My father has been dead for ten years today. I woke up in the dark hotel to a phone call: a nurse saying, “Your father’s condition has changed.” I’d spent the last three days with his second wife watching him die, so I knew what she really meant by “changed.”
"Changed, changed utterly,” I hear echoing in my head now, but that morning there was only a kind of exhausted silence. It had been hard work to sit with a dying man, someone I had such complicated feelings about, and his wife who kept assuring me that I was her son now too. That morning all I knew is that I had to find my clothes and get into them, get into the truck, drive across town to the hospital, and then do whatever was next. As I drove past the McDonalds and Burger Kings, past the little dull plazas of my childhood, past the big, 24 hour Wegmans, a voice on the radio said it was Emily Dickinson’s birthday.
And because I knew it, I recited “Because I could not Stop for Death”
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove –He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –
Everything in it rang and glittered with new, personal resonance. I didn’t cry then; that only happened months after the funeral. But the poem kept me company there as I silently drove toward the body that used to be my awful, angry, complicated father. The weirdness of being in my little truck driving through the place where I’d grown up, the bizarre look everything had, as strange as “Gazing Grain,” the strange way time in the last three days had been stretched, it was all there in the poem.
Part of my job is to set up big, public readings, but I hope the real work goes on off-stage, in the cramped rusting quiet of a student driving back home maybe, when a poem or sentence refuses to be forgotten, when the reader finds him or herself saying the words over and over again for the pleasure and the pain they bring.
I have spent quite a lot of time writing about my father in some form or another. He’s so rich with complications that I doubt I’ll ever stop. I’m certainly not alone in that—literature is full of poets whose fathers were endless generators of questions: Kunitz, Roethke, Plath, Hayden, and so on. I love Andrew Hudgins’ poems about his father in The Glass Hammer. My father could be awful, especially after drinking. There’s no way to forget that. He could be a monster.
But it is also true that he was the only one in the family who said to me, “Find something you love and do that for the rest of your life,” just at the right moment. He was the only one. He had had to take up his father’s sand and gravel company, so he knew something about the dangers of doing what was “safe.” I’d like to think I would have been a writer anyway, but he gave the permission when other members—my mother and grandmother especially—were urging me to take up “computers” and write on the side. Those two women were the very bedrock of love for me, but I surmised that, this one time, my monstrous father was right.