Contemplating mortality: When death rhymes

This is one of those poems that demanded to be written. My father died this last March at the age of 90. He was a great dad, and he’d had a good life. One of the universal parts of the experience of losing a parent is going through their possessions and figuring out what to do with it all. My dad kept practically every document that crossed his path. It wasn’t until I’d taken on this job that I realized to what extent that was actually true. There was my mother’s elementary school diploma. Receipts from the $2 he’d borrowed and repaid from the Merchant Marines in 1947. Receipts from remittances my grandfather had sent back home to Italy in 1918, long before my father was even born. I was looking at multigenerational packrattery. It helped to explain my own issues with, let’s just call it an overabundance of paper in my life.

Of all of these boxes, bags, and piles of documents, the one that absolutely stopped me in my tracks was a small envelope that had the single word “cemetery” written across the front. It contained multiple copies of receipts for the cemetery plot my grandmother’s second husband bought in 1950. Grandpa died in 1972, and my grandmother died in 1985. They were both buried in that plot. There seemed to be very little risk that anyone would challenge their right to remain there. I felt reasonably certain that we could part with the receipts. But what really got to me was the accompanying photographs. I guess maybe it was the pride of finally owning a bit of real estate (Woody Allen’s character’s father in Love and Death running around with a small piece of turf inside his coat comes to mind). There were the two of them, Grandma and Grandpa, posing with their own gravestone. The image was jarring, and only grew more so as I studied it. Here is that photograph and the poem that grew out of it:


Henech and Lena Contemplate Eternity 

Henech & Lena stone


Behind winter bleak branches

across a narrow stretch of the Hudson River,

the low rise of the Taconic mountains looks down on Poughkeepsie,

which is where we are on this day in November, 1950.

Has there ever been a day that looked more November?

Looming in the foreground, this freshly engraved stone:






space for dates underneath each name.


Henech’s left hand rests on their gravestone

loosely draped as on a comrade’s shoulder.


My father was their son-in-law and

faithful keeper of paper for all of the family ghosts.

I will never be able to ask him why

he would not let go of these documents

securing a place for the long-buried.

There they were, yellowed edges and age-blurred ink

in a tidy stack on dad’s work table

when he died, as if they represented

unfinished business in his unspooling memory.


I scooped them into a plastic bag and now here they are,

a small avalanche on my desk. This

tattered envelope marked “Cemetery” holds all records of the

transaction, and photographs to mark the day. In this one


Henech’s right hand loosely holds the brim of his

fedora which he might absent-mindedly let go to the wind

if his besotted gaze is any indication.

He smiles open-mouthed at Lena.

There is only Lena and their future eternal home.


Lena, in her fine plumed hat

rests fingertips on the stone’s rougher edge,

her gaze fixed on the distance.

She leans slightly forward as if to steady herself.


Having had the fortitude to emigrate

from Lodz after the Pogroms,

the good fortune to get out

before the Nazis,

she has made a home in America—

in the workaday, bustling Bronx for now, but


here in the valley of these unassuming mountains,

just far enough from the city for a cool evening breeze,

Henech and Lena’s hands touch the waiting stone.

Follow her gaze to the place

she goes

when she leaves her body.


I meet her there in dreams.



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