Saturday, January 1, 2011

"This is Not a Poem"

This Is Not A Poem 


On New Year’s Day, nineteen forty-nine,
at somewhere around nine a.m.
my dad and I walked up to his office.
I don’t know why; I guess he needed something from there.
It was above the bank in our little Indiana town.
There’d been an ice storm during the night;
the sidewalks and streets couldn't have been slicker.
At Main Street a car was coming.  Dad took my hand --
this was not like him -- and the car passed.
Hand in hand, we crossed.
It was my birthday! I was nine! 
Too big, I thought, to be holding my dad’s hand.
Later, after what was to transpire had transpired,
I was to wonder if he’d taken my hand protectively,
as an adult customarily would take a child’s hand,
or if it was rather to steady himself;
wondered if this was an early sign of the illness
that soon was to overcome him, be the death of him.
For it was on a morning not long after that New Year’s Day
that I overheard my mother say
(directing her words to my oldest brother)
“Dad says he doesn’t feel good.
He can’t get up this morning.”
Her hands, in a gesture of worry,
were clasped before her waist, her fingers entwined.
So, yes, Dad could not get up that day ...
nor the next day ... nor, indeed, ever again.
He went into the hospital.  He grew thin and sallow.
When there was, as the doctors said,
nothing they could do, they brought him home ...
better to die in his own bed.
Sent him home to lie in a narrow iron-framed bed.
It set against the west wall of the living room,
close to the chimney.
Later a hospital bed was acquired.
It was placed in the southeast corner of the living room.
There, except for slow, labored breathing, 
he lay sick and silent.  Sometimes we were told to go outside to play.
“You’re making  too much noise.”
On a Saturday evening in July I happened to be crossing
the living room, headed upstairs when I noticed my mother
was leaning over Dad’s bed;  my ears perked; I heard her say,
“Do you feel better, Tom?”  Ah, I thought, he can get better?
His response wasn’t easy, it was slow in coming, but he finally said,
“No.”  And then, after a pause, “Worse.”
The next morning us kids ... well, we kids, as I’ve learned I should say ...
eight of us, we packed ourselves into the thirty-six Chevrolet
with its horsehair seats; we made our twelve-mile way
to Warsaw for the Low Mass at Sacred Heart.
Returning home, back in Mentone, we turned off State Road Twenty-Five
onto State Road Nineteen -- a point from which we could now see
the corner above our house.  There stood a neighborly gathering --
Isabella Lantz, Beuthene Smythe, Fawn Janke ... maybe another one or two ...
I don’t remember.
“Everybody’s standin’ on the corner,” my sister Martha Rose said.
And, having the situation sized-up immediately, she added,
“Somethin’ must-a happened to Dad.”
We turned left onto Jackson Street , where our house set at three-o-eight west,
just in time to witness, at the opposite end of that three hundred block,
Bob Reed’s heavy black hearse slowly turning left onto Walnut Street.
In the house Mother stood in the middle of the living room.
Her freshly widowed hands were clasped anew in front of her waist,
and again her eyes were aimed at those of her oldest son
(as if. in deadly serious moments,
we younger ones could have only the remnants of her attention).
“Dad died while you were at church this morning,” she said.


I fell into a silence. I could think of nothing to say that day,
nor the next, nor the next, nor the next, and so on.
I did not know how I was supposed to act,
I just tried to stay out of the way.
I came to feel enclosed within myself,
reverted to the quietness of my father’s illness.
Thoughts banged around in my brain, but went nowhere.
Once I wondered if maybe Dad hadn’t really died while we were at Mass,
as Mother had said, but had, rather, passed during the night --
had lain there in the living room, already dead;
fatally undisturbed by the commotion of
eight kids needing to get up and dressed,
rushing up and down the stairs, tromping here and there
through the living room, in and out of the adjacent bathroom,
banging doors, hearing hurry up and get in the car’
We couldn’t be late because four of us were acolytes;
Father Mannion -- a good man, my dad’s friend -- 
Father Mannion wouldn't put up with late.
Accustomed to paying scant attention
to the man lying so long, lying so quietly,
over in the corner, we wouldn’t necessarily
have noticed that, while we'd slept, life had become death.


I didn’t miss Dad for a long time.
I forgot him, or set him aside, put him out of mind.
Then, at some point -- four, five, six years later --
I began missing him.  I wanted to see him. I wanted to know him.
I wanted him to tell me what to do and show me how to do.
The idea of him obsessed me.
And then, when I couldn’t imagine him enough -- when it just wasn’t working --
I came across the desperately deranged idea of digging him up;
I could see if he was really real or was nothing but an imagined figment.
And then again, I managed to put him out of mind.


There was one excellent photograph of him;
I coveted it; I claimed it; I used it as a bookmark.
Then, in nineteen sixty-two, I left it tucked in Seven Pillars of Wisdom
in the bath of a hotel room in Elwood, Indiana.
For that dumb deed, among many other dumb deeds,
I have never been able to forgive myself.


Dad was seventy-one when he died.
Today it is again my birthday -- my seventy-first!
That this has come to be is an astonishment  --
it’s a matter of, I suppose, relativity,
but I'm no Einstein, so don't really know.
Anyhow, I’m not really seventy-one.
I'm clinging to a beloved and unbecoming immaturity.
I coddle it.  I fondle it.   
I dandle my faux-youth on my knee.


The street is free of ice today,
and this is not a poem.


Or it is a poem.
I’m frozen in time.
It's nineteen forty-nine.
The street is glazed with ice.
His hand is warm.

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