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  • Writer's pictureEric Johnson

Tasting Iron (Poem)

Updated: Oct 1, 2021

I wrote "Tasting Iron" in memory of my Nana, ​Helen Dushner who died on January 18, 2008. While I was growing up, she was a large part of my life, and I was devastated by her death. This poem is an account of that death and the life that lead up to it. In the end, I was fortunate enough to be in the room as she took her last breaths, and as hard as it was, I'm glad that I had that time with her. This was one of the first poems I ever published, and it is included in my collection The Conditions We Live. (4 minute read)

It was snowing that morning I remember

because there was a two-hour delay and I had just reset my alarm

The phone rang and I let the machine get it

her tremulous voice came over the speaker in the other room


“Call me when you get this . . . it’s . . . well gimme a call.”

I knew what it was; there was no need to call her back

“You don’t have to come. It might not be . . . could be a false alarm”


“Do what you think is best . . . I’ll understand”


I made the phone calls:

. . . can you

. . . thanks

. . . yes, I need coverage.

The drive over was hard. Crystal flakes settling on my windshield

it was snowing that morning, I remember because there was a two-hour delay

It was raining inside too but the wipers didn’t take care of that

did I turn on the radio or listen to the snow floating?


I walked into her room and heard it,

so that’s what a death-rattle sounds like

I couldn’t help it.

She would have been upset. She could have been a movie star,

Knowing how she looked now never went out unless she was all dolled up.

she was a fragile shell of herself There’s this picture of her at the beach

laying in her bed, eyes closed standing next to her Andy,

it was like she wasn’t even there. she could have been Marilyn Monroe.

I listened to the air rattle inside her

I remember it sounded painful

She inhaled shallow, laborious, slow

It was snowing that morning

held it for a minute as if savoring the moments

could be a false alarm

then the soft gurgle of the air escaping her mouth

“It doesn’t hurt her . . . doesn’t even notice it.”

I do

“that patch is more for the family, dries it up.”


We called the priest.

“We could bring in a harpist?”

We laugh . . . Can’t you see that . . . see her . . .

“What the hell is that thing?”

We laugh again . . . got any Jazz?

That’s more her speed . . . Yah and a highball

Man did she love to dance.

“I remember when she would sing . . . beautiful voice.”

“I remember when she would take us out in the snow and spin the car out.”

It was snowing that morning I remember


The snow had stopped when the priest came.

He commented on the beautiful day.

I remember it was snowing

The sun shone brightly

Let us pray . . . Our Father

I bit my lip

who art in heaven. Hallowed be Thy name.

it wouldn’t be right to cry

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,

I tasted iron

on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day

the snow

our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses

I can’t say the words

as we forgive those who trespass against us.

I bite harder.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

blood from my blood, flesh from my flesh

Thine is the power, and the kingdom and the glory forever

she taught me this


He leaves us. He was sorry, but he had to hurry. He had appointments to keep.

They turned her on her side. She looked more comfortable.

“Do you think she can hear?”


The other tenants murmur in the hall, they know

It was snowing that morning

They gather at the door as if it were a nightclub

she was a partier . . . boy did she party

But velvet ropes keep them out

I still taste the iron

I wiped the stuff from her face.

She would not have liked it

. . . she was always so particular about her appearance

what else could I do? It was settled in her cheek, the patch wasn’t working

thick strings running down her face, it looked uncomfortable so I wiped it away.

What else could I do . . . she wouldn’t have liked it.


She opens her eyes for the first time that day.

It was snowing that morning

I kiss her forehead and say I love you.

I tell my mother her eyes are open.

she coos softly to her,

“it’s okay, your Andy’s waiting.”

She was always afraid of the dark.

“we love you”

Laughing over her bed, my aunt and I.

I don’t even know why.

“we love you, it’s okay, go to your Andy”


hey . . .

Is she . . .


How do we . . .

she is.

The little girl, newly old, crawls into bed with her mother

. . . she cries


we sit witnesses to why we were there

mouths that cannot speak, minds that cannot think

It was snowing that morning I remember

that painful numbness that is left,

silence falls on us in heavy flakes


The only sound was the ticking clock on the wall.

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