The Last Heartbeat

Cortney Davis

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.”

Poetry editors:

Johanna Shapiro and Judy Schaefer

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About the Poem


10 thoughts on “The Last Heartbeat”

  1. What wonder-full questions. I, too, remember my first “family death”–my sister’s. Since then my father, mother, husband… There is indeed a qualitative difference between attending a death as clinician and as family member. But for both we are witnesses and story-tellers.

  2. Cortney – I am so glad to read a poem by you — it has been too long! Keeping company with my elderly and increasingly frail parents, this poem, and your comments about it, reminds me to stay open.


    1. Hello Linda! Thank you for your kind comments. It has indeed been too long. I hope you are well and gathering and telling amazing stories. Would be wonderful to see you somewhere, sometime . . . . and I send good wishes as you travel the journey with your parents.

  3. Your comments brought tears to my eyes. How do we understand death! I don’t know either. Moving poem and commentary.

  4. Amazing poem, amazing writing presence you give us through your eyes of your mother’s last heartbeat. I learned so much via this poem, even as I pull my own mother back from the precipice. I feel a bit guilty as she starts to recover from a brain hemorrhage stroke. As she gains a few more words each day, it seems remarkable to me, though I know others don’t get that chance. Just yesterday, I watched my elder brother-in-law work so hard for each breath even though he likely didn’t know why he was trying that hard, as the doctors thought he had little brain function after 3 minutes of lack of oxygen after a massive heart attack. More like your mother, though it wasn’t saved as a poem. That is the lasting miracle here, methinks.

    1. Thank you, Nessa! I hope your mom is recovering. As a nurse, I find that writing about my experiences with patients helps me both “hold on” and “let go.” Same applies to any intense personal moment, like so many we share with loved ones.

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Call for Entries​

Pulse Writing Contest​​

"On Being Different"