Last Sunday my cousin Carol died. Only two years older than me, she lived in poverty all of her adult life. Hers was not an easy life, but it was a scrappy life. In recent months, her health, long poor, failed precipitously. Carol died suddenly of cardiac arrest, brought on by years of poverty, poor health, and poor choices.
I am struggling with my cousin's death. We were not close; we were never close. All the same, we were bound by family history and family blood. Her memorial service is later today.
In this poem, the last lines refer to the High Plain of Heaven, an afterlife in traditional Japanese Shinto belief.
Even as a little girl, she had
a sharp, simian face.
Her mother, my aunt, was Japanese
and Masako's oriental features were stamped on the faces of the three girls.
The oldest was a cherry blossom,
the middle one a slim iris.
Carol, the youngest, was a chippoke saru, a little monkey.
Grandma often told me that
I would howl in protest when my aunt and uncle came to visit from faraway Baltimore
and plopped Carol down next to me to play.
"You never did like Carol," she would say, nodding.
She was right.
When I was older, my aunt and uncle and Carol moved back here
and we were all in the same town.
Our orbits only crossed sporadically,
much like the way Neptune wobbles across the path
of Uranus in its elliptical travels.
I would always shift
uncomfortably from foot to foot
if the talk went past pleasantries.
Then I left town and didn't have to think anymore about my cousin.
When I returned years later, Carol's voice had scaled up into a crone's range
and the monkey face stood out in her wizened features.
Poor health and poor choices racked her body.
The desire to live burned all the more fiercely in her eyes,
then went out just like that.
What do we say at graveside?
Where do we throw petals?
How do we share memories?
What name do we give her?
Little Hard Life?
Chippoke Saru, scuttle off to the High Plain of Heaven
while we stay behind to sweep up.