Soon After He Dies, My Father Becomes a Small Group of Islands

I struggle through the water in a rowboat,
a poor vessel against these waves,
and recognize each island when I see it.

“Before He Got Sick” is enormous,
its shoreline glowing and vast.
As my boat draws closer I can hear
–it’s been so long– his full-blown laugh.
There he is, walking the beach in that white
T-shirt with the red cartoon pigs on the front,
the one I gave him that was too small
but that he wore anyway, often.
I wave my hands over my head, frantic.
My throat opens with a shout.
“Dad! I’m here! Over here!”
He looks in my direction but the veil
between us is firm. I am only the faint call
of a sea bird. I want to stay and watch him
smiling and walking near the water
with that little bounce in his step.
The current pulls me away.

“As He Was Recently” comes into view. He’s sitting
in his blue wheelchair at a small table in the sand,
his head drooping over his dinner tray. I want to go
wake him the way I used to, my palm against his cheek.
I want to feed him half-spoonfuls of melting chocolate ice cream
but all I can do is look, my hands gripping the oars.

Waves are slamming against the beach
of “His Very Last Day.” In the gray-dark I see
my family, all of us, near his bed, near my mother,
watching her stroke his forehead, hearing her say
“I love you, Freddie.” We’re gathered around
my father’s life which is readying itself to scatter
like shrapnel.

I turn and row as hard as I can, away from this,
though I know I’ll have no choice but to return.
I could go home, hide, burn this vessel to ash. Still,
“You Cannot Fix Your Mother’s Broken Heart”
and “Things You Should Have Said to Him” will
come to find me and so will the rocky little island
that does nothing but echo “I miss him. I miss him.”

I’m so tired.
I’ve fallen asleep in the boat.
The bright rays of “His Boyhood” wake me.
He’s leading a pony across a grassy schoolyard
that I recognize from old black and white photos.
He ties her to a post, pats her nose and walks
into the school. I know he’ll be back at noon hour
to bring her a dish of water.


Originally appeared in The Burden of Light: Poems on Illness and Loss
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© Julie Price Pinkerton- All rights reserved.