When my stepmother wanted to play “Lady in Red” and “Always and Forever” and “The Power of Love” (Celine Dion version) at my father’s funeral, I thought it was crazy. But it was one of the only things that was right. The man who did the service at the funeral home mispronounced my father’s name (Sheldon instead of Shelon, which was my Dad’s nickname; at the crematorium Allen, twice, instead of Alban), and that same man (purposely?) twice skipped the part where I was going to read Sonnet 76 by Shakespeare, until his wife stage-whispered, “What about the poem?” My father didn’t want a funeral, but we wanted to say good-bye to him, and my stepmother wanted a choir. Perhaps it doesn’t matter cause none of us listened anyway. And I was hungry and stood in the vestibule eating a sleeve of Ritz crackers about halfway through the viewing.
My father died 13 days ago. I am waiting for his death to click into place, like a sticky seatbelt or a key in the lock of a door that is inevitable but across town. I watched my father die. I would like to tell you how many hours we waited on that day, but I was on night duty the day before so I can’t precisely calculate how long he was actively dying or how long I was trying to keep myself awake while he died. He died at 10:23 pm. He took three last breaths in my version of it. And then my stepmother let out a wail—lasting 2 or 3 hours—that sent us all running from the room. We were crushed by her grief, choking on our own. No. My grief was peaceful, the way an empty room is sad and peaceful. Or my grief couldn’t breathe once her wailing sucked all of the oxygen from the room, my father’s face relaxing so it looked longer than it ever had, and his long, beautiful lashes laid folded against his gaunt cheeks, not like a butterfly, but like a pair of still and terrible animals.
My father died 13 days ago, and I have been trying to write for 13 days about him dying. About how I don’t feel anything, not because I’m not sad or lonely but because what I feel is still walking slowly toward me across the cavernous space between my father’s body and the bed where I sat to watch. I am waiting for it, but also, I am sleeping and sleeping and wishing I didn’t have to get out of bed to warm up some soup, and joking to my sister that I want to join Witness Protection cause it’s too hard to talk to people and it’s too hard to listen.
After my father died thanks to my father’s two brothers (the youngest and the one who was next-oldest after my father) we had scotch and White Castle. And the funeral director quipped he’d like to buy my little brother’s Porsche, which seems like it would be inappropriate but made it easier to let him in the door. My stepmother didn’t ask if we were okay but I don’t mind anymore. I think now that maybe she feels this loss not only for herself but for everyone who knew my father, so she doesn’t have to ask. She knows. (And maybe I’m being too kind here, but so many people were casually unkind over the last 13 days, I want to overcompensate.)
They carried my father out of his house in something that was like a mash-up of a Bjorn and a duffel bag and you could see my father’s face, floating out of the room, past the hall closet with the sodas and six boxes of my stepmother’s hair color, past the stairs, past the coat closet and the new washing machine in the laundry, all at ankle level, way below the reach of our fingers. But, still, 13 days later, I am waiting for my father to die. I’ve read enough books to know that at some point I may not be able to remember his laugh. And we will all start to disagree on exactly how it went that day. And my father will keep on dying, as people do, until I am the one carried out of a house, maybe one with a coat closet and a downstairs pantry, and that distance between where my father died and where I sat watching him die will become a little smaller.
This morning two friends of mine called to wish me “happy birthday,” and I nearly burst into tears. When they called, I was in the middle of reading my sister’s texts updating my middle brother and me about my father’s condition. Why is it that when we’re heartbroken and most need to be loved, that it’s actually the most painful time to be loved? That when that protective layer is pockmarked and wounded by grief, even the kindest, most well-meaning of wishes becomes an abrasion.
This morning I felt ridiculous and even somewhat petty reading everyone’s lovely birthday wishes—some of which made me actually laugh out loud—as they populated my Facebook wall. Because I’m connected via social media to many people at work, there was a steady of cacophony of “Happy Birthday” as I ran into people in the halls. I didn’t quite know what to say. I said thank you, of course, but I felt as if I needed to qualify that thank you. “Thanks for remembering, but I’m not sure I’m allowed to celebrate and be happy when my father is dying such an unkind death.”
I briefly though about canceling my plans to have dinner with a small group of friends after work, and throughout the day I kept incanting under my breath, “It’s okay if you cry at dinner; they’re your friends.”
I did decide, ultimately, to not cancel dinner. And I did let myself fully enjoy the well wishes. Love hurts. But finally, I’m learning, that’s not a good reason to run away from it. And if we don’t learn to bear the hurts, maybe we never learn to fully bear the joy of love either.
What follows is not a good poem. In fact, I haven’t looked at it since i made one attempt at a second draft in November 2005. (I eventually stole parts of it for another poem.) But it’s an interesting poem, I think, because of what it’s trying to get at—that there is an element of possession to love. We want to both possess and be possessed. That there is something somewhat cannibalistic about love, in how much we want to not only hold the beloved, but we want to have them inside of us, woven into the very fabric of our DNA. Of course, if we’re relatively sane, we don’t act on that deep desire. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s taboo to talk about, but we all have a whiff of the obsessive about us, particularly when it comes to love. In the case of this poem, the beloved in question is my mother, who I’ve now figured out was actually standing in for both of my parents. Two people I wanted desperately to possess. Two people who could never figure out how to possess me.
I should also say that the poem is dark, and I find myself resisting that darkness sometimes. It feels wrong to have so much fun being twisted, and I don’t want anyone to think I am actually this extreme. But as all great crime fiction writers know (at least the ones who write for the BBC), sometimes you have to push things to the extreme to get to the very ordinary human truth.
Eating Mother (second draft)
There is a certain desire toward
cannibalism of the beloved mother.
It asks an act of violence,
this sacrament of love.
I love you so much mother
I will wear your heart
hanging from my lips,
the best stick parts
gouged out. When
you expelled me. When
you threw me out
from between your legs,
didn’t you smell the grief?
What else is blood but mourning
for what has been broken?
Now I see your teats are a substitute
lacking the rankness of true intimacy.
They are given too freely.
I suckle too for the ghosts
who didn’t make it, those
you kicked out before
they had hands to hold.
What choice have I
but to open my mouth wide
as all our tiny mouths.
you are our beloved suckling pig.
you are our beloved first kill.
We are giddy with blood and delight.
I’ve been trying all day to write a poem about love. Or, rather, instructions in poem form about how to love me. Or not to love me. Sometimes I have to let dull line after dull line thud on the paper in order to get the poem to take a breath. But other times, I have to admit that, at least for tonight, the poem has coded and gone to poem heaven. (Poetry is the only place in which I believe in reincarnation.)
It’s not a failure of ideas, nor of imagination. But a failure of courage. Because what I really have to write about is seeing my Dad in the hospital the Friday after Christmas. My sister and I spent most of the Christmas holiday week on Long Island with one of our aunts. We took the train to New Jersey to see my Dad in the hospital on Christmas Day, and then returned for another visit on Friday. As we left that Friday evening, my sister leaned over my Dad, kissed him, and said, “Love you, Dad.” I squeezed myself into the narrow slice of space at the side of his hospital bed, dropped a mouthful of red lipstick on his cheek, and said, “See you in a couple of weeks, Dad.”
As I lean over my father, the room feels too quiet or too full of people for me to say anything. I feel hollow—which I know now means I’ve pulled way back into myself—and can’t face how the words might sound as they bounce from my mouth. How they might make me feel.
It’s not that I doubt that I love my father. Not anymore. I’ve figured that much out; I do love him. But the actual words are still hiding somewhere at the back of my throat. In the corner of my body where I sometimes lurk, a turtle without her shell, a knight bereft of armor.
You are perhaps going to tell me that my actions speak louder than my words. You are perhaps going to tell me that I will get there, to the place where saying “I love you” doesn’t feel like some bad punchline, doesn’t remind me of all the times I said it to an old boyfriend, when it didn’t mean anything at all, because I was desperate to have someone to say “I love you” to. Because I was desperate to be loved.
We—my father and I—are past that now. The desperation. The hollowness. That’s what I want to believe. That’s what staying silent tells me.
1. I love to lie in bed and stare at my raspberry pink wall. It’s Benjamin Moore’s Razzle Dazzle. I stare and think and stare and think.
2. I love to lie in bed and read two things at once. Right now I’m reading Living, Etc. (my favorite interiors magazine) and Thoreau’s Walden.
3. I love to lie in bed or stand at the bus stop and watch the sun rise.
4. I love to stare at the sky as the sun sets and watch it darken through all its various shades of blue.
5. I love to stop and stare at the constellation Orion when it’s not a cloudy night and it appears about halfway down Sligo Avenue about five houses from my building.
6. I love to wear black tights. They make me feel hugged and safe.
7. I love to read. But I do not love to write. Reading takes me away. Writing drops me right into the thick of things.
8. I love to binge-watch TV series on Netflix and Amazon.
9. I love to watch my favorite episodes of television shows over and over again. Like “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” from Doctor Who and also the Donna wedding episode. And the “Life Born in Fire” episode of Inspector Lewis, which I like cause Hathaway has a love interest.
10. I love to watch old British sitcoms (As Time Goes By and Keeping Up Appearances) and shows like Rosemary and Thyme.
11. I love to watch Independence Day and Dirty Dancing and say all the dialogue out loud.
12. I love to walk from one neighborhood of Manhattan to another and then another somewhat aimlessly after having a really good meal.
13. I love to make my coffee each morning in the french press and add cinnamon or nutmeg or Angostura bitters. And always half-and-half. And sometimes whipped cream if there are leftovers from a dessert.
14. I love to follow recipes, especially if I’ve invited someone over for dinner and I’ve never made the recipe before. It feels like an adventure.
15. I love to say “Well, we can always order pizza if the recipe doesn’t turn out” when I make a new recipe and have invited people over because it makes me feel like a grown-up who can laugh about disasters.
16. I love to make my sister laugh.
17. I love to follow celebrities on Twitter and to find out that they’re funny or smart or goofy or all of the above.
18. I love to curl up on the couch before the sun comes up with a cup of coffee and watch foreign films, usually in Spanish or sometimes French.
19. I love to order food and have it delivered because we were never allowed to do that as kids and it makes me feel like a grown-up who can now do forbidden things.
20. I love to make lists.
Day to day I don’t know if my father
is hurtling toward twilight or dawn
is just a long time coming.
His mouth is full of stops and starts
and we try to decipher the new
language of words he can’t remember.
We measure him in half-cups and sips.
We pray the steady rise and fall of him
like a rosary of relief and longing.
We memorize each knot of his spine
like a rosary of bone and moaning.
We do not know if we should pray
for an end or a beginning.
We pray instead in icepacks
and extra pillows and cans of nutritions.
We pray not with knees pressed to the ground
nor with tongues busy with sacred groanings.
We pray instead with hands busy with
the work of my father. We pray as if
he is not sand, he is not air.
We pray as if the benediction of our
hands on the sags and folds of him is enough.
Self-portait as Baryshnikov’s Lover
How do you hold on to a man with such disdain for gravity? It’s not that he’s out of my reach; it’s that it’s so difficult to reach him. Those mournful eyes hover over me like a hot air balloon. I don’t know enough Russian to explain he’s got the Rapunzel story upside down. We are tethered by the most frail of strings—true love. It is hard to know which kiss will be a scissor, which will be a knot. I would like to blame it on the language barrier, and it’s true, our bodies do not speak the same vernacular. He would like to tie him to his wrist. I would like to tie him to the curl of my back. It is true that we also cannot agree which language to use when we speak of absence. Or how to describe the difference between how his body hollows my bed and how my body hollows his bed without using patryonimcs or patois. What is true: we can both walk gracefully from point A to point B. What is true: we can both walk gracefully together from point A to point B. What is true: We cannot agree on when to start or how long to take or what to do after. It’s difficult to hold on to woman who has such disdain for the gravity of the situation. It’s not that she’s out of his reach. it’s that it’s so difficult to know if she wants him to reach her.
Self-portrait as Daughter
I curl myself into your left side like a wound. I am a bruise who weeps noisily for a while then settles into a lifelong throb, trading fours with your heart’s dull thuds. You have spent your life wary of my friable edges, weary of searching the Internet for a cure. As you blur at the last edges of your life, the heart’s thud will slow then cease. I will be sorry and even then the ach and bawl of me will insist. And insist.
Self-portrait with giants
Today I am rife and ripe with giants. Their footsteps echo like fog, land like fury. To which untidy rooms of my body the giants are walking I’m not sure. How far a giant can walk I’m not sure nor how tenderly. What is known is more than one giant strides and sidles inside of me. Carcass, one calls me. Beloved, one calls me. As the day lies breaking they name me gift in quiet conversations punctuated by the noisy flapping of my heart against the streaked window of my chest, bemused and dazzled and baffled by its own reflection.
Self Portrait as What I’m Having For Dinner
You are what you eat, and tonight I am hungry for hunger. I have been too full these past months: a new pinot noir from the neighborhood wine shop, two helpings of Whole Foods macaroni-and-cheese, a small cherry pie carved up and eaten square inch by square inch, sorrow. Tonight I am steamed broccoli and curried channa that comes in a pouch I put in the microwave. Maybe if I can ease–again–that ache where waistband meets ache, I can ease–again–the clutch of my father’s fingers on my confused heart. There is still a piece of chocolate, the last till a party I may or may not get to in two weeks. A little bit of sweetness to end the year. Please.