07/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Absence and Presence: Remembering My Father

As I mentioned in my initial post last week, my own more or less conscious entry into "the valley of the shadow of death" occurred with my father's death in 1988. I've written about this elsewhere and often--so much so, that I'd say, in general, the keen sense of that abrupt severing is never very far from my mind, remains ever in my heart; at most, its sharpness is only intermittently suppressed.

That is to say, the ache is recurrent, abiding.

Over 22 years, the intervals between sudden waves of grief may have grown a bit longer, but when the familiar wave finally descends, it does not seemed to have diminished much in force.

To be honest (and those of you who have lost someone will know this part already), I would not have it otherwise.

I would not want, ever, to arrive at a place where my father's absence has become moot; I would not seek a shore that this wave cannot reach.

In a puzzling way--a way that surpasses understanding--the pinch of grief keeps him near.

With next Friday's post, I promise to make my way back to something that more coherently pursues the "assay" of the moment, the press for finding purpose in pain. For today, however, I'd like to share a couple poems.

The first is an earlier poem from my book Recovered Body, and it is something of a confession regarding my father's death, an admission that we were too quick to turn away from him when he died. It has taken many years for me to mitigate the glib, intellectual dichotomy of "body and spirit" that allowed us our cool dismissal of my father at his deathbed. I'd say that, during those many years, my puzzling over the impressions leading to this poem was eventually what led me, more generally, into a less Western disposition, a more Eastern--which is to say a more nearly Christian faith.

The second poem is actually quite recent, and has yet to appear in a book. I'm guessing that it will make its way eventually into my current manuscript-in-progress, Idiot Psalms. This poem attests to the manner in which both my father's presence and his loss--despite the passing of time--remain ever at hand.

Regarding the Body

I too was a decade coming to terms
with how abruptly my father had died.
And still I'm lying about it. His death
was surely as incremental, slow-paced
as any, and certainly as any
I'd witnessed. Still, as we met around him
that last morning--none of us unaware
of what the morning would bring--I was struck
by how quickly he left us. And the room
emptied--comes to me now--far too quickly.
If impiety toward the dead were still
deemed sin, it was that morning our common
trespass, to have imagined too readily
his absence, to have all but denied him
as he lay simply, present before us.


The dream is recurrent, and yes
the dream can leave me weeping,
waking with a start, confused,
and pressing my wet face hard
into the pillow. That is to say
the dream is very bitter.

The scenes are various, the gist
unchanging: my father returns,
and we all are at once elated
that his death was apparently
an error, that he had simply
been away, a visit to the shore.

Then, increasingly, I grow
uneasy about how deeply
he has changed. He is both frail
and distracted (or it could be
that he withholds some matter
focusing his mind), and none of us

dares speak, neither of his death nor
of his sudden, startling return.
We share other confusions as well:
He has arrived in the camper truck
he drove when I was a boy, but my wife
and children are also here to greet him,

even my son, whom he has never met.
Often, in the dream, I am the one
who first suspects he cannot stay.
I am the one who sees but cannot say
his visit will be brief. And just
as I suspected, as I feared, I wake.