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for my father on his birthday

 

 

I learned from my father to be silly,

to speak in strange accents, to make up

odd lyrics, and to hum when I don’t

know the words.

 

He taught me how quickly a car can turn

for a rummage sale sign,

and how easy it is to find treasure.

 

He taught me always to have a plan—

a one-, a five- and a ten-year plan.

You can always change the plan,

he says, but you need at all times

a one-, a five- and a ten-year plan.

 

I learned that even the strongest people

cry and that ice cream can save a day.

 

He taught me to use a chainsaw, shoot a gun,

drive an ATV, and wear dresses.

 

My father’s eyes sparkle, something

no one can teach, but I learned

it was possible for someone to shine

from inside.

 

His poem about his father

would be a very different poem.

There are people who give to the world

what they were not given themselves.

 

My father taught me I could be anything,

then accepted me for who I was.

 

I learned I could fail and still be loved.

In every room I enter, I bring my father—

don’t be surprised when I can’t stop

giggling, when I ask you

about your plans.

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It began as my father cheering for me,

he’d count it off, then chant low and bright,

One, Two, Three, Yay Rox!

 

He used it often—for curtain calls

and piano recitals and catching fish

and semester finals. And he’d use it,

too, when I’d come in blue

with rejection letters or a broken heart,

and he’d say it softer, with a squeeze and a hush,

One, Two, Three, Yay Rox.

His is a heart of sun.

All moments are moments worth honoring.

What does not makes us more wholly ourselves?

 

And then, I don’t remember when,

he changed the rules and made me join in.

Made me say the five words together with him,

whether I wanted to or not,

One, Two, Three, Yay Rox!

 

How my own tongue stumbled, still sometimes does,

but always, his voice is there beneath my own,

steady and confident, tender and clear.

After years decades of cheers, I daily

harvest the wealth.

How wise, the father, who gives

a girl herself.

 

 

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Out the window the world is reassembling itself. The shades of green begin to emerge in the field—so many greens. Some part of me wants to name them all—emerald, sage, Kelly, lime, avocado, moss, spring. I want to name them not to organize them, but to celebrate each one.

 

Last week I did a training on how to assess parental affection. It’s a funny idea, the quantification of affection. It reminds me of the way children will sometimes fling their arms back behind their shoulders in an awkward joy and say, “I love you thiiiiiiiis much.”

 

One of the markers for affection is parental use of endearments—honey, sweetie, pumpkin, darling. As the evaluator, I am asked to mark if this is absent, present or emerging.

 

I don’t think you ever called me honey or sweetie, Dad, in fact, no generic terms of endearment. You always had your own special names for me that emerged out of play—Penelope, Reesmorie, Rosamarinipuscavazini, Roxanne the Foxanne, Rox. I always knew I was special to you, branded by your love of silliness, your love of me. And sometimes, when I was down, I would call you, and just hearing you say your special name for me made life seem just a little bit better.

 

The greens outside the window are brighter now. They seem to suggest an infinite potential inside a finite range. I know it is just the bending of light, but it thrills me.

 

This morning, I would like to give you this sense of infinite possibility, offer it to you while you are far away in a hospital bed and it feels as if the options are closing. Inside that finite window of options, there is an infinite potential for healing. We couldn’t possibly name all the available outcomes, though I suppose we could rate them as absent, emerging and present.

 

What is present is the enormous love I have for you. I’m not interested in measuring it, really, just in giving it to you, letting you know how I celebrate you. As if with love alone I could take away the pain you are in.

 

Who am I kidding? I guess I do wish I could express the extent of love so that you could feel the infinite ways it unfolds in the finite space of my heart. And though the only name I have for you, Dad, is generic, I wish that by saying your name on the other end of the phone, things might feel just a little bit better.

 

Dad, I love you, thiiiiiiiis much,

Roxanne

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In the dirt crawl space
under the yellow house
my brother and I
would play among dad’s jars—
dozens of jars
filled with clear greenish liquid,
all of them holding
dead white fish,
their colors
long since faded.
Every black-capped container
was labeled with typewritten
lettering, but we could not yet read.
Mostly we stared
at their clouded scales,
their pale fins,
their useless eyes.
We did not question
why they were there,
stacked beside the winter coats
and boxes of dishes we seldom used.
Dad finally threw them away
when we moved,
though he did not want to let them go.
He cared about those fish in jars.
Not the bodies themselves,
I suppose. Perhaps
because he had been
so alive with the catching
and naming of them.
Perhaps because
there are so many things
that cannot be caught
nor labeled nor set aside.
Like the pain that
even then was beginning
to reach for his joints, grabbing
his shoulders, hips and knees.
Like his father’s anger
that he always carried—
something pale, many scaled,
something vital that died.

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At thirteen, after eight years
of piano lessons, I lost myself
in a Mozart Sonatina. It was
a competition. I was sitting
at a grand piano at the front
of a church. The judge sat
in the first pew. My dad sat in the back.
I made it through the long runs
of the first movement. Through
the slow diminished chords
of the second. I was clumsy,
my rhythms uneven, my fortes not
convincing, my arpeggios stuttered.
My fingers did not know what they were doing,
though we had been practicing
together for months, though they
had had many good teachers.
I wore a pin-striped tuxedo,
a white ruffled shirt. It was fitted too tight
in my shoulders, but it made me
feel what, like a man? At least
not like a girl. God, I wanted
it over. At the end of the third movement,
I reached to the top of the treble keys
before coming back down
in the final run, but somewhere at the top
my hands returned to the notes of the first movement.
There was nothing to be done
but to finish the thing the way it had begun.
The judge shuffled through
the sheet music, trying to discern
what had happened. I did not cry,
not until I left the room
and I held my dad and he told me
the terrible lie that I had done fine.
He said it with so much love,
but it wasn’t true.
I don’t know where the lines are
between truth and love. Why do we
protect each other the ways that we do?
What else could he say? It doesn’t much matter.
He loved me. I grew out
of the shirt. I told myself the truth.

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By the ankles
he would hold me
at the end
of the long, white pier.
“Don’t fall in,”
he would say.
“Whatever you do,
don’t fall in.”
His enormous,
generous hands
gripped my small legs
and he’d dangle
my sun-bleached hair
toward the water
till it dipped in the lake
and began to drip.
“Don’t fall in,”
I’d be squealing by now,
not out of any real fear,
more with the thrill
of being held at the edge,
knowing there was not
a thing I could do to save
myself, nor was there any
real danger. God,
he was strong.
And big. And so full
of love. And play.
“Don’t fall in,”
he would say,
the release me.

The water always colder
than I’d want it to be.
I’d come up all splutter
and dripping, somewhere
between happiness
and surrender. I’d clamber
back up the old wooden ladder
and beg him to do it again.
What did I know then of falling?

It is not the falling that hurts.
It’s the landing that can be so awful.
Tear of skin, fracture of bone,
terrible thud of flesh. He taught me
the joy of falling when it ended
in a splash.

I come to tell Dad I’m falling.
This time it is by my own hand.
I am falling even now
at the table where we sit.
Falling through the water glass.
Falling through the words as they fall
from my lips. Falling through lies I told.

He offers me his thick fingers, his enormous palm,
still so much bigger than my own.
He reaches for me. I am falling.
He would catch me if he could.
What do I know of falling?
I fall right through his hands.

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