Not counting what I can’t remember,
the closest I ever came to her was when I put my hand
inside the urn. I don’t know what I thought I’d find –
some proof, maybe, that she was really gone, or wasn’t,
some form that would place her, one way or the other,
and the whole outrage her dying was. Even then, nothing
but a few pounds of elements, she could surprise me.
The stuff, utterly without the give of ashes, dust,
was cool, and coarse like sand, and resisted
my fingers reaching deeper. The words got said,
the urn was sealed, we cradled it as best we could
over the heap of earth and lowered her into the vault.
Seemed just as wrong then as it does now to call it her.
The dead should have their own pronoun
so we can know better how to talk about them.

On the nineteenth day of August, the Chief Medical Examiner
of the State of Maryland performed an autopsy
on the body of my mother.
The body was that of a well-developed, well-nourished,
white female, received unclad. 186 pounds, 5’8″ in length, the body
appeared compatible with the reported age of 63 years.
Rigor was fixed to an equal degree in all extremities.
Lividity was present, the body cold.

What we said, crossing to the heat aura blazing off the car,
I don’t recall, but I know I was thinking – because I couldn’t stop,
not for a long while after – about the last time I’d seen her,
that night at dinner when she said nothing tasted right anymore.
Even if she’d been seen right away, I found out later,
all they could’ve done was a radical resection and chemotherapy,
and she’d have been dead in a month anyway. So it was good –
wasn’t it? – that she didn’t have to know what was coming.
A good thing my father didn’t win their last fight, good
she wouldn’t go to the hospital until she’d made herself presentable.

The irises were brown, the corneas cloudy.
The scalp hair was graying and straight,
the oral cavity free of foreign material.
Teeth natural, nails intact. Multiple
varicosities across both legs.
The external genitalia
were those of a normal adult female.
The body was opened then

For weeks I wasn’t safe to drive. I’d find myself
screaming away, or trying to, the memory of what I wasn’t
there to see but kept seeing anyway: him helping her out of bed,
her nightgown clinging to her belly, so swollen from the fluid
they’ll find inside her that it holds her breasts up, like a young woman’s.
Her hand already cold, but she wants a shower so he steadies her
toward the bathroom. Somewhere between the carpet and the tile
comes the oh. One syllable and everything she was, gone

by the usual thoraco-abdominal incision
and the chest plate removed. Some 5 liters
of serous fluid was found in the peritoneal cavity.
No other abnormal fluid collections.
All organs present in the normal positions.

When I saw her next I couldn’t see her because the airway
covered her from nose to jaw, and since the coroner would need to see it there
they wouldn’t take it off. Her face was the color of wet sidewalk
except for the blood, which must have come up
when they did the chest compressions. The report didn’t say. They can say
what happened on the moon a million years ago, but no one could tell me
what she felt, being let go of so suddenly. Being reached for.

The scalp was reflected and the calvarium
of the skull removed. Dura mater and
falx cerebri intact, cerebral hemispheres
symmetrical. Coronal sections through them
revealed no lesions.

What the report said was like words in a dream
whose sound is all you remember in the morning.
The surface of the left ovary was necrotic
and pus-like without identifiable cortex.
The gland itself was replaced
by a large mass measuring 6 x 3 x 3
and containing a clear white, mucoid,
jelly-like material.

They opened her. They saw
the pericardial surfaces glisten,
chambers and valves in their stations,
the muscle every color of earth.
The aorta and its branches, rising,
following the usual course, are widely patent, free
of any obstruction. You can’t say what’s inside someone
unless you know what you’re talking about.
The heart weighed 350 grams.

Lisa McCullough lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
tags: Poetry, Poetry & Fiction   
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2 Responses to Postmortem

  1. joyce kornblatt June 29, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    what a powerful and moving poem, lisa. was just wondering the other day if you were still writing, and so glad to see you are…

  2. Paula M. Elliott November 14, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    Your writing touches me deeply. i can feel you… your words…chosen so carefully. Your writing is more powerful than ever. I am proud of you and miss you… and would love to hear from you….please…

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