Last Breath

By Susan Rich

Breathe! I demanded, like when you had your babies.
You have to. And she did — considered the request,
paused in-between to see if she had done it right,
to see if it was what she still wanted to do.
And for the first time in twenty-four hours
we knew she was still with us. She knew
she was where for the moment
she wanted to be. The book says 90 seconds
is how long a person can go without taking air — breathe
a fact we’d learned that morning,
came equipped to her bed
with second hands on our watches.

It was Friday evening, the beginning of Shabbat.
C’mon, like this. Pull the air in to you,
like when we swim.

My Dad, my sister, and the night nurse
who’d never had anyone die on her shift —
we laughed and shouted on-the-edge of hysteria
as my mother matched her breath with my own.
The sound turning labored, then restful,
like a rip tide temporarily at ease.

She can hear us! She heard you!
As if her body had left us one last sense
which we’d almost overlooked.
Breathe with me.
Fifty-six…, eighty-one…, ninety-five … one hundred and twenty Breathe…
How could she have forgotten, after the ins and outs of her life?
But I was showing her,
with exaggerated sighs, shouts. Breathe!
—/
And then nothing more.
Just a body in a room.
The rented wheelchair moved against the wall.
Morphine to pour down the toilet, a paper to sign.
—/
Cover the mirror, remove all rings
and earrings, nothing other-worldly at all.
Breathe, keep her corpse company for the night.
Breathe, it’s up to you to keep her alive.

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Susan Rich is the author of four poetry collections including Cloud Pharmacy The Alchemist’s Kitchen, Cures Include Travel, and The Cartographer’s Tongue: Poems of the World (White Pine). Along with Brian Turner she is a co-editor of The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Crossing Borders published by The Poetry Foundation and McSweeney’s. She has received awards from The Times Literary Supplement (London), Peace Corps Writers, PEN USA and the Fulbright Foundation. Rich’s poems have been published in 49 States and 1 District including the Antioch Review, New England Review, Harvard Review, Plume, and World Literature Today. Her poetry and prose have been translated into Slovenian and Swedish respectively. “Last Breath” was in The Cartographer’s Tongue, White Pine Press, 2000.