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Swimming lazily, fins waving slowly in the murky deep,

the fish lives its life – nothing entirely clear

but that it’s meant to survive.

Occasionally a shaft of sunlight pierces its watery world

but only when it cruises near the surface of the sea in pursuit of a meal.

But today, after snatching greedily at some unsuspecting prey,

the fish feels a sudden sharp sting, not entirely unpleasant,

and finds itself being propelled upward at a speed unimaginable

in its daily peregrinations.

I’m flying, I’m flying to the light! thinks the fish,

suddenly aware there’s more to existence than fluid horizons.

An inexplicable fierce beauty electrifies every scale, gills convulse

with primitive ecstasy, until, at last – its soul congealing –

it lies hooked and helpless on a bed of ice.



knowing it was vital i read the manual that came with the kit // which i // (being more of a

show me than tell me learner was nervous about and hated doing) //

read three times before i felt ready to proceed // now // reaching deep into my chest // i pull out my heart // it sits softly in my palm // fragile but whole //

pulsing a soft waltz in the usual three-quarter time //

as with my other hand i reach for the soft faux-leather pouch // also included with the kit // that will hold my disaffected heart // i need to be brick // i need to be steel // or some other

impenetrable substance // so i can keep breathing

until the scythe swings for me // and takes me to whatever //

if anything // comes after it’s all over // this unkind life

that stole every bit of love and happiness i too briefly owned // and now // picking up a sheet of specially-treated gauze i wrap my heart gently but firmly // then again and again //

until i can’t feel it beating // and // tucking my cloistered heart

into the pouch i tape it shut and slide it into place //

attaching the wires // also included with the kit

// that will pick up the wifi to keep my heart beating but not feeling //

grateful for the technology that makes it all possible //



Now that I am old and very near the end - with as many years of watching people die as I have behind me I know the signs - I want to go wherever it is I'm going with a clean slate. I seek not forgiveness but clarity. The time for honesty has come. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start again. I am Mary Elizabeth McKinnon, née Carey. Born in Chicago in 1925, effectively a Depression baby with all the baggage that implies. I grew up poor in a house crowded with too many children and never enough money. I was never expected to amount to much, and the fact that I was able to go to nursing school is a testament to my unwillingness to be nothing but a brood mare harnessed for life to some hardfisted factory hand. Back then girls without money and influential friends didn't grow up to be lawyers or doctors or enter any of the other professions open to women today. The only degree most of the girls I knew achieved was the MRS. preceding a new last name. If they did work before marriage they passed the time until that happy day

in dreary offices or slinging hash in two-bit diners. The big white collar occupations for women back then were teaching and nursing. I was never drawn to teaching. The thought of wrangling a classroom of unruly children and then spending my hours away from school correcting papers and drawing up lessons was almost as bad as the thought of marrying Mickey Dailey - a smart-alecky oaf forever mooning after me - a few months after graduating high school. I decided to pursue nursing. I wanted to make sure I could always pay my own way without being beholden to some man for every dollar I spent. I worked after school and every summer, babysitting and cleaning houses, and saved every cent I could. My mother sneered at what she called my Florence Nightingale Fund but I think she was jealous, because she was trapped and if I became a nurse I wouldn't be. By the time I finished high school I'd managed to save a good bit. Turns out I didn't have to worry about

making up any shortfall in funds. World War II, a disaster for so many, was a godsend for me. The government poured millions of dollars into all kinds of training, wooing with patriotism and money young women who wanted to be nurses. I was accepted into the Cadet Nursing Program and never looked back. Being a nurse wasn't the least bit glamorous but I didn't care. I was independent. And I must admit I enjoyed the attentions of more than a few young doctors. As I grew older and a little more settled and thought it might be nice to be married, I knew enough about young doctors not to want to marry one of them. No, I married Jim McKinnon, a steady, sober insurance underwriter. I can't say he was ever exciting but we got along well and agreed on most things. I guess I wasn't very exciting either, at least not by the time we met. Turns out I couldn't have children, so for fifty-seven years it was just the two of us. Then one day Jim keeled over, quietly just as he did everything, one morning as he bent down to get the Sunday paper off the porch. But enough about the ordinary part of my life. What I really want to talk about is how I killed people. It was never discussed and never prosecuted but it happened all the time. And it wasn't just where I worked. Today there's a lot of hoo-ha and procedural legalities about withholding treatment, living wills and such, but way back when putting the terminally ill and suffering out of their misery was common enough. Quiet injections of barbiturates and muscle relaxers sent many a soul on its final journey, and those of us who participated believed we were performing acts of mercy. We nurses never decided anyone's fate,

we merely carried out doctors' orders

under their immediate supervision. And now that I am one of those terminally ill, suffering individuals, I wish things today were the same as they were back then - quiet, under the rug, behind the curtain, but swift and sure and final. But now in order to leave this life of one's own free will there's such a mountain of bureaucracy. I've been filling out forms

and talking with counselors for weeks,

and still I won't be quietly put to sleep.

No, I'll have to lie here pumped full of painkillers

to keep me sedated until this damn disease

finally eats away at enough of me

to finish me off.

It can't happen soon enough.

Well, that's about it, really.

Now that I've said what I wanted to say

and everything's in as good an order

as I can leave it.


RC deWinter’s poetry is widely anthologized, notably in New York City Haiku (NY Times, 2/2017), easing the edges: a collection of everyday miracles, (Patrick Heath Public Library of Boerne, 11/2021) The Connecticut Shakespeare Festival Anthology (River Bend Bookshop Press, 12/2021). In print: 2River, Event, Gargoyle Magazine, the minnesota review, Night Picnic Journal, Plainsongs, Prairie Schooner, Southword, The Ogham Stone, Twelve Mile Review, York Literary Review, and many others. Appears in numerous online literary journals.

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