Song for My Father and Mother
Oh my father, what was the exact, precise moment in time when time stole
the essence of you and wrapped a shadow around your so thin shoulders
like a shawl?
What was the exact, precise moment that the grayness came?
What happened between that moment of wellness and that moment
What malevolent sea-change took place in your cells?
My father, on that July 4th, when you stood there tall and proud
at your eightieth birthday party, wearing a paper American flag vest,
Lucille's gold chain around your sunburnt neck, did you not think
you would live forever?
Did not we all?
I awoke early in the morning and thought I heard your voice
solid and strong and not breaking.
My father, it broke my heart to see you struggling up the steps of your condo,
thin as a puppet and as light footed, your feet hovering over each step as though
someone were dangling you from wires, your six-foot one-hundred
and sixteen-pound frame so fragile on those unforgiving stone steps.
How I cursed each one that lay there thwarting you with their stony deliberateness.
Legs thin as arms lifting and wavering over each step, unsure as a child's.
Oh my father, why did it pierce my heart when I heard myself asking
to borrow a pair of your shorts which I knew you would never take back,
you telling me to go ahead, pick out any you want, I don't need so many.
Go ahead, Mick, take what you want.
Me, bumpy-legged me, in my father's shorts.
And we ate Chinese food from paper plates on trays around your bed,
but the food gave you no nourishment; instead it took what little life you had left
for the now slowly becoming useless function of digestion.
And that night I tucked you in and kissed you a skeleton child
and I could see in your eyes how you dreaded the sudden night.
And soon my father you will go to that place where I cannot follow;
you will slip silently behind that curtain which I cannot peep behind
like a child trying to find his playmate's hiding place.
Your eyes once bright as summer lanterns, your flesh once taut and firm
now ghost-becoming before my sight, becoming as transparent as film.
Oh my father, time is turning down the light.
Please do not turn it off just yet.
Would that I could have had this vision before my eyes when, as a child,
I cowered before those arms that could hit and those eyes that could burn
with unforgiving anger.
If I had known then that one day those arms would cling to mine
as I led you to your walker and those eyes would silently plead for kindly death,
I would not have judged you so harshly.
Some pass quickly behind the curtain, some are as houselights
that slowly, slowly bring the curtain down.
My father, young and tall and erect in the sun, bent solid over his putter,
the caddie waiting impatiently a few respectful feet away,
leaning I think too casually on my father's golf bag.
My father, a founder of businesses, a feeder of families not his immediate own,
a tender of sisters and nieces and nephews, solid sentinel of a loveless marriage
for more than fifty loveless years.
My father, when I waved goodbye to you through the window of Sam's car,
the picture of you standing there, a meager inhabitant of your clothes,
bravely trying to stand erect and wave as though time had not touched you
with its withering finger, this is the picture I knew I would frame forever
as my last picture of you.
Time has developed and preserved it perfectly.
I dreamt of you again last night, father.
I saw you standing on legs that had not yet been withered to sticks
by slow disease.
And I looked up at your wide forehead, the same forehead I had bent to kiss
as you lay there in your funeral shroud, all 90-something pounds of you,
your skin slightly cool, like the wax of a candle that has only lately been extinguished, but in the dream your forehead was bright red with sunlight
and coursing blood, and you were telling me how all you needed
was physical therapy, that would do the trick, just five minutes more
on the exercise bike every day, and I thought, dear God,
you are eighty-four years old, you can't keep death away by exercise,
though you pedaled your way round the earth, moon and stars.
My heart ached for you, father, ached for your fear of approaching death,
whose well-timed footsteps you heard all too clearly, even then.
How strong is the will to live, to not surrender to that sleep which sets us waking
all over again to yet another life with its new problems, new parents,
And mom, I saw you too, though not in the same dream;
I had separated you both even in my dreams, as fifty years of loveless marriage
had separated you both in life.
And mama, you also were wondrously alive, your body still firm and full
and smelling of Evian and cold cream, and not yet reeking of unevaporated sweat and the slightly sweet sick smell of the chronically bed-ridden.
Mom, I cannot even now bring myself to remember you as you took
your last breath.
How could it be that the same child you cradled in your arms would
forty-five years later be standing by your bed, watching as you died?
How could God allow that?
But oh, what a special privilege it was, to send you soaring out upon His Name,
That Tuesday in March, while I was accelerating my heart in the warm West Pool
of the Vanderbilt YMCA, my father's heart stopped beating.
And I will always remember you, father, the long narrow form of you
in your funeral shroud there in the synagogue, like a mannequin on its back,
so straight and still, so unalterably still, the high dome of your forehead
and circling tuft of white hair, the purse and press of your lips, the caress
of your eyelashes against your cheek, all so suggestive of movement
that now would never occur.
And I cried I love you to the echoing rafters, though no one was there
but I knew you were hearing me.
After you died, your voice on the answering machine still greeted people
who called; a ghoulish irony.
When my cousin Bonnie came down, she recorded over it.
In the two minutes it must have taken her to change the message,
she had erased you, and the last audible sound of you left in the world.
And I can still see my mother and father walking together down the slight incline
of east 66th street to the apartment on second avenue, much like the one
on 81st street, for here too was a boulevard of tall trees on the right
and old apartments on the left.
I watch them from behind (I am following with my wife; we all four had just gone out for dinner): two very old people bound by more than fifty years
of marriage, walking down a street on a summer night not so very long ago, walking with the herky-jerky arthritic walk of the very old.
And they are holding hands.
This meeting of flesh and bone suggests a joining of heart and mind that I know
is an illusion.
It is a symbol only, but one which I willingly, almost eagerly, allow myself
to be fooled by.
And I can see them still, holding hands against the dark, their bent and rounded
backs to my eyes, walking down 66th street into memory and forever.
And God in his compassion gives each of us someone's hand to hold
as we walk out of our lives and into forever.
Somewhere in time my father is still walking in sunlight
toward the house, striding toward me with open arms,
arms sweet with sun and sweat and suntan lotion,
wide linen trousers billowing in the breeze.
Somewhere in time we are walking in sunlight that will never dim or fade.
In that somewhere we have just eaten but not to dullness;
we have slept but not to lethargy;
and time is a stranger we shall always be meeting and forever forgetting.
My mother and father lived in the world and never thought they'd leave it,
as we all do, and must do to survive.
My mother and father thought the sunlight would never fade,
that the latest movies would always be there to be enjoyed,
that the Sunday Times would always be there to be skimmed through
and matzo always there to be nibbled at
and birthdays to be celebrated
and parties to be attended
and friends to be consoled
and relatives to be gossiped over
but both your end dates had been arranged a long time ago,
the time and place fixed,
the hour reserved down to the second,
for the last sentence was written when the first was penned,
the last breath assured when the first was taken.
Do we not each live our lives truly believing that death is something
that happens only to other people?
Do we not each live every day firmly believing in a tomorrow?Which one of us goes to sleep at night unexpectant of a tomorrow?
Who among us plans for a future we expect won't be there?
We go on endlessly filling in our date books, making appointments,
reading the latest bestsellers, eating in new restaurants,
steadfastly refusing to countenance the thought that our date too is inscribed
in permanent ink in that largest of all volumes.
Try as we may, none of us shall be tardy for this appointment;
even the chronically late-for-dinner shall arrive on time;
when our appointed time comes, we shall each our appointment keep.
For Father, at Rest
Eighty-six years of you lay wasting upon the bed,
your thin, shriveled form so frail it broke with every breath,
inner waste turning outward toward skin, teeth, and hair.
The machine of you finally beyond repair.
All the rivers of you drying up.
Slow disease at long life’s end and your skin so paper thin
I could almost see the spirit underneath,
eager to sprint out of its cage of days and nights,
to flee the house crumbling all about itself
and take up new residence.
Sing we now the farewell song, woven from blood and bone,
single-voiced but, thank God, forever unalone.
Life is fleeting, time is fast
Life is fleeting, time is fast.
Nothing ever seems to last.
Though I held forever in my hand,
Through my fingers like grains of sand
The moments slipped, each one away;
Not one grain could I make to stay
Alone, apart, not on that beach
Whose grains of sand You’ve numbered each.
The moment's here, and then it's gone--
Too late to hold or grasp upon.
Words are writ or sung as song,
But neither lasts so very long.
The stars in their courses can ne'er be stopped,
Not even the rain, not a single drop.
Away each slips, away, away;
No man's power can make them stay.
The sun has set, the moon is nigh,
Forever remains the changeless sky.
So to Him I turned in restlessness
And prayed for true forgetfulness.
To escape the moment’s unyielding hold,
To keep what's young from growing old,
Is not for the likes of you and me.
We could as easily part the sea
Or deprive the wind of a single breath,
Or shield a life from oncoming death.
Not with a groan or aching sigh
Could I stop time from passing by.
I sought to stop time in its tread,
But past my grasping hands it fled.
No lips meet that do not part;
A kiss's end is in its start.
What embrace can hold and ne're let go?
Between them air at last must flow.
Meetings have partings, helloes their goodbye,
Each moment is born, only to die.
In hopelessness only does true hope grow;
'Tis the only wisdom I've come to know.
So to Him I turned in restlessness,
That I might know Love’s Timelessness.
Where Did All the Moments Go?
Where did all the moments go,
The ones that passed so long ago
Or within the last half-hour or so?
Amazing, each one had the feel of forever;
Now all are gone as though they never
Lived, only shammed a damn good show.
Each moment’s brightness burns as bright
As any dark, extinguished light
A week or even a century ago.
Eternity’s pulse is quickly taken;
Everything sleeps, but appears to awaken,
Flare, and then, to nowhere flow.
Now I think I know where the moments go,
Come they fast or come they slow.
They’re all happening NOW, not in a row;
Or is it because You’ve told me so?