Denise Duhamel

Beginning and Whatever Doesn’t Kill Your Mother Makes Her Stronger
May 25, 2022 Duhamel Denise



One of the first days my mom’s in the ICU, I try to describe
The Blacklist’s latest episode “Nachalo.” Characters
come back from the dead to explain to Elizabeth Keen
her secretive past, how Reddington and her birth mother
Katrina were simply trying to protect her. Nachalo
I look it up—is Russian for “beginning.” My mom had slept
through her favorite show, the hospital TV unable to record it.
The episode is full of black and white liminal space soliloquies
and the more I try to elucidate the plot, the more my mom
drifts away, also somewhere between the colorful now
and her monochrome past. She recognizes my sister and me,
then asks for her car keys to go home, though her Toyota is junked
and her house sold. She came to the ICU in an ambulance
via the nursing home where she needs no keys except maybe
the metaphorical keys to understanding life and death. She doesn’t
see my father or any bright light yet. When she says
I thought I’d be leaving today I ask her if she means “leaving
the planet” and she says no. She thought she’d go
to a regular hospital floor. She can’t see the machines
glowing around her and has grown used to the tubes,
not understanding how sick she really is. Liz’s birth mother
had Liz’s memory erased after a fire on Christmas, my sister says.
The season finale is next week. My mother looks at us and blinks.
On her wrist—a yellow DNR bracelet and a pink one
that reads FALL RISK. Congestive heart failure, MRCA,
fibrosis of the lungs. Please don’t let these doctors do that to me.
Yes, I’m miserable, but I enjoy most of my memories.





Doctor: Your mother’s levels are back. Her vital signs almost normal.


Doctor: I’m afraid she’s taken a turn for the worse. Your mother is a very sick woman.


Doctor: Your mother is responding well to treatment. She may get back to where she


My lame joke after two weeks of ICU: Whatever doesn’t kill my mother makes me stronger.


A doctor draws us a picture of her heart, her leaky mitral valve.


Another doctor turns the monitor around to show us the CT scan—the fibrosis, the
clouds in her lungs.


Doctor: It’s time to think of hospice.


Hospice: Your mom’s vitals have stabilized.


Hospice: Your mom didn’t respond today.


The Cleaning Ladies: Your poor mama.


Hospice: Your mom had a bite of oatmeal and two sips of Ensure. A good sign.


Nurse: We’re sorry. We tried, but we couldn’t rouse her.


Denise Duhamel’s most recent books of poetry are Second Story (Pittsburgh, 2021) and Scald (Pittsburgh, 2017). Blowout (Pittsburgh, 2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she is a distinguished university professor at Florida International University in Miami.