HOW THE SHRINE GOT BUILT

For Theresa

(This poem appeared in Eureka Literary Magazine, Volume 13, No. 1, Fall 2004.) 

 
I had never before seen her,
decades too young to need a cane,
the tall woman coming from the house across the way,
measuring the strength in her pace,
the full length of the way to the lane.
 
We met at night, outside.
The sky, round and turned
like a waiting teacup over Monterey Heights,
held us in secret shelter.
The first words between us were for the love of poetry.
I recited a haiku
about memory and letting go
of a dying loved one,
and Theresa told me
that while she was still here,
she wanted to write a poem.
 
She wore a beanie on a sunny day
the next time I saw her.
I gave her a small stone from my collection,
one suited for the comfort of palm-rolling.
She gave me one in return, plain, weather gray,
flat, well-fitted to my thumbs, and elliptical,
the perfect skipping stone,
too perfect to ever skip across the waters.
 
Twice, when she was able,
I took Theresa to hear poets read,
and when she asked me,
I offered an emphatic yes,
she should start
now, before everything else was done.
 
 
Then the poem died in the hollow of her belly.
It died again
in the impassable tunnels
and unbreathable bellows
and a thousand times over
in the tangle of tumor and neurons
in her brain.
 
The same woman who entered hospice,
eyes translucent with the pledge to stay open,
skin pearlized with the sheen of final gratitude,
once told me she was more afraid to write a poem
than die.
I wanted to gather her into my arms and keep her,
all the rest of the way
so I could have her with me when it became my time,
instead of being left quaking,
without her, maybe for decades,
to write my own.
 
I was home the night
something tugged at my heart
and stopped me
on my way down
for a cup of tea.
Looking out my staircase window
at the spot
where we had met, and across
to her darkened window,
I whispered,
“Go.”
 
Months later, to remember Tassajara
and Jane’s poetry workshop,
I left the mountain monastery with a clay miniature,
sweet smiling Jizo Bodhisattva,
in a blue robe, eyes shielded beneath his lids,
gentle guardian of deceased children.
At home, the stone Theresa had given me
became a platform for Jizo.
I placed it in my windowsill,
and set the figurine upon it.
I imagine the monk in Oregon
who rounded the head just so,
both Jizo and the monk hairless, like Theresa.
From her devoted brush, a drop of cerulean glaze
hangs,
might release
into the pot
or ride a little longer
the glide of Clatskanie breezes.
She cannot know for whom she makes it.
 
In the suspension,
between the thoughts she let pass through her mind,
did she breathe a vow for poetry?
In Jizo’s prayerful hands she has placed
a jewel,
the clear green of a peridot,
intended to banish all fear,
an offering to the lion
striding here
across the waters.