For the last few years, Ruth Awad has been aware of her mother’s aortic aneurysm, which had existed in a dormant state, giving the family little cause for alarm. But in July, her mother, Deborah Stevenson, started to experience symptoms similar to when the aneurysm was first diagnosed, including shortness of breath, and a follow-up examination revealed the aneurysm had grown.
“And so, we’re all just panicking, worried about this thing,” Awad said in a late November phone call. “I don’t know how much you know about aortic aneurysms … but it’s this bulging of the artery wall, and if it gets too big it could rupture. And depending on where it is in your body, it’s almost immediately deadly. So, in her condition, if it ruptures, there’s no way we could get her to the hospital in a timely fashion, because it’s so instantaneous.”
Due to the unpredictable nature of aneurysms, the family has been faced with a difficult decision: wait and see if the condition again goes dormant, or opt for open-heart surgery, which Awad said would in effect “start the clock” toward her mother’s death. “Folks who have aneurysms surgically repaired tend to live an average of eight years after the surgery,” she said. “You don’t want to operate too soon and shorten her lifespan. But then if we go too long without the surgery, we risk it rupturing and her dying instantly, so it’s this horrible game of chicken.”
Living amid this uncertainty, Awad, as has long been her custom, turned to poetry, embracing the page as a place to work out her complex feelings about her mother’s condition, but more importantly as a place in which she could memorialize her mom, in a sense, capturing and preserving those “ephemeral” moments from her life while they still felt vivid.
“I started thinking about all of the light that my mom cast into my life, and all of the areas that would be dimmer with her not in the world with me,” Awad said. “And it started this grieving process and made me want to memorialize those moments when I loved her sharpest. … For me, writing poems is a way to hold fast to the ephemeral, the things you can’t keep. And when I write poems about some of these big loves, or big moments in my life, it makes it feel a bit more fixed, like maybe I can keep it. … Part of the ambition of these poems is to create a shared space where we can grieve together, and where she can feel my love and how much her love has shaped me.”
“,” the first poem in the series to surface, centers on the moment Awad’s mother taught her young daughter to swim, colored in language born of her work as a visual artist. “My small body lifted by the water and my mother’s hands,” Awad writes. “My mother who pulled me from nothingness into existence as simply as a brush tows red across a canvas until it’s an acre of bowing poppies.”
Other poems capture moments that encompass the entirety of Stevenson’s life with Awad, stretching from recent years when she worked as a nurse during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic all the way back to those days when Awad was a child, the poet recalling how her mother, who had separated from her father, would blow into town and gloriously upend her sleepy existence.
“My two sisters and I were living in Indiana, growing up under my dad’s custody, and one of the poems is about how my mom was this wrecking ball who would just blaze up from Tennessee in her little Mitsubishi, which was always on its last leg,” Awad said. “My mom, post-divorce, was this gorgeous, very dramatic vampire lady … and she would fly into town, all chaos. … It’s kind of this small ode to her wild energy.”
“I wanted the series to celebrate what a force my mother is, but also the many dimensions within that,” continued Awad, who said the half-dozen poems written as part of the series should appear in her next poetry collection, currently under consideration. “She has so much tenderness, but is also so raw and brutally honest, and I wanted the poems to capture all of those contours.”
Awad said she has long seen echoes of her mother within herself, particularly in terms of that need to create. Awad recalled how her mom gifted her a collection of Sylvia Plath poems for her 12th birthday, “which was probably too heavy for a 12-year-old,” she said, and laughed. But that love and appreciation for poetry, cultivated and encouraged by her mom from a young age, continues to burn within Awad, making it the ideal form with which to reexamine the mother-daughter bond shared between the two.
“I came into these poems with a strong awareness of my mother, as I feel like I’ve been a close observer of her for my entire life. But I think what surprised me in writing these poems was how much tenderness I have toward our relationship,” Awad said. “In a lot of ways, our relationship has been hard, and it was hard to be physically far away from my mother for most of my life. … There’s always been a longing for my mother to be a bigger presence, and I think these poems helped.”
The writing also served as a reminder that it’s not too late, leading Awad to shake off her workaholic tendencies in the hopes of creating new ephemeral moments from which to draw, including a recent trip to Spain the poet took with her husband and mother in tow.
“[The trip] was always something my mother wanted to do, so we wanted to make it happen, and we did,” Awad said. “My hope is this series is never really fully done. And that I can just keep writing and sharing these poems with my mom as, hopefully, I get to have a lot more time with her moving forward.”