This book of poems I’m working on is breaking my fucking heart.
There’s really no other way to say it. I’m at the stage where I’m taping it all to the wall as I arrange the pages into sections (cause Katy Day was right about that!). I know I wrote the poems. I know I know what’s in them. But to see all of that rage and grief all in one place is overwhelming. And I’m also realizing how much I miss my father. Our relationship status has always been, “It’s complicated,” but I miss talking to him about what we’re watching on TV. I miss sitting at his kitchen table and listening as he holds forth on whatever’s on his mind. To read these poems over and over again as I find their right spot in the book is a little like losing him over and over again, which I suppose is how it was in our actual lives together.
I’m also listening to Josh Groban’s new song “Symphony.” Though it’s a romantic love song, it seems to resonate with what I’m feeling and thinking about my father right now.
“I’m staring at the empty page trying to write the things I didn’t say to you.”
“You deserve a symphony.”
“I need to know you feel me with you even when I’m gone.”
I had planned to write something different to you today. I was going to write about the panel discussion I was part of the other night at Forum Theater after a performance of Nat Turner in Jerusalem (which you need to go see!) The other panelists included someone from Black Lives Matter DC, a reverend who works in urban ministries, and a woman who works in the arts in prisons. We were asked what justice looks like for us in our work. I wasn’t sure what to answer. I am certainly concerned with the issues of the day but they don’t often show up in my arts practice. Eventually I said that for me, justice looked like everyone having a voice and like everyone feeling seen.
And that’s why I need to keep slogging through this book though it keeps breaking my heart over and over again. Someone needs me to articulate my complicated grief because they’re desperate to see their own. So on I go…
I am like a cat on the couch rubbing
my face–nose, mouth, cheeks–across
the blue velvet. This couch is my father’s
money, a small forgotten-about portion
left to the three kids he had first
and left first. No, he didn’t forget us
but he didn’t remember us either, not the way
the phone company he’d worked for through all
its identity crises had remembered that once,
possibly with a blue pen, my father had signed
our names and his name on company insurance documents.
My father’s money, too, bought the giltwood, caneback
chairs dressed in golden yellow upholstery and a blue,
white, and gold bracelet. And some bottles of wine
and several ice cream cones and a pound of unground
coffee. It may even have bought something hanging
in my small closet though I don’t remember now
and even if I were to push the hangers one by
one down the painted rail, I couldn’t be sure
I’d recognize my father. I am not a cat and the coffee
is long spent and the chairs are only chairs and my father
was a little too surprised when I wore a pretty black dress
and red lipstick to see him in the hospital his last
Christmas. And even when I scroll through my bank statement
sometimes and look for the small portion of the small portion
I’ve stuck into savings I see a little grace, I see a little
security, I do not see my father.
*I wrote this draft on September 6 after writing my morning pages when I didn’t really think I’d been thinking about my father at all.
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.
Here’s me in Guyana circa 1972, back when I used to be “tall for my age.” Sigh…
If you partake at all in the Facebook world, you may have seen the meme going around where someone tells you a random number of equally random facts about themselves. If you comment on the post, you are given a number and encouraged to create your own random list of that number of items. In that spirit, with a number provided by Katrina M., here are 8 random facts about my father.
1. My father didn’t meet me until I was approximately six weeks old. (My parents lived in Guyana. My mother went home to Trinidad—against my father’s wishes—to have me. The way my mother tells it, my father was so angry that he didn’t go to Trinidad for my birth and waited to meet me, instead, until my mother and I flew back to Guyana.)
2. My father was one of the smartest boys in his class. The high school he went to was known for producing future prime ministers and members of Parliament. When my father moved to the States, he decided not to go college because he was making good money at the phone company.
3. When I asked my father for his financial information so I could apply for financial aid for college, his answer was, “I have a new family now.”
4. My father took my sister and me on a bus trip to see the World’s Fair in Tennessee in 1982. That was the summer roadtrip on which we met our first brother who’s younger than me and older than my sister.
5. My parents were officially divorced when I was nine years old. They sat us down at the dining room table with my mother’s two youngest sisters, who lived with us at the time, and told us what was going on. After the family meeting, going upstairs to our bedrooms, I asked my father why they were getting divorced. He told me I was supposed to have asked all of my questions at the table.
6. I first learned about sex when I was in single digits through my father’s Playboy magazines and my mother’s Harlequin romances.
7. My father followed my mother to the U.S. when I was around six months old. To my knowledge I didn’t see them again until I was around two-and-a-half and moved to the U.S. with my father’s mother.
8. The first time I ate a veggie burger was in the mid-1980s when my father took my sister and me to some sort of “health fair’ in Manhattan during a weekend visit. All I remember was that there were lots of alfalfa sprouts.
1. If I was dating Jack White and someone from Rolling Stone wrote about it or maybe not Rolling Stone because do they even write about girlfriends, but this writer would say, “I am surprised by how normal she is.” It’s all about context. Next to Jack White I’m relatively normal but really I have at least two trunks of eccentricity strapped to my back at all times. But everyone’s eccentric in some way aren’t they? Even blandness is a type of eccentricity.
2. I am visiting my friend D who is in a new apartment after having to let go of the house she lived in for 15 years, where she mostly raised her son, where her marriage didn’t last. I have never seen this apartment before yet I walked in the front door and was home. Who decides who is a home for you and who isn’t ? There’s no guarantee that where your parents is will always be home. Like my father for instance. And my mother too.
3. Last month I was supposed to write poems about place. I didn’t like it. It was hard being a beginner again tripping over my fingers, my language all the time. No, that’s not true—at the very beginning poems came easy. And in the context of what I was able to do then, they were pretty good. It was only when I really learned how to write poems that everything became hard. And anyway what I learned last month is I don’t want to write poems about place but I want to write poems about my father who’s been missing a long time.
4, here’s a story I want to tell in a poem: it’s about how my parents lived in Guyana but I was born in Trinidad. It had something to do with voodoo maybe or bad neighbors or old grudges or my mother and her mother. The first thing my father gave me was his anger. For 6 weeks he stayed in his place—Guyana—and I stayed in my mother’s—Trinidad. I’ve met him since then, of course, but he still hasn’t welcomed me home.
5. I knew I wouldn’t want to write 5 more things so I hedged my bets early. We all only have one true story, anyway, don’t we? One story, many ways of telling it. Like the way an imaginary story about dating a rock star is the same story about a father who is a present absence or an absent presence. And a story about being eccentric is the same story about how every time I see D she holds me hard and later I look at all her books over and over again, even the ones I’ve already read, even the ones I’ll never read.
My father lived with us till I was about eight going on nine. I have plenty of memories of being a tween with him and I have plenty of memories of visiting my father’s father and stepmother with both my mom and dad as a kid. But I have very few memories of him in the house with us, partly I suppose because our schedules were opposite–he worked nights, and I worked days, so to speak. We lived in a semi-detached house adjacent to a string of vacant storefronts (at least I don’t remember any actually businesses) that were constantly burning down. (Ultimately they paved paradise and put up a Burger King and its parking lot.) This poem is based on a faint memory I have of watching the building closest to us burn one night.
Theme and Variations on a December Night
We stand at the window, my sister and I
the house next door burning, our house
night-hushed but for the hum
of sleepy eyes opening, closing.
Houses further down our neck of
Merrick Road empty
their families, parade of sneakers, slippers,
bare feet. Arms wide with books
and photographs and children. My father
urges our small faces to the window
overhead his camera sighs and clicks.
I don’t wonder how long Daddy will wait
before herding us to the street. I know
we won’t leave—this time or the twice more
that house burns. I know already
my father will choose another time to leave
arms wide with books and photographs.
We are always practicing for fires.
We stand at the window.
I want to remember so
I can tell the story of us watching. So
I can tell a story about not leaving.
There is a window.
I am standing at the window.
At the window I am standing
my blue gingham nightgown blinking.
A house next door burns.
Next door a house is burning.
One house in a long block of houses.
In a long row of houses
end to end chimney to chimney
a girl watches.
Books and photographs are carried by others.
A burning house is left by others.
There are books. There are photographs. There are children.
this bird wing
for the father
to arrive the father
to show his awesome powers
know with uncertainty the father
the underbelly of salvation
his great burning wings
the relentless gossip
of fire her skin