My mother, the little elephant,
They called her.
At only seventeen, her huge belly,
(Burdened with the enormity of my sister and I)
Entered the hospital ahead of her.
The nurses lay her
On a gurney, and
I am no longer my mother,
No longer my sister’s reflection.
Resentful of the solitary solidity of my flesh,
I howl and root into the blankets.
My sister emerges as a separate self.
Too weak for indignation, she is silent.
Our mother’s veins used to holding us,
Collapse in our absence,
And my sister, used to three hearts thumping
Decides her one cannot sustain her.
I feel them still,
The way I imagine an amputee
Feels the itch on a severed limb.
I begin to believe
I am not like others.
Having lost my mirror,
I believe the extra limbs are real.
Too young to count,
But old enough to have fairy friends,
I imagine myself a starfish fallen from the sky.
I grow angry when
I am told my additional appendages don’t exist,
And I need to quit insisting others acknowledge them.
I realize I am a wasp,
And I sting and I sting and I sting.
I take refuge as a squid
And swaddle myself in ink
Happy to be hidden.
I have lived long enough,
And we are all lamenting flesh lost,
Naming our phantom limbs, and
Calling to them in the night.
We have no need to baptize this new creature we have each become.
Rachel McKinley, a rock star, I mean high school English teacher, performs three shows a day to reluctant audiences of teenagers. When not extolling the virtues of other writers, she pens her own poems, memoirs, and novels. She has her MFA from Western Connecticut University and lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her husband, son, and dog.
Author of “Still”
What inspired you to write this poem?
The poem is autobiographical. In my home town, people of my mother’s generation still refer to me as “the one who lived” and tell me their memories of my mother’s wake, “a dozen roses in one arm and your sister in the other.” I nod my head which seems to remind them I am an adult, not the infant left in the hospital a few extra days so her family arrange a funeral. Inevitably, the person then tells me how they proud they are of me and how proud my mother would be of who I have become.
What do you hope readers take from this poem?
Any emotion strong enough to leave us feeling altered or out of sync is also strong us to create community.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this poem has been through?
Many. There was more than one false start, several line and word changes, and eventually some stanzas were eliminated.