The Last Heartbeat
The minutes dragged. She worked at it--
sweat pooling in her frown, her lungs
bellowed in and out as if the air were oil.
Her expression never changed.
Beneath the light,
my mother's skin looked violet.
I squeezed her hand,
pressed her fingertips, stroked the branching veins,
but...nothing. And so, good nurse,
I held her wrist between my fingertips and counted
one, two, three. Then the last beat came
just as light travels from a star
even when the star has blinked away.
I half-rose from the bed, a nurse
who'd watched her patient's respirations fail--
dumb, slow lungs, they push and pull.
Sometimes, a friend and I
walk in the local cemetery, the graves old
and vandalized. Does a child in utero
sense the blood's first rush? And does
the final pulse release the soul?
We read the names aloud, and speculate.
About the poet:
Cortney Davis, a nurse practitioner, is the author of Taking Care of Time, winner of the Wheelbarrow Poetry Prize (forthcoming from Michigan State University Press), and of Details of Flesh (Calyx Books) and Leopold's Maneuvers, winner of the Prairie Schooner Poetry Prize (University of Nebraska Press). With Judy Schaefer, she coedited two anthologies of poetry and prose by nurses, Between the Heartbeats and Intensive Care (University of Iowa Press). Her nonfiction publications include When the Nurse Becomes a Patient: A Story in Words and Images and The Heart's Truth: Essays on the Art of Nursing (Kent State University Press). Cortney's honors include an NEA poetry fellowship, three Connecticut Commission on the Arts poetry grants and three American Journal of Nursing Book of the Year awards.
About the poem:
"As a nurse, I have attended many patients at the moment of death--an honor that can be frightening but more often is a transcendent gift. I had 'learned' how to be with dying patients, but until my mother's death, I'd had no experience with the death of a loved one. Who was I at my mother's bedside? Who did my father expect me to be, and what did the staff nurses expect? I found myself trying to be both daughter and nurse--one accustomed to death, and yet a novice at this particular dying. I felt the obligation to be strong, but my pain was raw, unprofessional and urgent. I felt both selves, nurse and daughter, struggling. After my mother's death, when a nurse colleague and I walked at lunchtime in the cemetery near the hospital, we talked about death as we contemplated the headstones. My mother's death began my education in attending a loved one's death, a lesson perfected later at my father's bedside. Still, I have come no closer to understanding death--only to accepting the privilege of standing by, and the necessity of allowing my heart to respond in whatever way it will."
Johanna Shapiro and Judy Schaefer