Editing My Father’s Poems

The day before I leave for Boston, my father and I sit together on his bed. It’s late afternoon in California, rainy outside, a good stretch for him. We’re talking about his poems.

We look through drafts that my mother or brother have transcribed for him on notebook paper. He holds a page in his shaking hands, although he can’t read, his vision doubling, perhaps tripling, if you count the hallucinations.

I read another in the small stack on the plastic table. The Great Gambler. “God the Gambler,” my father calls it before we find the right page.

His hands and feet weave through the air, as they always do. The table joggles, spilling my coffee into its saucer.

He’s oblivious, sightless, a Parkinson’s-inflicted mind turned to whatever he thinks he sees—or is trying so very hard to see—on the page in his hands. He’s cold; I help him put a scarf around his neck. Then he’s sweaty, hot and cold at the same time, another Parkinsonian symptom.

He’s lost the sense of touch in his fingertips, he says. He can pick up a paper towel, but not a kleenex. A notebook page falls somewhere in between, but I’m pretty sure that what he holds is a memory of writing, of waking up late at night and putting down fevered words in his tiny, cramped script.

He could still do that a year ago. Even two months ago, we could discuss line breaks and meter, words he might like to change.

He is a poet. It took the blow of severe illness for him to do the writing he’s always wanted to do, and for awhile his analytical sharpness meshed with the hallucinatory overflow brought on by drugs. Over the past two years, I’ve typed in many of his poems on my computer. I’ve produced a book for him, an improbable wonder amid his disintegration.

But now the hallucinations are taking over. As I go through his files this afternoon, as I transcribe poems on fresh pages in one lemon-yellow notebook—his words, “my lemon-yellow notebook”—he tells me in his professorial tone about the methane gas leaking from the heater vents.

“Just hear me out,” he says. “What if there’s a 5 percent chance I’m right?”

There’s no chance, I think, trying to school my expression. He tells me again about the National Geographic special he saw about a volcano in Africa, which vented methane, which created a pool of dead air into which gazelles wandered by accident, then dropped dead in their tracks.

He grasps for words he can’t remember, saying he’s been forced to recall his high school chemistry, trying to explain carbon monoxide—”C…damn…I…it is a chemical.”

He knows this is an hallucination, he says. He can observe himself spinning paranoid fantasies. Yet he wakes up gasping in the darkness; he’s terrified. He wants a rational explanation for why he can’t breathe, for why his mind doesn’t work. If only he were surrounded by dead air.

“I get so anxious,” he says.

My mother and brother have told me he sometimes staggers out of bed late at night. He opens all the windows or the front door. He worries my brother, the caregiver Ana.

“Damn.” My father turns aside. “I can see the look in your eyes.”

I touch his arm. “Sometimes the simplest explanation is best.”

“Occam’s Razor. Your brother has picked up that language very well.”

“You’re very ill.”

“These…” He  looked at me then. “Halloduc…hallodin…what was that word?”

“Hallucinations,” I say.

“Hallucinations. That’s right. I know that. But what if I’m right?”

He could be. Not about methane leaks or his caregiver being a ringleader of a drug cartel or the pockets of dead air he keeps stumbling through or the shadow people he sees against the wall. But what if all truth is self-constructed, self-fabricated, self-imposed? I see it now, sitting beside his shaking body on the bed, my father’s huge and final effort.

He is letting go, too, allowing me to rub down his chest when he’s clammy, to help him put on his slippers, to comb his hair, to tell his story.

He says he trusts me as an editor. I should take these poems and break the lines where I see fit, add the right words.

He is a poet.

I consider making changes to “God the Gambler,” taking out the exclamation points. I want to ask are you sure this is what you think, Dad, has it really come to this? But I don’t.

It’s his truth. It’s real, far more real than any happy ending I can construct.

The Great Gambler

By James L. Nichols

I think now is the time to make this call.
I’m going to cash in my chips, I only wish
My stack did not look so small!
Perhaps in that Greater Game we all
Must play I could make a bigger haul.

But wait a minute! Couldn’t it be that some
Of us are just meant to be losers after all?
Where is the Great Gambler who will make
That call?

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