Mothers of the Mentally Ill

By Penny Perry


She clutches my hand. “I’m glad
it’s me. Not you. I was worried
you would lose your daughter.”
I cry into her shoulder.
My purse drops.

Evening sun floods the church,
haloes Barbara’s dark hair,
turns Jesus on the cross the rose
and gold of Limoges.

She strokes her son’s cool forehead,
his tweed jacket, his father’s blue tie,
the rosary twined in his fingers.
In his coffin, he looks as if he’s smiling,
thinking of his next Coke,
his next cigarette.

Tall candles. Incense.
Perfume from stocks and roses.
Women in dark dresses,
our friends, the mothers we met
in the waiting room, fill the pews.

Barbara’s hand, soft as pastry,
under mine. “He wasn’t even safe
in the hospital. They tried to heal him.
Killed him instead.”

Twilight. A woman plays a hymn
on the piano.
My purse on the carpet starts to hum.
My daughter is calling.
Barbara slides her chair closer
to the coffin.



About Penny Perry

PennyPerryKateHardingMugPenny Perry is a six-time Pushcart Prize nominee in poetry and fiction. Her work has appeared in California Quarterly, Lilith, Redbook, Earth’s Daughter, the Paterson Literary Review and the San Diego Poetry Annual, among others.

Her first collection of poems, Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage (Garden Oak Press, 2012) earned praise from Marge Piercy, Steve Kowit, Diane Wakoski and Maria Mazziotti Gillan.

She writes under two names, Penny Perry and Kate Harding.

Photo Credit: Alaska Carter via a Creative Commons license.

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  1. Gayle O'Key says:

    Thank you for this beautiful poem! It is stunning in so many ways. Part of its power lies in what sunk in only after the third reading: the realization of the complicated feelings of losing a child who has been a package deal of blessing and trial, the unwitting sculptor of an entire family in ways only those who live it can understand. I didn’t cry until the end, when Barbara “slides her chair closer to the coffin.” But then the implications of that ringing phone set in and the tears stopped as if a glass of water had been splashed in my face.