Katie McClendon: Words That Might Not Work

Katie McClendon: Words That Might Not Work


Her room was not a room,
but a space sectioned off
from the corridor
by a curtain.
In small, plastic boxes
I counted anonymous rows of
cotton balls, tongue depressors,
surgical tape, unopened needles.
My father talked to everyone,
told a story about the woman 
who poured sweat and fell back,
would not answer him when
he called, would not wake up.
I borrowed a Scrabble board, but
only made words longer, never
started new ones, stopped once
to stare at the man on the television
who told me to floss regularly.
We gathered in a room
that was not a room,
but one circular wooden wall
that went round and round
and round.
We had no ceiling,
just tilted pines that
bent over us,
peering in.
I counted the rows of
people. I wanted to sit
in the back, but my father
would not allow it. He
said, Family should sit
in the front.
I filled a paper plate
with too many sweets:
shards of chocolate,
a slice of sugar crusted white cake,
one inch of fudge, hard caramel candies,
smashed up chocolate chip cookies,
gingersnaps, mints,
pumpkin and apple pies that drifted
over the edge, taffy.
I hovered near the edge
of the hospital curtain
while my father begged
Please, say something
to her. Anything.
My sisters whispered
in her ears,
placed their small
hands on her still
I hovered just outside
the room, practicing words
that did not work, trying
to keep my hands open.
When I was eight,
she made me a
cake. It was chocolate
with chocolate
frosting. From a
drawer filled with
decorations, she
pulled out a package
of candy sailboats
that peeled from a
wax paper page, and
pressed the prettiest
one to the top of the cake.
I filled an icing syringe
with transparent red
and she cupped her
hands around mine,
helped me write
my own name. I
never said Thank you. 

At her funeral,
a woman introduces
herself, says,
You must be her daughter.
I say,
She says, It’s all the
same thing, isn’t it?
I nod, uncertain,
remember the way
we refused her, year
after year, my sisters
and I.
I sit in the front, next to
her mother and her brother. 
Filling myself with sweets,
I push the food in so
fast and hard that
something in me snaps
and the word is no longer
a word, but the memory of
cake and names, a picture of
her as a young girl, her arm
curling the waist of my father.
Her memory is not an
obligation, but I make room,
allowing space
for words that might not work.

Editor’s Note: This poem was published on our old site.

Katie McClendon is a queer writer who recently graduated from the University of Washington and currently teaches a Fiction & Memoir class to LGBTQ students in Seattle through the Bent Writing Institute. She has published poems in Mare Nostrum (2009) and The Bent Anthology (2007).