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“Reaper” for my sister Julia Ann Thompson

There are very few birthdays I know by heart, but my sister Julia's birthday is one of them. March 13th will always be her day. I wrote "Reaper" in 2005 when she would have turned 62, 7 months after her death. This year, 2007, 2 years and 7 months afterwards, I pause to think, still, just up-dating the numbers: "Her 64th birthday and she’s not here to enjoy it." And, on this birthday, she continues to live beyond her death day. How could she not?

REAPER
For my sister Julia Ann Thompson
by Janet Riehl

How can life go on?
I didn’t know why.
All day, I didn’t know why.
Then, behind the computer, the answer came.
Sunday, March 13th.
Our flower calendar shouted her name.
One of the only birth dates I know by heart.
Hers. Julia’s. Sometimes it’s hard to say her name,
to sort it all out without coming apart.
Her 62nd birthday and she’s not here to enjoy it.
What a shame!

I didn’t know how to say it.
Does saying it salt the wound,
or salve it?
At the end of the day,
late supper at the kitchen table.
“It’s her birthday, you know.”
“Yes, a long row to hoe.”
Pop’s back hunched a little more.
His head hung a little lower.

Our hands locked in a vice grip.
“A special day when she was born.”
In Little Rock, Arkansas.
Luckily he was out on pass from Army Camp.
Mother’s water broke.
They barely reached the hospital in time.
No dilly-dallying. No shilly-shallying.

She never was one for waiting around.
Is birth destiny?
Her basic character set from the start.
She led the way. Always had her say.

Strength shot through with a stubborn edge.
Both stood her in good stead.

On this birthday, she lives beyond her death day.
The reaper’s scythe cuts down the stalks.
The field hands turn the stalks into shocks.
They angle their pitchforks and stack the shocks.
The full wagon rumbles toward the weathered barn.

From Sightlines: A Poet's Diary, 2006


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