Saturday, September 2, 2017

Poem To My Brothers, Whose Father Passed Away Last Thursday

What I know is the two of you, known you since before Santa Claus
became a myth, since the days both of you
in your tank-tops and tight shorts
stood up for me against the stone-throwing street bully
down by the creek.
We grew up in that ankle-deep creek,
hefting home our quarry in buckets: crayfish, snappers, minnows, toads.
Your Dad would salute without raising his hand;
it was the I’m happy if you’re happy look on his face.

We’d blow up plastic Corvettes in the driveway.
Your Dad would warn us: “Use kerosene instead of gas. Gas explodes.
You don’t want to explode, do you?”
That I’m happy if you’re safe look on his face.

The last time I saw him, last August at high-sweat, we were passers-by
in a parking lot. He explained to me how underground cable lines
ran on a map. With his square pink fingernail, he traced a blue path on paper.
“Now I’ve got to do it on foot,” he said.
He pointed to a hand-sized electronic gadget with switches and probes
and used words I didn’t understand. He smiled.
It was a Friday,
and I think he looked forward to Fridays.

One time he was concerned about my paring an apple
in the wrong direction. That pocket knife
is still in his pocket.
And I remember how one snowy day he let me wear his boots
so we could all play Army behind
icy homemade forts. The boots were big and military;
the knife was sharp as broken glass.

I see him now in your living room,
snoozing hands behind his head
reclining in his recliner after six,
head tilted slightly, his big square glasses crooked
over the serene square jaw,
a steamy spy novel in his lap.
We would dodge the squeaky floorboards out of respect.

Here’s where it feels like lead.
I wonder about the last words you each got to say to him.
What’s it like, that final picture in your minds?
Today, I thought of his last words to me,
and then I thought of my own Dad. You see him living
your entire life, and suddenly comes a cold metal slab.
My head barked inside: Picture your own Dad, picture him living,
pot-bellied and biting into a salty hardboiled egg,
or tying a slipknot on the cleat of his boat. Picture him living,
and then on a slab. You think about that. No…
It makes it too hard to breathe.

“I’m so sorry for your loss…” You’ve heard this too many times this week.
And yet I could not make it to the funeral to say even this.
I had a meeting at school;
a collaborative project for Applied Mathematics.
No calculus can explain how a strong man’s heart
can turn on itself with no tingling harbinger,
no second chance.

Everybody can’t help but think of their own Dad.
But mostly I think of you guys, your glistering red eyes
the moment the news arrived, our friends’ group hugs
in your driveway last Thursday.

I awoke tonight, shaking the guilt from my head,
recalling the last words Jim said to me. They were:
“See you later, Chris.”

(February 4, 1997)

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