What if the Wages of Dying is Love

by Jim Zola
The Waters
First Place, March 2021
Judged by Nicole Greaves

I’ve always been amazed by gravity.
These days it is obvious in the way
my features droop, making a mockery
of youth. But it’s not just gravity
to blame. I imagine Newton beneath
his apple tree. Every body
in the universe is attracted
to every other body. Such a burden.

On the night my first son entered the world,
swimming casually into our lives,
I left the hospital in the pouring rain,
exhausted and exhilarated.
In love. Arriving at our rented hovel,
I found our Samoyed Anna
had too given birth, six pups, nothing
more than fluffs, in a muddy puddle,

a hole she dug in the weedy yard.
She let me carry them in a box
into the house soon to be confused
by different cries. Now my son and his wife
are expecting. My wisdom falls on deaf
ears. Just as I ignored my father.
Somewhere my mother climbs ten steps
and is praised by the physical

therapist who looks at her watch
and wonders when this might end. I think
of my Norwegian grandmother, Gunvor,
standing on the docks, Port Authority,
in her long black coat with fake fur collar
and matching hat as she waves to no one.
She reminds me of a blue heron
standing so still in a tangle of gravity-

bent branches, arrowwood and sedge,
the abrupt edge, as if to make us believe
It is another kind of plant, feathered
and majestic. For no reason,
beyond the winds shimmer, the heron
suddenly takes flight, wide-winged,
just barely skimming the pond’s surface.
And too, my grandmother, just as

suddenly, for reasons I might know,
perhaps just in defiance of Newton,
lifts into the fumy shipyard air
and flies away, leaving no one
behind, leaving the wages
of dying, which is love.

Each time you read “What if the Wages of Dying is Love,” you see a little more, and that is a testament to a good poem. Underneath its sentiment of our generational connection and joy in parenthood, there is a different layer, one about our burden of interdependence, or the “weight of it.” Gravity keeps us grounded, but it pulls at us and wears us down, just as our relationships do. In Cesare Pavese’s poem “Ancestors,” the speaker talks about how he realizes that as he gets older he finds “company” in the men before him, “men who were steady and firm, lords of themselves.” His poem, like this one, has that second layer, one where it addresses the burden, specifically of the women of his family, who give and give yet aren’t credited. “What if the Wages of Dying is Love” gives more of a female perspective, and there is strength in that recognition. The most tender moment is when the speaker comes back from the hospital to find that the dog has given birth as well. The speaker tends to this mother, like tending to the self, pulling the pups from the mud. In the end, the speaker conjures a grandmother who, in defiance of this weight, leaves, waving to “no one.” The image of the grandmother as heron as a plant itself in a kind of camouflage that uproots and lifts from this weight but just barely is gorgeous and the heart of this poem that stays with you like a pendant. --Nicole Greaves