As my father got older and less involved with other people, my husband, whose own father had already died, thought I should call Dad more often. I told him once a week was enough for me. And so, my kind-hearted husband called my father every morning. I'm ashamed to admit this wasn't something I was willing to do, but I was grateful to Andy. And it made me feel better to know someone was checking in with Dad on a daily basis. They didn't talk long, but it seemed my father looked forward to Andy's calls and waited close to the phone at 8 a.m. When he didn't answer one January morning, Andy called my brother, who lived about 5 miles away from Dad, and asked him to check. My brother found our father dead.
When I got the news I was leveled. This reaction shocked me. My father was a wall I'd been pushing against my entire life. Without him, I felt as if I had nothing to keep me upright. I was no longer sure who I was in a life that no longer included him.
Looking back, I guess I thought there'd be time for Dad and me to work through all the pain of his alcoholism and abuse. Time for him to tell me he loved me and was proud of the woman I'd become. Time for me to love him better. But time had run out for my father and me.
I regret holding on to my anger. I regret not loving my father more when I had the chance. I regret not taking enough time to listen to him--to learn some of the things I learned after his death. He was a difficult man. But I've come to know and understand so much more about him. This poem was written shortly after his funeral. And it opened my eyes to something I'd long denied. I loved my father all along. I was just too angry, hurt and proud to admit it. Now, he haunts me more than any other person I've lost. Writing poetry about him allows me to find him again. To see his life through a wide-angled lens and not the telephoto of my childhood.
When we cleaned out my father's house, I took one of the orthopedic shoes he'd worn since the grenade blew up in his hand during WWII. For me, this shoe represented his tenacity. The way he fought hard to keep his leg and to learn to walk again with the help of a brace.
I had the shoe bronzed and laced it with the same purple shoelaces I refer to in the poem. It sits on a shelf near my computer in my writing room. Every time I get a rejection letter or feel discouraged by the many setbacks we face as writers, I look at that shoe and think about the discouragement he must have felt when the doctors told him he'd never walk again. I think about the way he kept trying--never gave up. This is the precious gift my father gave to me. Do I wish I could talk to him again? Yes. Would I call him every morning if I had another opportunity? I'd sure like to think I would.
When my father slipped into his death,
the fingers of his good hand clenched
a fist at his chest. As if caught
in the unlit swell, opening like the mouth
of a river, he protested, struggled to stay ashore
wrapped inside the dry logic of himself,
where survival was the only parable,
certain enough for belief.
Through the dusty mauve curtains,
morning splashes, clear and carmine,
staining the sun-starved skin with color
like the insides of a sea bass.
Near the foot of the bed, I expect fear,
but the face and hands are too familiar.
In a rush of lost affection, I uncurl
his fingers, pet a ruffled arch of brow,
the bead of shrapnel embedded
in the rise of his cheek.
He wears only one shoe,
laced with a radiant magenta bow,
shimmering and elusive,
as the dorsal fin of a blue fish.
I laugh out loud, wiggle the still-tied shoe
from his stiffened foot. A black orthopedic
worn for more than fifty years.
Two holes the size of dimes dot the heel,
receptacles for the long steel
brace that buckled onto his rotting leg,
inflexible from ankle to thigh.
Those first tenuous steps into
whatever remained after the grenade.
I cradle his shoe against my check
and the years of rage, too hot to touch,
cool at once into this mourning.
The narrow canal of our long silence opens,
a giant body of water, big enough
for a man and his child to disappear.