“Sliding down the banks of the River Lethe as I am presently,”
my friend begins his paper letter: senior citizen’s gallows humor.
I smile but wonder: is it a steep drop into that mythical water,
past rocks and roots and holes where slick Hades critters dwell,
or a gradual slippery slope across flood-combed weeds and clay
where you could grab something and dig in your heels and stop?
Is that underworld river cold or mild, its current slow or swift?
If you fall in, can your feet gain purchase and clamber out?
Even if your mouth stays shut and you manage not to swallow,
does forgetfulness nevertheless soak bare skin and wash away
the memory of everything you said and did and were on earth
before emerging downstream in your next life, a tabula rasa?
Maybe he was saying I feel lethargic these days, not I’m dying.
Or maybe he was sending a signal that he already finds himself
in oblivion’s headwaters, dog-paddling, struggling to remember
how to keep his brain above the flow as he’s being swept away,
no ferryboat emerging from darkness and fog to rescue him.
A little grunt escapes the old man’s mouth
every time he stands up, or sits, or has to shift,
a strained audible exhale signaling effort,
ghost of a come-groan, a going-away syllable,
an involuntary exasperating geezer noise
saying I’m weary and I hurt without saying it,
as if the air’s being squeezed out of his body
bit by bit until the day he can’t move at all—
wait: that’s my grunting now. My low hnnnh.