When my friend Dabney died, I told my kids that "her heart just stopped." I couldn't think of any other explanation. Mason, who is the same age (6) as John, Dabney's youngest boy, was the one most concerned. He wanted to know how old she was, how old I was, how old I would be when I died (I told him I would live to 100, and he was satisfied: "Oh, well that's a long time."). But mostly he wanted to understand the mechanics, "How exactly does the heart stop?" I've been thinking about this for a while, and one sleepless night this week, I penned a poem for my sweet friend, Dabney.
How exactly does the heart stop?
It was January and bleak.
Even though snow fell deep enough
to hide the earth's flaws
it couldn't change the sky.
The pot-bellied clouds, brain-shaped and colored,
shifted back and forth suspiciously,
waiting for a sign.
Inside the family was locked up against the end of the day.
Still, cold air shimmied under the door.
If bodies shiver it is from these unseen things
that snake along the body's dark passages,
In the evening she sat down,
her little heater of a boy flattened against her side.
As they read, her back was to the sky,
her body unaware of the storm gathering its
marching down obscure paths.
Did the wind signal a shift
in temperature outside?
Did she, did John hear anything:
the sound of running water,
a rise of birds lifting off the frozen ground,
a low moan from the sky,
before she stopped in mid-flight?
Or did her world just slow down,
unannounced, and take a few sad laps
before lurching, a banged-up heart, to a close.