Boatman and Child

by Paul Hooker

Moving her to nursing care has proved
more complicated than anticipated,
though anticipated it surely was,
and complicated. There is no room
for furniture, or for the bed she slept in
at his side until the end, and after,
alone but for the ghost of him—a wisp
of memory in a haze of ache: victims
of the tyranny of shrinking space.
Save the pictures, she begs, and so

into boxes go the portraits group shots
smiling cousins, cheap images of Paris
and canals in Venice she has never seen,
lives lived and lost long before hers came
and went. And the Boatman: that most of all.

She means the print of “Boatman and Child,”
by Robert Reid, a sentimental scene
that hung above her mother’s hearth, and hers,
and now in this last apartment above her bed.
A storm at sea, an ancient boatman, one hand
on the tiller while the other hauls the sheet
against the wind. Huddled in his lap
a little girl, nestled in the shelter of his slicker,
safe from harm. When I was small, she says,
I thought he was my grandfather, and smiles.

Stuffed into a mirror box, sealed for storage.
But the space is small, and something cracks.
Frames and paintings are frail, human things,
they tend to break when under too much strain.
Even ancient boatmen and little girls.

Leave the tape secure, the box unopened,
the painting whole and sound at least in memory,
until this farce of normalcy wears thin,
until at last we can no more pretend
that shore and shelter are but over there,
and huddling tight we make it safely home.
Truth becomes the last indignity.
Close the storage door and wind the lock,
replace the flatbed cart beside the stairs,
turn off the light, and breathe, and walk away.