On April Fool's Day I found myself in a hospital in Memphis at the side of my gravely ill father. From that day until last Thursday, my family and I were never quite certain whether or not he would recover; though the odds were slim, there was always, one thought, hope. Despite some reasonably good early strides, his health declined to the point where he had to be moved to a hospice. He wasn't there long.
I was probably more pessimistic, as is my bent, than my brothers or my mom; I attributed it not only to being a middle child and inheriting a few persistent dark genes, but to having been a devout reader of Beckett. Indeed, when my father emerged from the fog of anesthesia and pain, one of the first things he muttered was a gravelly "What's the point?" Not a literary guy himself, he already knew - being a scientist by profession - anything Beckett's work might have had to say to him, albeit in a different vocabulary; B. would have understood a man like my dad. In any case, when my father could, with much assistance, sit upright at last in his ICU bed, it really did feel like a defiant miracle. Perhaps it was, if only a brief one. Over the course of my two trips home to be with him, I felt that he and I had made our piece; but I also had a distinct impression - not quite a fear - that when I said goodbye to him after the second one I would not see him again. Like most pessimists, I told myself I was just being a pessimist.
When my brother called last weekend to tell me that it had become clear that there was no hope for my father's survival, I did, thought, and felt the things one does in such circumstances. And I struggled with my feelings about our past together, which was not placid. He and I had little in common, but there was one thing we shared - and we did because I got it directly from him: an insane love of music. One of my earliest memories happens to be of my dad's ritual of listening to folk music every Sunday morning. And one of the first things I ever laughed at was a recording of a Theodore Bikel concert which began with the introduction, "I'd like to begin with a song called 'Goodbye.'" The song was a Russian tune, "Proschai," which indeed means farewell. Late Wednesday night I downloaded the song as a kind of tribute to my dad, and listened to it a half dozen times before I went to bed.
At around 4 am Thursday, the phone rang, and my wife and I knew exactly what it was: my brother with the news that my dad had just died. "Proschai" was still in my head, bewildered and half-asleep as I was. It was a little eerie, but then something else happened: a stack of my poetry books down in my basement office collapsed with a thunderous thud. My dad was not a poetry fan, and once - concerned that I was turning into some kind of beatnik - said to me, "What do you want to do, sit around and write poetry all your life?" It was not a hurtful occasion, because my immediate thought was (for the very first time): yes.... that's exactly what I would like to do!
Within hours I was down in Memphis, sitting in a conference room of the "High Point Funeral Home," situated disconcertingly next to a Sonic Drive-In. For religious reasons, the funeral would have to take place before the Sabbath, which meant some time on Friday: the very next day. We left the place in a hot June heatwave haze, passing by sample tombstones inscribed with things like: "Passed into Jesus' Glory" and "He was a Faithful Friend." The latter struck me as quite a nice epitaph, though I only slowly realized that the home also arranged pet funerals: the monument had the features of a dog carved into it.
On Friday, the limousine to the cemetery was late: we were late to his own funeral. And the moment we arrived, the sky darkened, the wind whipped up furiously, and a tornado grazed by. The memorial service, hastily arranged to take place under a gazebo, could scarcely be heard for the crashing rain, Hamlet-like thunder, and sirens. I'm almost positive that every time the word "family" wafted through, particularly emphatic peals of thunder struck, and the rain picked up in intensity. But at the conclusion, when my family and I moved out to be at graveside.... the rain and wind ceased, the sun brightly emerged, and the sky turned blue.
My dad, as I say, was a scientist, but that doesn't mean he didn't believe in the inexplicable; and like Beckett, he could laugh both grimly and heartily at the turns things take, for inherent in everything is a kind of logic, even if it's not our logic. My brothers and my mom are convinced he would have found this very funny, but I'm not so sure. He had reasons for displeasure with some of us at the service, and perhaps was expressing it in the only vocabulary nature provides someone deprived of his own body.
I guess all these things are coincidental, though I have my doubts. Because one other happenstance is that I had just downloaded a free e-book of John Aubrey's unusual and disturbing Miscellanies upon Various Subjects, which has chapter titles like "Of Fatalities of Families and Places," "Ostenta; or Portents," "Omens," "Blows Invisible," and "Knockings." Aubrey guilelessly collected stories, and is better-known for the ones compiled in his Brief Lives - but the "various subjects" are no less fascinating than the lives of the poets and politicians. One paragraph leaped out at me:
Three or four days before my father died, as I was in my bed about
nine o'clock in the morning perfectly awake, I did hear three distinct
knocks on the beds-head, as if it had been with a ruler or ferula.
I'm not going to make too much of this, and you can read Aubrey yourself, so long as you keep your wits about you.
In the end, nothing could save my dad; but Aubrey collected miracle cures, and I read them too late to try them out. One is like an early visual poem, and it gets rid of ague:
A B R A C A D A B R A
A B R A C A D A B R
A B R A C A D A B
A B R A C A D A
A B R A C A D
A B R A C A
A B R A C
A B R A
A B R
Aubrey is careful to add: "Write this following spell in parchment, and wear it about your neck. It must be writ triangularly."
I'm afraid that in the end medicine proved as dubious in its effectiveness as the cures described in the Miscellanies, though the latter are much, much less expensive. I mean, this is surely worth a try:
To cure a beast that is sprung, (that is) poisoned.
It lights mostly upon Sheep.
Take the little red spider, called a tentbob, (not so big as a great pins-head) the first you light upon in the spring of the year, and rub it in the palm of your hand all to pieces: and having so done, piss on it, and rub it in, and let it dry; then come to the beast and make water in your hand, and throw it in his mouth. It cures in a matter of an hour's time. This rubbing serves for a whole year, and it is no danger to the hand. The chiefest skill is to know whether the beast be poisoned or no.
I hardly ever post anything about myself on Facebook, but I did update my status to say: "Back from my father's funeral. "Your chair is empty. You will be missed." The quoted bit comes from the the Bible: 1 Samuel 20:18. The eulogy for my father included the fact, which I had forgotten somehow, that in my family everybody has his or her own place at the dinner table, and that even when one is absent, nobody else must sit in that seat.
It's Father's Day now, and my dad, who was a king in our household, is not seated among us. I find that last bit of timing to be especially painful, of course. Yet having ventured that bit of confessional verse yielded rich comforts - I have received dozens of lovely messages from every corner of the poetry universe. The words of my fellow poets have provided me powerful comfort, reassuring me that words, our desires to work in them all day long, are worth a very great deal. The healing strength of words is as strangely unaccountable a fact of living as anything else under the sun. My father would have understood and appreciated that.
Farewell, Father. Proschai!
One last omen. This is from a message Katy Evans-Bush wrote to me:
"It might even have been because of your news; I had a dream this morning that the phone rang, and it was my dad, and he said, 'Look, I know you've got the best blog in the world! But I don't want to have to read it, I want the real you. When can we have lunch?'
So if that WAS because of you, thanks - it was good to hear from him."
Aubrey would have added that one to his collection.
(Written in haste and emotion, June 20, 2010. The poem for the day today on the Allhambra Poetry Calendar is, of all things, Tennyson's great funeral poem, "Crossing the Bar")