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Friday, August 07, 2020


by Ellen Austin-Li

"Breathe," a painting by McKayla Smitson.

Father Yaezel hovers on the veil
between this world and the next.
My mother tells me her parish priest
is in the ICU with COVID and his condition
can’t be good, as the local news put out a call
for plasma donors from survivors.
That’s last ditch, my husband says, but I shush
him with my eyes: Please. He’s one of the good ones.

I see Father Yaezel, his full head of snowy hair,
crossing the street from the rectory, walking
up our driveway. I remember him standing,
head bowed, at my father’s bedside, his right hand
signing the cross in mid-air as he recited
Last Rites. My father didn’t die that day —
wouldn’t die — until Father Yaezel held
my mother in his crystal blues a week later
and gently prodded, Did you tell him it was okay to go?

Some nights, a blast of air wakes me from my dreams
and for a moment I think I am on the unit again,
my patient disconnected from the vent — but instead
of the rhythmic breath coming in waves,
the whoosh is continuous. I become aware
I’m in my bedroom, the tubing popped-off
my CPAP machine. I’ve read they try these
on COVID patients to keep them off ventilators.
I open my mouth to feel the rush of pressure
whispering    breathe ...
I sigh and return to sleep.

Ellen Austin-Li is an award-winning poet published in Artemis, Writers Tribe Review, The Maine Review, Mothers Always Write, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Masque & Spectacle, Green Briar Review, Panoply, and other places. Her first poetry chapbook Firefly was published by Finishing Line Press in 2019. Ellen is a student at the Solstice Low-Residency MFA Program at Pine Manor College. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.