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Joining The Line

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

Embracing Grief

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.

—Bob Dylan

For Patrick Marling, Jennifer Folster, Matt Reagon,

Deirdre Thompson, Nancy Colkin

1. Our old friend Roz from the Milwaukee days

emails 50 years later to say she doesn’t understand

the last line of Ellen Bass’s soul-shaking poem,

“The Human Line”—but when I write back

some ho hum classroom blather about the eternal

continuum ... joy, sorrow, pain, pleasure, blah blah

blah … I don’t use the word grief, Bass’s word,

because Roz knows grief in her bones and I am

a child in this realm. Maybe a coward. For no reason

I can crow about, I have survived 76 years, married 54,

7 kids, 17 grandkids, a miracle they’re all still by my side,

holding me up by the elbows, steering me away

from the cruel knowledge that arrives at every birth,

a cold breeze, a lip shuddering wail, a shiver, a gale

warning, an old friend’s question blowing open

delivery room doors, morgue lockers flapping open

and shut, a heartless wind ripping my fingers off a cliff

of my own making, a dizzying fall through decades

of grief ungrieved for beloved children not of my own

making, one by one dropping my hand

as I thought I had led them safely through

the anxious crowd to the train station to move on

to their own brave lives, so suddenly disappearing

some faceless bystander looking my way with a shrug.


I wish I could say here that I honored their short lives,

bravely following the tracks we had once laid out

beyond the classroom. Wish I could write here

that I hadn’t slipped out of the line long before my own

train left the station, a pointless exercise, it turns out,

in exorcism, running headlong into the windswept chaos

of distraction. I wish I could tell each of them today

that I have not lived a life warding off grief, breathlessly

listening for breath sounds behind the doors of seven

nurseries, waiting decade after decade with bated breath

for love to abandon me, standing masked and robed

beside a son’s bed in the Sloan-Kettering ICU, making deals

with a God I don’t believe makes deals for the asking,

a supplicant everywhere I’ve gone, begging protection

against the infinite pyre in my backyard, smoke, ashes,

embers flying into my eyes in the wordless seconds following

an old friend’s harmless note 50 years gone, a whistle,

a bullet train coming into the station, telling me the hour to be

brave is soon enough long past, time to join the endless line

of the grieving, the living, the whoosh of everything.

—SL, Port Royal, SC, March 2023

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