I am not supposed to help,
the speech therapist tells me
as she holds a list of words before my mother,
saying, Tell me the opposite of each of these:
My mother turns to me, looking—
but I am not supposed to help.
It’s been three weeks since Dad reported
from ICU, how she must have fainted,
toppled against the tile,
a gash and crack in her skull,
how one paramedic turned green,
had to leave the room to steady himself
after seeing the pool of vomit and blood.
Now we sit in brain injury rehab,
as she works her way back, reaching
for words her memory lost,
not meaning, the doctors say,
Linguists claim the first learned is
the last lost. I want to offer words
I believe must be lodged in her memory.
If I say We like to hop, will she say on top of Pop?
If I say Mr. Brown, will she say Upside Down?
Can the learning-to-read call and response
my mother and I once shared
call her back to me?
Those were my firsts, not hers,
and I cannot know
what words she learned
in her own mother’s arms.
My memory cannot hold hers.
And I am not supposed to help,
so I smile, thinking Tall. Loud.
Light. The answer is Light.
Darby Lyons lives in Cincinnati and recently retired from teaching English and creative writing in Wyoming, Ohio. She received her MFA from the Sewanee School of Letters, and her work has appeared in 8 Poems, Mud Season Review, and other publications. She was a Tupelo Press 30/30 Project Poet for April, 2018. Darby is still learning how to be retired; so far, that means eating breakfast out with friends and writing poetry in coffee shops.