Five times since July my father
has been hospitalized. He’s home
today, sitting up at his desk
in bathrobe, pajamas, slippers.
I am embarrassed, I want him
fat again, in khakis that smell
like sweat, cigarette smoke, carbide,
ignoring me because he’d rather
work the crossword puzzle, alone
or pretending to be, than risk
in those minutes before supper
finding out what meanness I’d been
up to. He’s thin now. And pale.
Waiting to hear what’s on my mind.
In the summer in the hospital
he sat on the bed’s edge clutching
that formica table they crank up
and put your food tray on. He coughed
up white mucus, took oxygen
from a thin green tube, couldn’t sleep,
couldn’t lie back and breathe. He
and my mother thought it was all
finished the day he got medicine
to make him relax, make him sleep,
then couldn’t sit up because he’d lost
his strength but couldn’t breathe lying
back. They rang for the nurse, but he
passed through something you couldn’t see.
They say his hair turned white. It’s true,
it’s grayer than it was, almost
white. He can’t read much now, has no
power of concentration, mind
strays. Today he talks about friends
who’ve died, relatives long gone.
In a photograph he points out
which ones are dead now. “But you
and Lester Waller and Tom Pope
and George Schreiber and James Payne—so
many still alive,” I remind
him. He seems not to hear and bends
to put the picture away. “Some
still around,” he says, “yes, no doubt.”
My mother wants us to talk. This
is what she always wants, her sons
sitting around with their dad, talk
being evidence of love, she
thinks. My evenings home from school,
the army, New York, or Vermont,
she’d leave the room for us to do it.
We always argued politics.
Didn’t intend to, but reasons
came to us. Once he said I ought
to go to Russia if the
things I said were really true,
and I walked out. Words are too hard
for us now. We’ll just have to sit.
Their lives in that house before he got too sick must have
so filled with silence that even when a truck would pass
on the highway down the hill they would listen. Those
clear sunny days of May and June she sat with him
on the front porch where sometimes the soft wind
rustled in that hackberry that’s grown
so high now. I hold an infant
recollection of the sun
warming the three of us,
their holding me so
close between them
I knew then
So if I
care so much
about them I
have to sit up here
a thousand miles away
and write myself back home, why
not look for a job down there, try
to find some town close enough to say,
“I’m going to see them,” drive over there
and walk in the door and not even surprise
them, sit down with them and talk, maybe stay for lunch,
say an easy goodbye and leave without feeling like
I betrayed them, and I will never find my way back home.
Night comes down, the winter sky
then stunned, bruised, ruined with pain, dark. . . .
Coal on the fire, our old habits
keep us still, without lights, sitting
until the study’s bay window
yields maybe one moving tree branch.
Then Mother rises, breathes a sigh
for all three of us when she flicks
on the overhead light. The dog barks
lightly in its sleep. We blink. It’s
not late. His fingers shake setting
his watch. Before us are the slow
hours, each breath he takes a chance.
At six we move from the study
to the living room for the news,
the weather report our excuse.
The man draws snow over the whole
Northeast, freely uses the word
blizzard, and I stand up before
he’s finished and say I think I
better keep driving north, maybe
I can beat that storm. “But son, you
just got here.” Mother’s hurt. He’s used
to my skedaddling ways, and so
makes himself grin, offers his hand
for me to shake and at the door
we say our word for love. Good-bye.
I scuttle out into the dark
and drive 300 miles north, numb,
knowing that I hurt but not able
to register it, a busted
speedometer on a car that
hurtles forward. In the morning
I get what’s coming to me. Snow
starts in Pennsylvania, slick
stuff on those mountains south of Scranton,
the interstate a long white table
of ice, everything blasted
white. Wind and drifts in those high flat
stretches near nowhere. Endless dream
of losing control, moving through snow.
Tell me whose parents don’t get old.
Your father’s sick, and you can’t stand
to be around him and help him
die or get well, whichever it
turns out he’s going to do. Well,
son, you deserve to drive through snow,
wind and freezing cold, past Hometown,
Port Jervis, Newburgh, Kingston. No
decent motel would have you, can’t
stop, can’t give your old man an arm
to help him walk into the next
room. Albany says go to hell,
keep driving, boy, get your ass home
where you’ve got children of your own.