Thursday, July 2, 2009

There is a place

Today is my father's birthday.  He would have been 78 years old, with one bad knee (or maybe he'd have succumbed to the pressure to get it replaced, even though he hated surgery), a slower pace in retirement, some kidney problems, and a still sharp wit.  A woman I know once said of her dad who had died a slow, painful death from cancer, "He was really a healthy man--other than that cancer."  I didn't laugh, because I understand--that's how I think of my dad--that he'd still be alive and well...if not for the small fact that he died.
Since the last birthday he actually celebrated, Dad has missed 9 of his grandkids' high school, 5 college, and 2 master's degree graduations (as well as my own Master's degree from seminary), 1 son's and 3 grandchildren's weddings,  a couple divorces, several of our moves, one troubled son, his sister, mother and a brother-in-law dying.  And of course--thankfully, for his sake, though we would have LOVED to have him help with it--Mom's decline into Alzheimers.  But mostly, in the last 12 years, it's the ordinary, every day visits he's missed that make me miss him so.  The help in the kitchen, and the building projects we could really use his assistance in.  It's his actual self I most miss, and.. the places I've been with him.  So, in honor of his birthday, I decided I'd indulge myself by posting one of the poems I wrote about him in the first grief-tinged days after his death. Pain always gives me poetry, which is odd, since most of the time, I'm strictly a prose-writer.

There is a Place   (9/97)

There is a place
high in the Wallowa Mountains
pine green and needle-carpeted
where I learned to pitch a tent
stretching a tarp between two stumps
finding sticks to use as stakes
my weary shoulders aching from a long, heavy-packed hike
my feet, throbbing, but free of stiff leather boots
And when I lay down to sleep
on the mossy floor beside you
your snores kept me warm and safe from the cold and dark without.
It is a place where I followed your snowshoes,
on my own hand-made pair,
bent metal you wove rope through
me slipping, falling, an awkward,
abominable gait for a bundled child.
It is a place where we built campfires,
ate food cooked in foil,
stuck sticks deep into the coals
until they glowed like the stars in the night above.
It is a place I think of you.

There is a place between rolling, golden wheatfields
and a few shady, lazy trees
where a river runs deep and slow,
gentle for launching a hand-hewn canoe,
green fiberglass, dark wood sanded smooth.
I knelt behind you on the keels,
hands firmly in place on the paddle,
showing off my scout skills,
dip and flow, quiet rhythm, over and over,
through the glassy surface.
Not words or talk, just the music of a summer afternoon.
It is a place for picnics on an old army blanket,
with smashed sandwiches and dill pickles
(a love I shared with you),
oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips
and handfuls of raisins I only ate outdoors.
We talked, or not, and looked at the sky,
and threw rocks into the water, counting skips,
measuring our day.
It is a place I think of you.

There is a place
in an old crowded college gymnasium
where a throbbing mass of spectators
came to cheer and roar with every move.
I squeezed beside you , skinny and breathless,
on the rocking wooden bleacher,
to imitate your yells,
and watch you watch the game.
The smell of popcorn, and your pipe,
spilled Pepsi and chewing gum, and
sweaty basketballing bodies
filled me with exuberance,
of being a part of something, being a part of you.
Later on the drive home,
I would slide right beside you
on the wide bench seat,
to replay the game,
ask questions, soak in your joy.
It is a place I think of you.

There is a place
in a rustic island meadow
where an old cabin you helped build
stands next to a basketball court
made with rough cement you carried
buckets of water up from the well to mix.
Down at the bluff,
where the water glistens,
and the steep mountains to the west
are radiantly colored by the setting sun,
there remains the ghost of the trail
down the sharp bank
you cut into the cliff at 16.
It is a place where
in the long meadow,
under the ancient, knobby apple trees,
we threw Frisbees and baseballs,
and, one dripping, cold spring,
I learned to survey the land,
with real engineering tools and
your rough directions.
There is a place for barbeques,
and fireworks, for old family songs
and conversations late at night
when children are quiet and lanterns glow.
It is a place I think of you.

There is a place
in a wide, gray-walled
university engineering building
where the name over the door is yours.
A room of charm and mystery,
piles with papers and books
and unfathomable equipment
has your handprints and even your authorship
all over it.
It is a place I wrote my name a thousand times,
a thousand ways on the dusty chalk board,
trying to invent a new me.
I played with the adding machines and slide rules,
sticking a pipe in the corner of my mouth,
pretending I was you,
waiting through your alien conversations
with other engineers.
It is a place I think of you.

There is a place
in a distinctive house,
architected to your specifications
on a high hill overlooking our college town
and velvety-drawn Palouse hills.
The only house you ever owned,
where there's a ping-pong table,
an A-frame playhouse,
a basketball court and bulletin boards,
all fashioned by your hands.
A house with an old leather chair,
your great-grandfather's, 100 years old,
where you sat to shine your shoes,
read stories, sew merit badges, match sockes
and talk to your children.
I told you my secrets in that house,
my fears and dreams,
my faith.
And you listened, questioned,
reasoned and wondered,
and finally believed.
It is a place I call home.
It is a place I think of you.

Happy Birthday, Daddy.  I still think of you.


sk said...

Every one of your blogs about Granddad has made me cry. I wish I really had gotten the chance to know him.

jeskmom said...

I wish that too, Bug!