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My Mother's Optimism

by John Guzlowski

When she was seventy-eight years old
and the angel of death called to her 
and told her the vaginal bleeding 
that had been starting and stopping
like a crazy menopausal  period 
was ovarian cancer, she said to him,
"Listen Doctor, I don't have to tell you 
your job.  If it's cancer it's cancer.
If you got to cut it out, you got to."
After surgery, in the convalescent home 
among the old men crying for their mothers,
and the silent roommates waiting for death
she called me over to see her wound, 
stapled and stitched, fourteen raw inches
from below her breasts to below her navel.
And when I said, "Mom, I don't want to see it,"
she said, "Johnny, don't be such a baby."
Six months later, at the end of her chemo, 
my mother knows why the old men cry.
A few wiry strands of hair on head,
her hands so weak she couldn't hold a cup,
her legs swollen and blotched with blue lesions,
she says, "I'll get better.  After his chemo, 
Pauline's second husband had ten more years.
He was playing golf and breaking down doors
when he died of a heart attack at ninety." 
Then my mom's eyes lock on mine, and she says,
"You know, optimism is a crazy man's mother."
And she laughs.

John Guzlowski's poems about his parents' experiences in the Nazi concentration camps appear in numerous journals as well as his books: Lightning and Ashes and Third Winter of War: Buchenwald (nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Poetry). He blogs about his parents at http://lightning-and-ashes.blogspot.com