An hour home from the hospital
my mother is taking her first bath
in three days. I stand at attention
in front of the bathroom window,
ready to sponge her back, help her
keep the bandage dry. As a child
I’d sometimes watch her bathe,
her favorite ritual of the day.
Mermaid perfect she’d soap
each breast, turn the hot water on
and off with magical webbed toes.
Today she barely moves in the water
as if suddenly set down 
in too large a space. My stepfather
who has been fighting with us
is packing his suitcase for Los Angeles.
My sister is at work. In the stuffy
greenhouse air, a white tulip,
our sole witness, steams in its glass
beaker on the sink. I am not to tell
anyone else she has cancer. No other
family. No close friends. No one.
I don’t want people to treat me differently,
she says, I’m asking you to do this for me.

Just before she went under she asked me
for her purse, then brushed her cheeks
with blush so she’d look normal to herself
in the mirror when she came to.
When the orderly came in
to roll her away, he ordered her
to wipe it off, all of it!
I could not save her
from the anesthetic taking effect,
the orderly insisting no make-up!
her whiney plea but the surgeon
isn’t going anywhere near my face!
then a nurse trying to calm her down,
it’s all right, it’s all right, the rosy wads
of tissue tossed onto the nightstand.

I stand here, towel ready with the sun
behind me. As the light glints off
the apartment building across the street,
my mother stares at me then closes her eyes.
A few seconds pass. She stares at me again,
closes her eyes, presses freckled fingers into them.
I’ve never seen that before, she muses 
like a voyeur inside her own skin.
You’re still there. You’re still
right there under my eyelids.  
I can’t explain the science of it,
like the disease she’s lucky
to have caught early, but I recall
from high school biology something about
the residual firing of cone cells
in the retina following a direct gaze,
a cinematic effect I used to create
over and over as a kid on the beach
blinking sunbathers, swimmers, surfers
into a salty haze of angels.

You’re an angel she says
when I help her out of the tub.
She is a small boned woman,
but the wet chaos of her body
at this moment is almost more
than either of us can bear.
When her own mother, whose
neediness is a black hole,
phones, I am sworn to secrecy.
The same goes for the rest
of the world. So I talk behind
her back instead, mostly
to people she doesn’t know.
Over weeks, months, years,
I unspool her illusion   
of privacy like film.
Call it what you will.

She would call it betrayal.
This desire to rescue
what details remain.
This afterimage of us
afloat on a white screen.
This phantom glow
when I look away.

Kate Sontag

If you have any comments on this poem, Kate Sontag would be pleased to hear from you.