If You Knew by Ellen Bass

What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.

A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

If You Knew

Every now and then, something will happen that makes me think of this poem. It was, in fact, the one that inspired a poem about my father I had been trying to write for two years after his death. What if you knew you’d be the last / to touch someone? Does that question not stop you in your tracks? I was the last person with my father when he died, so yes, I think about these things.

She reminds us how in the small irritations of occasional slowness, rudeness, or in moments of presence with other people we don’t really notice, we can forget, I don’t remember / they’re going to die. And then the poignant story of her friends’ aunt and the waiter who kissed / her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left. That last touch before she dropped dead on the sidewalk – yes, such things really happen.

Then she fiercely yet respectfully asks hard questions: how close to such moments do you have to get before you might wake up? And the final one: What would people look like / if we could see them as they are? Would we see how they are soaked in honey, sweet and reckless in their living, pinned against time – because we don’t know how much time there is.

This is the most elegant wake-up poem I can think of – hard to just read and forget. It asks only that we pay attention to life in the moment. What if you knew you’d be the last?

8 thoughts on “If You Knew by Ellen Bass

  1. “This is the most elegant wake-up poem..” I agree, Jan. Thanks for this wise reminder of how to be with people. xo Mary Lou

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  2. Thank you, Jan. This brings up many memories for me. So many deaths. A client, sitting in our lobby, talking and joking with us. Half an hour later someone ran to tell us she’d overdosed on the sidewalk. I ran up the street to her, calling 911, my co-workers following. We all tried so hard to save her. Those poignant last minutes with her in the lobby will always haunt me. I’m grateful to have been there.

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