Then It Goes Dark

Seamus Heaney’s last words to his wife
were a text—words not on paper
but still written: letter by letter, with a finger

or both thumbs. “Yes, but do you know
what he texted?” my professor friend
Douglas asks. We’re lunching on

fish tacos and iced tea here on 44th Street
and I answer slowly, carefully,
Noli timere”: words I copy out later

in my notebook in all caps to be sure
I get it right. “God, that’s so Heaney of him
to sign off in Latin,” Doug says,

and it takes me a minute to remember
what it means. Be not afraid,
the UN translators down the street

would say without a pause—or
if that’s too churchy, Don’t be afraid.
I say the first version out loud.

I don’t say my godfather Al died too,
seven hundred miles west of here
in Lansing. The last time I saw him

I didn’t see him: Lillian and I visited
but he was asleep, his body full of drugs
because it was full of cancer. So we sat

with Carol, my godmother, in the living
room. Al’s last text to me was not
his last words: “Sending love back,”

he wrote, because I’d texted our love
the day he had a good scan, not long
before another bad one. Doug

didn’t hear. “Don’t be afraid,” I try again,
glancing at my Economist, folded open
to the back-page obit to be sure

I get it right. After lunch I’ll tear out
this page, pin it to my cubicle wall
to have Heaney’s calm, open face watching

over me. I’ll spend a year wishing
one of my coworkers would stop to ask,
Who’s that? I’d like to tell Doug how strange

it feels to lose someone I love from
so far away. Since moving east
I hadn’t seen Al often, the way I did

as a boy—I’d seen him only once
or twice a year for nearly half my life.
Sometimes I forget he’s gone, as if

we just missed each other, our schedules
didn’t match up, but definitely next time—
then I remember. “I wonder if Marie Heaney

saw his message right away,” Doug says.
“Did she text back?” I picture him
propped up in a hospital bed, a blue

blanket over his shoulders. First the phone
clutched tight, that pause after
a message is sent, then the loosening,

letting go, the smartphone’s glow
on his paper-thin eyelids a minute more
before the screen dims, goes dark.

Matthew Thorburn

Matthew Thorburn

Matthew Thorburn’s most recent book is The Grace of Distance, a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize. His previous book, Dear Almost, won the Lascaux Prize. He has new poems in Copper Nickel, Hotel Amerika, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review and The Best American Poetry 2020. He lives in New Jersey.
Matthew Thorburn

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Author: Matthew Thorburn

Matthew Thorburn’s most recent book is The Grace of Distance, a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize. His previous book, Dear Almost, won the Lascaux Prize. He has new poems in Copper Nickel, Hotel Amerika, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review and The Best American Poetry 2020. He lives in New Jersey.