Becoming Death (after Richard Avedon's photography of his father)


"Becoming Death"

I think of your face;
It is on your last day,
Head, bald,
Air struggling
To get out more than in.
Last breath... not yet.
You have become
As well as ageless.
But, you are unmistakably old,
And so tired.
Quivering lips upward
Perhaps starting to smile,
And a single tear swelling
In the corner of your life.

Author's note: It was 1995, two years after my mother had died from lung cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. I was doing the mundane -- balancing the checkbook. In the background, my TV was tuned to Channel 13, the local PBS station. The American Masters series was on; the episode was about the photographer, Richard Avedon. Half listening, I heard Avedon speaking of photographs he took of his father dying. Also, there were others commenting on the message and motivation of the artist. Some were complimentary; others not so. All were revelatory. At some point I looked up from my work to watch and saw his father on my TV screen, and immediately the image appeared to change, morphing into that of my mother on her death bed. I put down the check book and picked up a piece of paper. I immediately started to write "Becoming Death." After completing the poem, I realized something had shifted in me inspired by Avedon's photos. Prior, the only vision of my mother that I could conjure was that of her lying dead in the hospital. Suddenly, I was able to see her in the full spectrum of memory. My mind had been freed. At the urging of my friend, Andre, I mailed to the poem to Mr. Avedon. Four days later, I received a reply in which he wrote, "For my work to inspire such a beautiful poem is all I can ask. Thank you."

To look at the series of photographs please click here.