October 14, 2020KR OnlinePoetry

What My Father Did Not Have to Say; What I Know Is Not My Father

What My Father Did Not Have to Say

In his final days my father did not speak
because he could not speak. He did not ask
how the car was running or about the kids
or his grand-dog. He did not ask about work.
He did not look out at the boats on the river
to say there goes a thirty-two footer, or the lines
on that boat are really fine. He did not say
the water was at its highest in twenty-five years.
If his thin lips moved at all it was only when
I wiped them with a wet washcloth, or put yogurt
on a spoon up to them hoping he would eat.
He did not eat and he did not speak and soon
his breathing slowed until there was nothing.
He’d been slowly dying and now he was dead.
I did not know what to say and so I said little
out loud. I walked down to the river where I thought
maybe I would find something there to tell me
what I was supposed to do now. The loons
sat on the water and dove under when a boat
motored close by. They did not sing. Not right then
at least. Only later at night did they call out to each other,
their voices crisscrossing the river in the April dark.

 

What I Know Is Not My Father

My father lives now not in a house
but in the river and on this boat beside me
as I cut the engine and drift downriver
past the steel mill and the hospital
where no one has died or walked away
in close to twenty years. So much of what
remains with us is just the husk or skin
of what once was. The urn in my pocket
is mostly just something small for me to hold.
I know it’s not my father even though
it is his bones ground down to a fine white ash.
My father is more in the river and sky,
the great blue heron on the rocky shore,
the osprey flying overhead, the seagull on a tree
floating beside us. We know there are fish
in these dark waters even though we cannot
see them. Sometimes when I snag bottom
I am fooled for a moment that it is a fish.
But a fish is alive in your hands the moment
you set the hook. The way it shakes
its head as if to say I’m not going
without a fight. My father held on longer
than he could. In the end he pulled his knees
in up to his stomach and went to sleep.
Eventually his breathing stopped. I was reminded
of when I was a child up north, the first time
I hooked and caught a catfish. Four hours later,
sucking at summer’s cruel air, about to be gutted
in the kitchen sink, this fish refused to die.
It flared its boned fins even after I slid the filet knife
inside it. Even after I chopped off its head,
when I tossed what was left of it out into the yard
for the raccoons to eat, I saw its whiskers move,
its black eyes opened wide, staring up from the ground
at a sky that was suddenly radiant with light.