Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Passings

"With the passing of its editor, Raymond J. Smith, Ontario Review itself will cease publication with the forthcoming Spring 2008 issue. Smith began Ontario Review in 1974 in Windsor, Ontario, with his wife Joyce Carol Oates as associate editor..."

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Yesterday I talked to my students a little bit about my process of writing poetry. I read aloud a few of my poems and almost read one about my father, but I decided against it because I wasn't sure I could make it through since (as I wrote in the last entry) yesterday was the one-year mark of my his death.

So I'll post it here, in his memory. (This poem appears in Like All We Love.)

What My Father Gives

The doctors and nurses and respiratory therapists come in
with vials and clipboards and white or black shoes, pushing

buttons like astronauts, speaking words I don’t know. My father’s
lungs are failing, they’ve been failing a long time, twenty-five

years of failing, and I’ve lived my whole life as though I’m not dying.
They’ve asked my mom to take off his wedding band, to pull it off

his finger after forty-seven years, her own fingers white as bone,
his as red as the crushed velvet bedspread on my growing-up bed,

in the room of our new house where my dad built the redwood decks
around the oaks to save them, the house where we had rules like draw

the drapes when the sun shines in the living room so the carpet
won’t fade, like take off your shoes in the entry so you don’t

track in dirt, and when that didn’t work, walk only on the plastic
runners. Those runners had little rubber prongs that dug into the

carpet to stay put, and sometimes I’d turn them over and walk on the
prongs barefoot for a pleasing pinch of the feet. My sister and I

had our own rooms with big windows that looked out onto blue oak
and manzanita and ghost pine. One night I woke to an owl sitting

on a limb at my window. I turned on my light to see her better, but
of course the window turned opaque. Raccoons and possums

fell into the pool, and my dad fished them out with the leaf skimmer,
its handle curving with dead weight. When he started coughing,

I can see now, he was still young, not much older than I am now.
He drove my sister and me to school, one of us folded in the backseat

of his sports car that didn’t really have a backseat. As he shifted gears,
spots of coffee would jump out of his ceramic mug, and the cold morning

air made his cough worse. Around then, the time of the blue sports car,
he started hooking up to a machine in the morning and again at night,

then lying on a slant board for my mom to pound his back and chest
so he’d cough up the phlegm his lungs refused to clear by themselves.

He wears flannel shirts and Birkenstocks, has a full head of dark
hair, just a little gray, and a handlebar mustache they shaved in the

hospital so they could tape still the tubes. When they pulled the tape away,
when he unexpectedly lived, we saw they had shaved only above the lip

so his handlebars remained, unanchored. He has crystal blue eyes that turn
bloodshot when he coughs and coughs, and with my mom on a trip, I’m the one

who pounds him, and when we finish, cleans the machine. I throw out
the fluids still warm from his body, clean the machine with dish soap. Then

I make him breakfast, and he asks for more strawberries or hotter coffee,
and a glass of water in a short glass, not tall. He knocks over the tall ones.

My mother has taken a group trip to the other side of the continent. My father
insists on coming to the airport to pick her up, even though it’s cold and late.

When she comes through the gate, her small folded body, her hair cloud-white,
I think she can see that nothing has changed, that my father still wheels his

oxygen, and they kiss. On the trip she met an eighty-three year old woman
who still teaches second grade and who lives in a Manhattan apartment,

and my mom is astonished that some people live their whole lives unlike us,
no backyards or garages or leaf-strewn decks. Ten years ago I fell in love

with a woman, and it seemed an apocalypse, like an atomic blast cremated
the house, incinerated the formal dining room. I was stubborn. There was no

middle ground. My parents grasped at me like the string of a kite in a fierce wind.
My love and I married this February, when the mayor of San Francisco decided

to break the law, and afterward my parents took us to dinner, held up glasses
of wine, rubied in gold candlelight. When we thought he was going to die,

when his breath was like a crack in a sidewalk, my father told my love
that she is like a daughter to him. I saw him holding onto that bed, dying

in his living as he has for years. I have lived as though death belongs to him.
He has owned it for me. That is what he wants, I now see, my immortality.
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