For Dad: I Know What Poetry Can Do

On Friday night, I told my father we’d bring over what he needs: a bookcase, an armchair. For the third time, he asked me if he was moving tomorrow.

“No, on Sunday, Dad. You’re moving on Sunday.”

“Can we work on the poetry?” he said then. “That’s the thing.”

I was exhausted from my flight, the three-hour time difference, Friday rush-hour traffic, the hellish creep across the Bay Bridge. My mother was a mess. But I typed my father’s latest poem on my laptop, working from the scraps my brother had written out and Dad’s slow recitation.

It was the weekend before Father’s Day. I fought my own melancholy, the sense that I was doing grave injury to someone helpless to change his fate.

In his prime, my father was never sentimental. He has advanced Parkinson’s Disease, and he knows it’s time to leave home. He knows. But that didn’t change his nervousness, the potential for him to go mulish at the last minute.

The next morning, he said he’d had a terrible night’s sleep. He was weak, his drugs hadn’t kicked in. He didn’t think he could do it.

“Maybe I’ve had a stroke,” he said.

“No, Dad. Just wait for your medicine to work. There’s no rush.”

Although of course there was a rush. It was Saturday, less than 24 hours to go.

“I’m in a deep hole,” he said.

I wanted to take him to the new place again for a quick visit, so he’d worry less. So I’d worry less. He’d tell me what he wanted in his room: which books and family pictures, which diplomas. I wanted this thing done.

He started to talk about the CIA in Vietnam and how somebody listed him as a reference in obscure academic papers—as a CIA cover?

“Did you read all the Vietnam stuff last night?” I asked wearily.

“No, no. I got rid of that months ago.”

Yet last night the delusions had plagued him again, another gyration of Parkinsonian paranoia. Sometimes he even knew they were delusions.

A CD blared in the background, Muzak versions of famous movie songs. The theme from Dr. Zhivago (“Somewhere My Love”) played, an especially ironic counterpoint to my father’s calm assessment of machinations in post-1954 Vietnam and the people he knew later in the Nixon administration.

“I kept the article with that footnote,” he said. “They misspelled my name.”

Could it be true? We were talking about the CIA; my father was a retired political scientist. Dad’s voice sounded low and slurred, but he was putting complicated sentences together.

“Can you show me the reference?” I asked.

Oh, no, he said. He’d had his home caregiver throw it away. Somebody was walking around with his name, a CIA ghost.

Round and round we went. Sense and nonsense from a man who I’ve loved forever, who I have always admired for his sharp wit—who pushed me to paroxysms of impatience, too, as if I’m still fifteen and sick of his Socratic method, the way he would scoff at all my emotional arguments for why the world needs to be a better place.

I remember collapsing on the floor in a fury, pounding my fists against the puke-green shag, my father looking down, his seemingly mild eyebrows raised.

What’s wrong? he’d ask. I was supposed to be his best student.

In this, he will never change. The Parkinson’s has brought certain character traits to the fore. Rational me coolly assesses the good with the bad, but what I’m most struck by is how much sweetness has floated to his surface.

He is Yuri Zhivago, stuck in a snow storm. Saturday it was hot in the Bay Area, Mediterranean weather, and so far from a wintertime dacha with Hollywood icicles that the connection only makes sense to me: the saturated blue sky, the Muzak, my father’s achingly long pauses between words.

Again, he wanted to go over his latest poem. He kept talking about how weird he felt, how dark. He told me he couldn’t stand up—but the poem?

I gave him the pages I’d printed out, and they rattled in his hand.

“Do you want me to read it, Dad?”

He huddled in his chair, still staring at the pages. It was his last day at home. I was poised on the couch, ready to run.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, you could do that.”

So I read “A Ride to the Church Yard,” and his body relaxed for a moment. I knew then he would make the visit that morning. Although my brother and mother were as jittery as cats in a sack, I knew we’d get him moved on Sunday. Their anxiety fed my own, but I knew how to retreat to the dacha, too.

I know what poetry can do.

It was almost as if I could foresee the moment later that afternoon, when my brother and I drove to Target to find a few more things for Dad’s room, when we stopped talking about logistics. The silence sank in between us, suburban bungalows and strip malls passing on either side, long-winded rationalizations no longer conveying any of the emotional essence.

“Life. You know?” my brother said.

Or as if I could envision the next day—because Sunday did come, hot and bright—when Dad and I walked slowly up the ramp of his new home.

He clutched my hand, and I felt his fingers bucking. They were always in motion, but he held on as hard as he could. He took his tiny, tiny steps forward, and I matched his pace—there’s no rush, Dad—as one of the caregivers in blue opened the door.

A Ride to the Church Yard

By James Nichols

Josh, the funeral home driver
Shivered at the damp and cold.
Riding beside him was the tow-headed ten-year-old
And his two giggly baby sisters,
Hair all shiny like spun gold.
As they turned in the gate beneath the tower,
Josh thought, Sure enough, that mouthy boy
Will say something all too bold.

“Sir, does that clunky clock keep good time?”

Enough for all you’ll ever need.

“Sir, why are those rotting flowers piled everywhere?”

To keep the squirrels from running through your hair.

“Sir, why does that rusty old box stinketh so?”

Because your nose is too damned big, you brat.

“Sir, are you speaking? What was that?”

You insolent pup, let me fling this box lid up.
Now see what you’ve got.

The boy stood stock still, like one dreaming;
No sound was heard except the young girls screaming.

Lines of pity creased the old man’s face.
Gently Josh said, “Come, child, every family
For grief must have its place.
And now we all must attend to
Our own souls’ redeeming.

The boy took his hand and went, content.