I’ve been writing and reading a lot of poetry over the past 10 weeks as I recover from surgery for a broken wrist. Marie Howe’s What The Living Do prompted this memory of my father’s last days. He died on April 18, 1995, in Vero Beach, FL.
I have arrived in this vivid spring: oleanders, hot Florida sun,
strong Atlantic breeze and cumulus towers in the blue-blue sky.
The small hospital is a tidy white concrete low-rise in a trimmed landscape
where shadows race and the wide doors open like airlocks.
Inside my father lies in a bed and I sit in a chair in my summer clothes.
Delirious, he says anything he thinks of and leers at my legs
licking his lips until something occurs to him
and he points at the door, looks me in the eye, and says,
Go to my office and get that book. I say, Maybe later.
Go now, he says and smiles like it’s a game.
He thinks he’s at home, not seeing the hospital around him.
What is it about, I ask, dangerously indulging the hallucination.
Go, he says, commanding. I say, I can’t, not right now.
A moment later he says, You’re having a hard time.
He sees me crying and his kindness breaks me in half.
The doctor and an intern enter and look at the two of us
How are you, the doctor asks me, but he can see perfectly well.
Prepare yourself, he says, and I begin.
I prepare by coming and going, abandoning plans for recovery
swapping vigils with my mother and sister
in the ICU that is a glass cage behind more airlocks
sitting with my father as he becomes quiet, struggles to breathe
watching the heart monitor leaping, the sound mercifully turned off
the oxygen mask pressing into the skin around his nose and mouth.
I prepare by taking an afternoon off as if cutting class or calling in sick
because he is unconscious, because I can’t take it, and that is when he dies
as I lie on the beach close to the restless, mumbling Atlantic
in the salty wind that peppers my skin with stinging sand.