long ago for consideration.  We digress, include the several near deaths of our children from accidents and disease, near deaths of our nieces (cars, drugs, suicide attempts), the blood clots of our brother, and so on.  We could go on to our parents.  If death were fire, to fight it we would have to light thousands of candles. The ripples from the death stone expand and multiply, we could be approaching horror. But we are approaching the image of the two of us floating serenely in a pond on a hot summer day in the future.  We dunk gingersnaps.  The death stone drops into the pool, ripples gently out. We like the sound of the water.  We are alive. We hold each other’s hands this afternoon in early spring; the sunlight is delicate and barely warm.    

How Alzheimer’s Let Her Love the Airport

Of course we dream of her now at the airport. Once we got to one, she strode off, sure of exactly who she was: a woman with a destination, a traveler.  And precisely where she was: traveling.  She no longer needed to hold someone’s hand, didn’t wonder where her dead husband could be (in the bathroom so long?), forgot to be afraid. Instead of his hand, she gripped the handle of her wheeled suitcase.  She wouldn’t forget it, never would leave it behind. She patted her ticket secure in her blazer pocket with the tissues and mints. Somehow at the airport her balance returned; she walked as if she were twenty. Her breath returned. She leaned forward, her straight grey hair flew back, the suitcase ticked and hummed behind her. The marble floor’s black and white squares sped under her feet. Out the windows, jets roared and lifted and she was the still center. I remember how she grinned. She chatted with anyone who would listen along the way, gracious as Queen Elizabeth to her subjects, told them she was meant for this, for arrivals and departures.  

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

After You Fall When Boarding the Center’s Van 

You’re in a room with a view, the one thing your husband had requested for his last days, and you love lying in that white bed with your feet up, your blood spinning massive clots that will move soon into your lungs, you love looking outside at the Rocky Mountains, Pikes Peak bare of snow and brushed with orange oaks. You say you remember, you were born there after all, and you like the Jello and fruit if I help you eat it, and you keep lying there, though I know you need to get up and walk, and we try to get you up but you lie back heavily.  At dark, the scattered lights you can see from your window don’t interest you, but a television monitor hanging above your feet is on all the time, and you shift your focus to it, where it plays a loop, around and around, of rugged mountains, scenes of wild lilies and columbine nodding by rivers, elevator music sweetly narrating, and it plays a loop of changing skies in all the video monitor colors of sunrise and sunset.  You taught me to find rare chocolate lilies on the tundra slopes, to pick wild blue and lingonberries there, and to lie down on deep sphagnum moss in a black spruce forest and look up at the changing sky and rest deeply.  You love lying in that white bed with your feet up, you love lying there watching the beautiful loop.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

As if I’d Never Read Gilgamesh and So Hoped

When I wake up I’ve already run down the stairs after her out the front door and down to the river bank, I’m already running up and down the bank in the bent dripping grass, already screaming for her, my sister at my side, the rest of my family tumbling out of our earthly house after her, and the river is at flood, the usual picnic tables, French grey geese, redwood giants tossing like twigs in the brown torrent. And books, a library of blue, red, green and violet fairy tales, the ones in which every rose branch and bowl of vegetable soup is loaded with enchantment, every white bone flutes a message, every caged bird offers possibility and I realize she’s run upriver. I try to run that way after her though the grass cries and knots itself around my ankles and the river’s white howl swallows my calling. I know she’s taken off her blueberry pajamas, her shrunken body childlike now tiny and cold, and she’s waded in, I know she was singing, and when a raft—a piece of shed floated by her—I know she fell upon it rocking and bucking and lay down and clung to it, and now we see her coming down over the heaving rapids, her pale body curled on the raft, her arms stretched out, her hands gripping its edges and my sister and I thrash into the river to catch her as her raft rushes past though  the river knocks us down, I knew it would, I knew I couldn’t stop this.

A True Account of My Mother’s Last Days

The answer that I love, the answer that I embrace, and that shows what a big beautiful place the universe is:  I don’t know. Penn

A true account of my mother’s death would remark on how much of her brain had died over ten years and also on what had lived: the words of six hundred songs, her childhood with her sisters and mother, her lost nickname that she called out days before, Popsie. A true account of my mother’s death might include the last words, the only words she wrote in a year: “it’s all good now” scratched lightly on a signature line after long silent concentration, denying humiliations and pain of the body falling away.

It must include details of planetary motion and weather as much as pulmonary embolism and dementia, must not omit the words blue, sky, Sangre de Cristo, alpenglow, snow, happy and love, must touch upon suffocation but also upon breath, upon hand, grip and reach.  If I were to be true to this account I would have to say sunset 5:06 December 31, 2008 and mean as well sunrise 6:03 July 8, 2008 when my father died for before my mother died she did say, “I will love you forever,” and she did reach for him, and in fact, the turn of the earth that is the dawn and dusk did balance as if two suns gazed face to face as if time doesn’t last, only desire, only forever, as if her last words sky and blue and happy were her story of her journey ahead.  

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

At the Root Canal, Don’t Say “A Hearse”

I drive over a mountain to the city to get a root canal. The dentist is older and mobbed by adoring female assistants. He, attired in a cashmere black suit and brilliant white shirt, a cobalt tie, is an author who shows me the manuscript he is working on. The title page is scrawled, unreadable. I am enthusiastic about it, quite certain it tells well his remarkably interesting life’s story involving Berkeley in the ’60s.  The assistants talk to each other about the drive over that same mountain, how they fear it, what stops they like to make in my little town. I try to add what I know, but they do not hear me. As a patient, it is as if I am not there. They insist on taking away the four little red pills I use for pain. They tell me the doctor knows how it will stretch the eyes of my ankles up over my calves.

I say I must find a restroom before he begins the procedure. Puzzled, they direct me down a long hall. I am led by a Tinkerbellish woman into a hangar-sized room. The morgue for those who died here.  Large Tinkerbell flits around from corner to corner looking for the restroom, flipping back sheets from the dead’s faces. They are calm and not sorry.

It is warm in the morgue.  Why not cold. I continue to have a sense of urgency; I need the restroom. In a tiny side room, an older woman is holding a baby and crying; it is her dead grandchild. She tells the faceless person beside her, “I have touched this beautiful dead baby more than I have ever touched my own son.” I try not to be afraid of the dead here; of course there are dead at a hospital. I know my father lay in such a place. But I must find my way out. When I do, there’s the next room, a gold-fixtured, maroon-porcelain bathroom made for the movie stars who must come here; relief. The dentist appears again. Let’s go for a ride in my car, he says. It is a big black elegant car (don’t say, hearse-like, though it certainly is a hearse) and although I think we are staying in the clinic, we drive fast. I am happy speeding forward in the car with nothing to see through the windshield. The engine is silent; he says he has spent his life trying to make everything quieter; he hates noise. I ask him if everyone he meets falls in love with him. Yes, he tells me. He is irresistible in his fine black suit and old face. I believe he is gay, and although I am a woman, I realize I have fallen in love with him. This is charisma. I want to ride in the big black quiet car wherever he drives. Perhaps I can skip the whole root canal procedure. Perhaps I will read his manuscript instead, and listen to good music as we drive, and we will remain together. He looks a lot like my dead father now. I’m not sure I should keep traveling, but he won’t stop the car.

Reincarnation Could be Like This

You’re flying from Denver to Santa Fe in a jet’s co-pilot seat, a rough departure, bumpy, sudden, you can just remember how the runway stripes, centered in front of you, rushed faster and faster beneath the jet until you rose steeply.  Now you’re above the wind, a perfect stillness holds the jet aloft.  You seem to be going nowhere, resting with the clouds, although the land and city, below, speed by like a river.   The jet flies on, sometimes above the clouds, sometimes below, punching through, up and down. You see your past homes as if they were past lives, two in north Denver, one near the university, the Virginia homes in your peripheral vision, Alaska far behind, as the clouds close and open.  Farther south, you fly over Cripple Creek, the Mt. Pisgah Cemetery, and one of your old names is on a stone down there, too small to see, and the clouds close below you again, and you’re in the sunlight, sailing the sky, sipping good coffee, you’re content to stay aloft for an eternity, but then you’re below the clouds, streaking over your last life, little Alamosa with its red-roofed college and its blue water tower, and you streak over the tiny pasture that held your horse, so when the clouds close around you again, and you rise above them again, you know the jet will be landing soon. The clouds, bigger and denser, overtake the sky in front of you.  You take a deep breath, blind, you enter them in turbulence, trusting the jet, trusting the instruments, the cosmic laws, trusting as you drop below the clouds again and see the earth then the runway rushing up to meet the jet.  You watch it rush up straight and true, you know you’ll touch down, but you don’t know where, nor why, only that it’s now, you’re in the right place, alive again.

Ravens: A Theory of Change

Once they are both dead and gone, I see them together perched in trees. Together they pick over road kill, stand shoulder to shoulder bowing at the back of a park bench, flap beak to tail across the sky, hop from flat stone to flat stone in a creek, pace in my driveway. I always say Hello, Mother and Father.  They say something back in Raven. As weeks pass, they settle into a few regular locations, wading in the drainage area by the highway that I drive to Lucky’s pasture every day and in the grocery store parking lot. I say hello. Months later, when I notice a pair I think, is that them?  Or two different ones?  Or are they just birds?  It’s impossible to distinguish one raven from another. Five billion ravens survey the earth. Or so.  I quit smiling at the birds and don’t say hello. I quit thinking about ravens in general.  Or in particular. More time passes. I ignore many ravens. 

By jet, I leave these San Luis Valley birds behind.  I get to another place (never mind they used to live here, never mind I am visiting their daughter, my sister).  On the first morning, I start out on a walk. At the end of the drive-way, two ravens sway together at the top point of a 30 foot black spruce tree and look down at me, their beaks pointed in my direction; they watch me stepping.  As I turn up the road, they follow with their eyes, turn their heads.  I have to notice them. I have to. Even when they are only staring at the back of my head. I turn back. Hello, I say to them.  How are you, I ask.

From the News

Such a flood.  School houses flounder under broken bridges; cows bellow; folks sit, arms wrapped around their knees, up on their roofs.  A few children in boats hold tight to the one thing they believe worth saving:  stuffed bears, pink-maned plastic ponies.  Slick yellow dogs swim with no shore to reach.  This is the scene when I notice I am underwater now, and you, too, Cynda, somersaulting slowly with your daughter in her heavy motorized chair.  The black chair falls away and your limb-frozen daughter, usually so tucked, stretches out little by little, and begins to use her thin arms and legs in the new atmosphere.  Her curls, always a crown of shining leaves and tendrils, loosen and spread into a halo caught by fingers of light that reach through the murky waters.  Your mass of white hair is tumbling and spreading around you; everything is softening and flowing, expanding.  I recall you hate water over your face, but you’re a canyon woman, you’ve been dumped out of rafts into torrents, you know what to do.  Your body drifts down like her chair, and you rise with your daughter up to the surface where this part of the country is being wrecked by the flood, from one point of view.  I have followed all this with my eyes, how silent we are underwater, drowning, the loud bump and rush of objects through water felt as much as heard. But I rise up with you and when we burst through the air,  we tangle in the branches of a  giant bare cottonwood, the three of us woven into a tapestry with a few white egrets, a hundred starlings, three bull snakes, a dozen mice,  (their tiny tails and feet gripping the smallest twigs), with all the colors of flags swept out of closets and desks.  We talk about your body, whether you’ll go back for it or not, whether you could get it again. Or get in it again. You like how you are now, how your white hair still spreads like mist, like moonlight, and how you’re holding your relaxed daughter in your arms.


Carol Guerrero-Murphy has taught creative writing from preschool through graduate levels in southern Colorado. She is semi-retired, writing and teaching in the Adams State Prison College Program and is affiliate faculty in the Western Colorado University MFA creative writing program. She is a professor emerita from Adams State University and has a doctorate from the University of Denver in English/Creative Writing.