Triptych for Christopher: Poetry by Barb Reynolds

Triptych for Christopher

I. Roller Coaster

It’s sitting down with the doctors for the very first time
and being told that our son is sick, dying,
his body turning on itself,
that makes it real, that gets this roller coaster going.
Having words like options and chances and wishes
in our vocabulary now—we grip the metal safety bar
that lowers and digs in.

Every test result, every side effect, jerks us
farther up the ramp, then it’s back to coasting for a while.
In the beginning we thought we could control ourselves,
hold steady. But as time sped by
we wondered if this was the last visit or that was the last
joke. Then it went quiet. We loosened our seat restraints.
Things cranked up again when the phone rang: Pneumocystis,
for the second time. We might as well have been hanging
upside down in the middle of a corkscrew loop.

He cries to me long distance that he doesn’t want to die.
I’m paralyzed from voice to movement, grateful he can’t
see my face. The petrified air splits into shards
that spray the cool terra cotta tile around my bare feet.
If I’m cut I can’t feel it.

II. Circling

Thirty-three thousand feet up,
on our way to heartbreak.
I want to push and push the button
and tell them, Turn this plane around 
before we go any farther! Take us back 
to the safety of our denial, or stay circling 
in perpetuity, I don’t care. If we don’t go,
maybe we can stave off the grief
that waits.

Hours later he sits before us, intubated,
writing notes with a hospital pen:
What’s happening?
He’s in isolation; we are covered entirely
in protective scrubs. They’ve tried three times
to wean him off oxygen but he cannot breathe
on his own; he doesn’t know this. I take my mask down
to reveal myself. They’re trying to figure out 
why you can’t breathe, sweetie, I say. He can always count
on me to tell it like it is.
I’m scared, he writes.
We squeeze his hands. I raise my mask
and tighten the strap, as if I’m being told to do so,
but I’m really just trying to cover my shattering facade.

The fevers, the new neuropathy, the IV,
the forced smiles. We play at normal conversation,
like the cruise he wants to take for his next birthday
when we know it will never come.

Our hands fill with empty hopes
that fall through our fingers like sand.

How does a son say goodbye to his mothers?
How do we say goodbye to our son?

III. Topher

When the doctors tucked their stethoscopes away
into their big white pockets, they recommended
that we unplug him from ventilation;
then increase sedation for a smoother passing.
We waited for friends to arrive, and then we gave the nod.
We gave the nod.

Sometimes, now, I get a fluke of a good run
and dance in the illusion that the worst is behind me.
Sunlight seeks out the cracks in my walls, drafty gaps
underneath my doors. I can almost feel the heat of a new day.

Other days it feels like I’m blindfolded in an endless maze,
kept prisoner at gunpoint in a language I don’t understand.
These walls have gotten so high, I couldn’t scale them
if I wanted to. That’s the thing with grief.

The grief was my security blanket and my noose:
it was my connection to him, and yet
it wasn’t him at all.

He liked to be called Topher 
in Portland. It was an identity he could carve out for himself
away from home. Free from being confined to one persona.
Safer, living in a chameleon world.

Here, he was Christopher, or Chris, or Mijo.

Stars shoot sideways in the black. Nighttime
protracted, darkness epitomized. Jasmine wafts up
under my sadness, under my window.

—Barb Reynolds


Barb Reynolds, recently retired from her twenty-three-year career as a child abuse investigator, was step-mom to Christopher for ten years. She notes about “Triptych”: “I wanted to share the experience of losing a son to AIDS; the many casualties this disease brings.” She lives in the Bay Area and is currently working on a poetry collection, Boxing Without Gloves. For more information log on to: