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Sisu


Sisu is a Finnish word that describes the Finns. It refers to grit, determination and bravery in the face of obstacles and a willingness to keep going when others would give up.


Superman had his flowing red cape
and Ironman had his red armor,
but my father had
his black wingtip shoes
with one heel built taller
than the other to accommodate
the different lengths of his legs.
He wore them to church,
to the store, to fish, to dialysis.
He slogged in them through puddles
and trampled through slush
and shuffled behind his walker.
He wore them with suits.
He wore them with sweats.
He wore them with blue hospital gowns.

In Finland, when things get difficult,
they say, Eteenpäin sanoi mummo lumessa—
Forward, said the granny in the snow.
And damn, did my dad move forward,
despite deep drifts of pain
that for decades crippled his body.
Though every step hurt, he persisted.

And so, when I carry his shoes to the trash,
I thank them for bearing the weight of his suffering,
and I choke on the sobs that rise.
Thank you, I say. Dad, you’re my hero.
With reverence, I drop the shoes into the bin.

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Cast your lot with all small things.
—Sharon Corcoran, from her new poetry collection The Two Worlds


Today I cast my lot
with the tiny tea leaves
giving their all to hot water.
I cast in with the light touch
of my brother’s hand on my shoulder
and the slight whimper my mother makes
when she finds in the closet the gift
my father had bought them for Christmas.
This, the first full day of life
without my father,
a loss so big
that all I can meet
are the smallest things—
candle flame, scrap of song,
orange butterfly wing.
They lead me like crumbs
toward courage, toward life—
and so I join in with the teeny blue flowers
still blooming on the rosemary bush.
I cast my lot with the thin creak of hope
heard only when tears are falling,
with the faintest gleam of love
only able to be seen in the darkness.

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from our birth … to our death … the wonderment …
             —Dr. Charles Henry Wahtola, Jr., November 19, 2021


And so as the priest leads us
in the litany for the time of death,
and though we are sincere
as we pray, Have mercy on your servant,
we laugh as my father tells Father Keith
the sermon can only be as long
as the pole at the entrance to the building.
We pray, Grant him your peace,
and I weep for the impending loss,
and then we laugh as I tell Dad
for the first time he has a front-row seat
for the service (he strongly
prefers the back row).
And mom delivers an impromptu sermon
and the priest steps back and listens.
And we fondly remember how my childhood priest
would sing the longest rite in the book,
and my brother and I look at each other
and recite in unison, this fragile earth our island home,
and we break into irrational joy.
We pray The Sursum Corda, The Sanctus,
The Lord’s Prayer, my voice
barely a whisper through tears,
then we’re laughing again as we remember
how Dad and my brother would escape
the service as fast as they could to go cast
in the river behind the church, and
there in the hospice room, we keep the feast,
Alleluia, alleluia. And all day long,
though perhaps we speak of football
or grilling or ducks, with every word, every tear,
every laugh, we are saying, Peace be with you.
With every hug, every kiss, every
touch, every breath, we respond,
And also with you.

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My father lies in his hospital bed,
eyes unseeing, unable to do more
than open and close his hand—
a wounded bird trying to fly—
his thoughts too wispy
to gather into sentences.
And then, quite clearly,
What is wrong with me?
I tell him, We don’t know.
And then, Is it my fault?
I want to gather him
into my arms and cradle him
the way he once cradled me.
No, Dad, I say. It’s not your fault.
You’re doing so good.
And then he is lost again,
cloud-minded, moaning,
his face a storm of pain.
 
Outside the window, the clouds
have lost their shape. The wind
pulls their thin white veil across the blue
like a translucent sheet.
In the coming days, there will be rain.
His eyes flash open, then close.
Hi, he says, his voice warm,
full of marvel. Hi, I say,
press my hands to his chest.
I’m pouring love into you, Dad.
He hums the little two-note song
he always hums in affirmation.
He is so beautifully himself.
Then you’re going to need—
His thought evaporates.
What do I need, dad?
I’m desperate for his answer.
What do I need to pour love into you?
He says, You’re going to need—
The sentence turns cirrostratus.
I kiss his head.
I kiss whatever went unsaid.
Neither of us knows what we need.
We hold each other and reach
for what we cannot hold.
Hands open, we wing into the moment,
into love, this sky where we meet.

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Missing My Dad

I hate riding in boats,
the way it makes
my body want to turn
inside out, hate the way
my body rocks for hours
after I’m back on land.
But I love the way
my father’s hands
rest on the wheel,
the way his eyes
scan the waves,
the easy slope
of his shoulders.
He’s so himself,
so whole, so someone
who I’m glad to know.
Standing on shore,
I wave at his boat,
as he points it
toward the deep.
He waves back
and smiles
with great love.
There are many
kinds of oceans—
time is one.
I hate the distances
we keep.

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George of the Jungle




My father sings
and I am again
a girl being bounced
on his lap, wondering
if there really is
a jungle somewhere
where a monkey eats nails,
and why would a monkey do that,
and doesn’t it hurt?

My father is laughing,
his eyes glitter with tropical shine,
and I understand
he is traveling in a world
of imagination
and gave me
an invitation to go with him—

fifty years later,
we are still swinging
through that curious jungle,
singing, wondering
about that crazy monkey,
his strange choices,
blessing these surprising worlds
that bring us
together.

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Already he’s lived a dozen years longer

than any other man in his bloodline.

One died of malaria. The rest of heart attacks.

Not one of them knew how to show love.

Sometimes a river changes its course—

perhaps slowly, eroding over centuries.

Perhaps all at once in a mighty flush,

as after a flood or an ice-floe.

I want to ask him how change happened in him—

how the impulse toward anger

rechanneled into tenderness,

into patience, into a willingness to be vulnerable.

I want to believe the same might happen for the world—

that by tending our hearts more carefully,

we might jump the banks of what seemed possible.

We are all of us here to be changed.

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Because I cannot be there to hold my father’s hand, 

I walk into my children’s room and hold my daughter and son 

as if love in one room emits a wave strong enough  

to be felt many states away. Because I am afraid, 

I don’t try to pretend I am not. Tears run hot 

down my face and I don’t dam them.   

When they dry, I let them dry. 

Because I am helpless to fix my father’s kidneys, 

I tell him I love him, as if words could help 

filter his blood before returning it to his heart, 

his tender heart.  

Because the helicopter is flying him to Miami, 

the blades of my worry begin to spin. 

Because I can’t stop them, I turn them 

into a giant wing that carries prayers 

into the rooms where I’m not allowed to go. 

And though I’m not there, I hold his hand, 

imagine it heavy in my own. Because maybe 

he can feel it. Because I don’t want him to be alone.  

 

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I should have raised dogs.

That’s what my father always said

when I did something stupid.

Like when my friend and I were twelve

and we snuck into Raiders of the Lost Ark

with two seventeen-year old boys.

And there was dad, waiting

outside the theater looking like

exactly what he was—a rabid dad

hellbent on scaring the shit out of any boy

who might have unvirtuous thoughts

about his girl. He never said

what kind of dogs—poodles or labs

or mutts. I can just see him

walking the corridor of his kennel,

all the dogs barking. But dogs weren’t

his calling—the crates, the training,

special diets, vets. No,

he was the master of loving me

through my crazy mistakes

and my hormonal angst and my sudden refusal

to eat meat. I still smile thinking of

the way he would sit on the couch

and hold his arm open for me

to come sit beside him then snuggle.

The way he bought me a book

to decode my dreams. The way he took me

to piano lessons every Saturday

morning, then took me out for brunch

so we could talk. The way he still listens

when I’ve done something stupid

and then tells me he loves me.

Never once, despite all his lamentations,

did I think he would exchange me

for a chihuahua or beagle. No, there

was something almost sweet in his wish,

a hint of surrender in it, the sound

of his heart opening just a little bit wider

to let in the world, unleashed as it is.

 

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In the other room I hear
my father snoring
and imagine how
he’s stood before
outside my door
and listened
to my tides of sleep
with, could it be,
as much love for me
as I have now for him—
his shore is my shore,
our heart sails
open.

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