“One Big, Empty Room” by Jen Lambert

Jen Lambert


When we get the results, my dad texts me.
He says we should wait to tell her.
He says, let her have one more good Christmas,
which is to say, let him have one more good Christmas,
which is to say he’s afraid.

When we do tell her, we do it over the phone.
Our voices, simple vibrations
we throw back and forth to each other,
carry her disease across state lines,
my sister’s ear to my ear to my father’s ear
to my mother’s mouth, wailing.

My daughters visit her during the week.
They say she likes to tell stories of when I was young.
They’re stories I don’t remember, and I wonder
if she’s imagining them. I wonder
if I am disappearing with her.

She cried when I told her that I was pregnant,
that I wouldn’t be going to law school.
Don’t do it, she sobbed into the phone,
you’ll forget yourself and you’ll never find your way back.

Now she cries
when she can’t remember the word for store. She says
that place you go to buy things and we know what she means.
She cries because the dying parts in her brain
make her believe that her husband is having an affair,
that the neighbor is feeding her dog
chicken bones through the fence,
that someone has stolen the lawn mower.

My mother points to an apple and says phone.

The last time I spoke to her, she said I’m not ready.
She said I don’t want to leave, and when I think
of a life without my mother, it is one big, empty room.

My daughters used to play telephone with soup cans,
a long length of string stretched
down the stairs, through the kitchen, over the back of the couch.

Can you hear me? they would yell, tin rims
pressed tight against their ears. Are you there?

She doesn’t remember my phone number anymore,
and when I call her, I want to ask the woman who answers,
Can you put my mom on please?

Her voice always sounds so far away.
The string between us stretched close to snapping.

Put the phone closer to your mouth, Mom, I’ll say.
Hello? she’ll say. Who is this? Are you there?
Are you there?

from Poets Respond
January 19, 2020


Jen Lambert: “My family just recently learned of my mother’s diagnosis of degenerative brain disease. It has been a difficult month as we learn how to adapt with patience and compassion to her diminishing ability. She is often not herself, and just this week I watched the new Aaron Hernandez documentary, Killer Inside, that highlights the NFL player’s erratic and dangerous behavior, suicide, and posthumous diagnosis of the worst case of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) ever seen in a person so young. While Hernandez’s brain disease was ultimately avoidable, it still broke my heart to see how he struggled with the effects: paranoia, anxiety, and impulse control—some of the same struggles my own mother is experiencing. I feel fortunate that we know what is happening with my mother’s brain disease (CTE can only be diagnosed after death), but it doesn’t make the slow loss of the person we knew her to be any easier. Watching the documentary pushed me to start writing through it now.”

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