James Mulhern’s writing has appeared in literary journals over one hundred and seventy-five times and has been recognized with many awards. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was granted a writing fellowship to Oxford University. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize.
In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Two of his novels were Finalists for the United Kingdom’s Wishing Shelf Book Awards. His novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2021 for his poetry.
That fall day we raked leaves from behind the shed.
Smell of earth and wet decay rose in the cold air.
We could see our breath.
Worms and beetles scattered through a fence.
I saw dirt and thought we had finished.
“Not yet,” you said.
The gray sky grew darker and the wind chilled.
When your flashlight showed not a speck of leaf,
You said, “We’re done.”
Today I look at the wet leaves below.
I kneel and clear your grave.
Again, I smell the earth and feel the biting cold.
The damp leaves shimmer like tears, not many,
that drop on the yellowed grass.
“We’re done,” I hear you say.
I say a prayer, cross myself, and rise.
I see my breath and imagine I see yours.
I should leave, I think, but not yet.
Mornings I injected insulin into my dog
and made sure she had enough water in her bowl.
To see her in the yard, wobbling as she peed bloody urine, pained me.
Ethel’s pain was greater than mine though,
especially the times she collapsed onto the cold tile
or bumped into walls and furniture because of her thick cataracts.
One day she could no longer hold her urine,
so I bought diapers for her, which always managed to fall off.
I began carrying her when she had that look, helping her get quickly to the yard.
My mother said, “Can’t you put her to sleep?”
I said, “So when you become incontinent, I should do the same?”
“Guess not,” she answered. I’m my mother’s healthcare proxy.
Eventually I had to euthanize her, Ethel that is.
As I left the office, the young woman at the desk said, “Sorry for your loss.”
I bent over my steering wheel and cried for a long while, then drove out of the lot.
My mother, eighty-two, is losing her sight.
She tells me she depends on audio books and the largest fonts for her texts.
Her body is filled with metal—multiple surgeries on her spine, hips, and leg.
Someday she will die and I’ll visit the empty space of her apartment.
I will remember her resolve to move forward when I see the walker beside her chair.
How she listened to me, standing tall, and told me through dim blue eyes, “I love you, sweetheart.”
All of the living are broken, inside and out,
and the problems continue to accumulate.
It’s how we care for others, show love, and move forward
that helps us become whole again.