From the tribe of Asher


From the tribe of Asher

The necessary second witness. Pointing finger of a lost tribe
Finding its place again. Behold the blessed castaway.

Even her age meant a completion and a return.
How can we trust anything when every thing

Means something? Is every father the face of god
Until the glimpse of the infant visage, God the beginning?

Seven dozen years waiting against the stone of the dead.
Father stone, husband stone. Waiting as the days dry up

To make the math work wonders. What else did she see
In the intervening hours but a name in another tongue

the same backwards as forwards? I would believe you
Against all the world believes. I cast a pebble at the well

And the hand that caught it before it fell




Idea of autumn’s end appending, calling a leaf
Bad for hanging on, for adding to loss its

Very material structure, surface-veined and colorful.
A sensual wave turned brittle, age as implement of end, extended–

That’s not bad. To signal with a last incommunicable strength.
No. Bad would be not waiting to watch it linger, then fall.

eulogy for mom

On November 14, 2017 I delivered the family remembrance at my mother’s mass of Christian burial at St Jude Church in Lincoln, RI. After the ceremony a few people asked me to post the text of my remarks; those words can be found below. They may be of interest to anyone who’s had a loved one suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, or anyone who’s had a mother who, like my mom Doris, was both the practical and spiritual heart of our family for most of our lives.


We grow up wanting our mothers to be proud of us.

We mostly don’t realize until we’re parents ourselves that a loving mother is always proud of her children, supportive of their varying wishes and dreams, proud of the struggle and fight regardless of the achievement. Mom was like this. Now comes the struggle, long foreseen, of being here without her.

The Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer describes the effect of a person’s death like this:

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long pale glimmering comet’s tail.
It contains us. It blurs TV images.
It deposits itself as cold drops on the power lines.

Here we are, today, still feeling the blurring impact of that comet’s tail at a wonderful life’s end. That disorientation that the poet describes can leave us feeling lost. I have felt this, in fact, for almost a decade as the family watched Alzheimer’s disease ravage the brain and body of this wife, this mother, this individual with her own life and love of God that began before any of us even knew her. Yet, time and again, when Mom smiled, you could recognize the person who in so many other ways seemed missing from our lives.

Over the last ten years, we felt the loss of her quick humor, her positive spin on even the worst days. What she missed in those years was not only the present but the past as well. Yet she recognized us as people she loved — beyond names and memory, and we recognized her, the Doris who would be there to the end, throughout that slow pulling away.

But bigger than that comet’s tail of distress is the invisible trail of lives made better by her everyday work and play. She was the mom who made our St Patrick’s day mashed potatoes a crazy bright green; the seamstress who designed and sewed us all matching pajamas one Christmas.

Floating across that long trail are her many acts of faith — as the CCD teacher, den mother, the neighborhood mom who drove us to elementary school on rainy days — in that time before seat-belts — squeezing as many of the local kids as she could fit into her gold Rambler, which she called “Goldilocks,” by having us sit alternately forward and back, like a rolling container of sardine scholars.

That invisible trail of works stretches ahead even into her retirement on Cape Cod, where she volunteered for literacy programs both for adults, at the local senior center, and for kids at Ezra Baker Elementary school. One boy was so excited to see her each week he began waking his mom up on those mornings, instead of the other way around, to make sure he got to school on time.

The invisible trail flows on, in all directions, past, present, and even drifting like stardust into the future. It’s a trail of enduring faith, in God, in love. In us.

We wanted our mom to be proud of us. As a dad now, I realize that what I want most is for my children to be proud of me, to grow up confident that they are loved. I’m sure that’s how Mom really felt, too, after all. Well, we’re proud of you.

As we wait these days out, as that shorter comet’s tail of confusion passes over us, as we may grow sad or even angry for what has been taken, it’s good to recall words from William Penn’s prayer for the deceased:

We give back to you, O God, those whom you gave to us. You did not lose them when you gave them to us, and we do not lose them by their return to you. Your dear Son has taught us that life is eternal and love cannot die. So death is only a horizon, and a horizon is only the limit of our sight.

We’ll be looking for you, Mom. Long after our blurred vision of this life and this death clears, we’ll see you even more clearly, like constellations in our mind’s night sky, brightest on the darkest evenings, navigation points for us above the horizon. Like the stars, giving light long after you’ve returned to your loving source.




Vanishing Tracks



Doris Marie Lawson Schwaner, 7/3/1939 – 11/8/2017

I wrote this for my mother a little over six years ago. She’d been battling Alzheimer’s disease for several years. I heard her voice yesterday afternoon and she heard mine, thanks to my sister. 

Vanishing Tracks (II)

What is resilient in us is resistant to memory
When the memory goes she will be some other self
Still resilient to the sailing light and shadow
And hungers and exhaustions of love
Made maybe even more immediate

When the resilience goes what is that then

When the resistance goes what is that

Just outside her heart she hears a sound in the night
I am out there knocking on the dusty porch
I have brought a friend with me
When she opens the door will she see herself
Holding my hand?

Do you remember when the car door opened up
As you drove and I hung out there clinging to it
Legs dangling hollering your name?

Do you remember hollering my name
In encouragement
As you sat in the bleachers to watch
the smallest second baseman ever?

Do you remember the rides on rainy days to school
In the golden Rambler you called Goldilocks
Your children and their friends sitting forward
And backward like sardines to fit more of us into the back seat?

You spent so much time doing these things you have the right
Not to remember

Nothing can change what you have done
What is has made in me
I will remember these things
For you and when I can no longer remember
Nothing can change what you have done

Everything I can remember makes up only a small part of your life
The rest of it now becomes more you to me I see that now
You become your childhood your mother in that picture
Is you now as you look at it which is not
A bad thing as you tell me laughing
Your nephew becomes your father in that picture
Standing beside you younger than you somehow
It doesn’t matter
He has always stood beside you
From the moment he died when you were thirteen he was there
And you grew older as he remained a young father
I only understand now
how you see that picture

The mind’s tide’s becalmed
The beach endless
These memories now rise
Or settle
With little difference in depth
To the step of the moment that splashes



So a year after we buried it it got right back up
Though we piled the dirt heavy for months on its corpse

It tore through the earth’s severed roots with a hand
(bigger even they say than the hand of the boss)

grasped the grave keeper’s ankle who throwing his cup
to the wisdom of stars fled over the wall. One or a million

or more maple leaves or simply a rustling stillness was stirred
and nobody spoke till they gave it its word


The woman who came in with the voices

The woman who came in with the voices

In the city where the underground cafe is actually underground. A row of brick buildings built into the hill a block down from the railroad track. Beneath the parking lot a creek whispers and appears at the pavement’s end like it was not even aware it had been buried. The woman came inside and down the stairs while I was ordering coffee. I thought she was talking to herself, or to a stranger, that measured quiet tone you take when speaking in a new place when you want to be heard and are speaking loud enough to be heard but not so loud that you are embarrassed if you say something to the room and nobody in the room responds. I looked up but the woman wasn’t talking. She looked like she had just finished talking, her lips parted, or that she was listening and about to respond but hadn’t yet. But I could hear her talking nonetheless. More than one of her. When she ordered her coffee the voices moved politely aside but did not stop. She sat down at a table across the room and the voices clustered around her. I could still hear them as I was plotting criminal charges into a spreadsheet. The voices were as real as the rows and columns on my laptop screen,they overlapped like columns and rows overlap without losing their distinction. When she got up ten minutes later the voices moved with her, getting a little louder as she passed by and the voices went up the stairs with her and went outside aboveground and it was quiet. I was done with my coffee but still had a long way to go tallying the the bad things we do to each other, so I stayed for a while longer, underground, by the buried river and the eddying voices wandering, wondering what I had heard.

Piracy (at the graveside of the living I bury my poisoned thoughts)

Piracy (at the graveside of the living I bury my poisoned thoughts)

I have prepared for their deaths for so long
That who is dead to me among the living no longer matters

As much as the living spark, like a match at the edge
Of a cigarette on a cold porch where the night

Before moving a couch pushed from the second
Floor window turned on its way down and landed

Half inside the window below. It stuck there
Like an impossible place. Those versions

Of my life thin enough to break on someone’s faith
Never broke my faith in them, in my versionless them.

It’s not up to me, the gangplank of the past
Keeps getting longer. The sea turns to grass,

The foam to the dirt I kick onto my buried selves,
Albatross to cricket, an old house creaking in the wind.