Above A Whisper

I walk on blades of grass
around my father’s grave,
avoiding sunken markers,
careful not to wake
the dead.

I want to say
I found a teaching job,
my own apartment,
a patient woman
who loves me
as I am.

But if such things
still happen,
they haven’t happened
to me.

When I tell him it’s spring
and Vegas likes our Cubs
to win the World Series,
my voice breaks like mist
above a whisper too soft
for sparrows perched
on marble headstones
to hear.

I Want To Hold Your Hand

I remember navigating the perilous parking lots of Randhurst Mall with my father as a child. He’d sing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles whenever cars got too close, a gentle reminder to hold his hand. I trusted him because he was a certified crossing guard in grammar school, “an expert in pedestrian safety and playground traffic control,” as he told it.

I also remember my father teaching me how to drive in the parking lot of our favorite restaurant, the Prime Minister, before the lunch crowd arrived. I had plenty to learn. A few minutes into my first lesson, the car stalled because I wasn’t giving it enough gas.

Of course, hazards aren’t confined to parking lots. Life is full of obstacles both visible and invisible. Sometimes we block our own paths to freedom. We overeat, drink too much, abuse drugs. Unhealthy coping strategies compound our pain.

I remember watching my father slowly kill himself with cigarettes—two packs of Pall Mall or Chesterfield per day. I begged him to stop. He said he would. He never did.

Our house smelled musty all the time because he refused to smoke outside. Our living room drapes turned yellow. There were burn holes on the carpet in front of his favorite chair.

My mother and I suffered breathing problems and sinus infections. When I showed up smelling like smoke at the doctor’s office one day, a concerned nurse told me to quit while I was still young. Embarrassed, I told her I never smoked, but my father did. She said I was basically smoking too, just by living with him.

When my father sang that Beatles song in the Randhurst parking lot, he was already thinking about his next cigarette. Thirty minutes into every movie we saw, he left the theater for a drag. Thirty minutes later, he left again. I had to explain everything he missed.

The steering wheel of his Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme was so sticky I had to wash my hands when we got home. After my first lesson, I asked if I should empty the car’s ashtray because it was so full. He told me to wait until the ashes cooled.

My father smoked for fifty-five years. I was alive during the final twenty-five. His powerlessness to quit led me to question how much control I really have in my life.

The last time my father rode in a car, my mother was driving us to the hospital. I sat next to him in the backseat, holding his hand as he struggled to breathe. When we entered the emergency room, I asked a security guard for a wheelchair.

“I think I have emphysema,” my father told a nurse. He died twelve hours later.

I love my father dearly. I just wish I could’ve saved him from himself.

A Leap And A Precipice

When I became the lead opinion writer for my college newspaper, my father suggested I call my column “The Road Not Taken” after one of his favorite Robert Frost poems. I thought about it but went in a different direction, choosing a title of my own: “Free Association.”

Recently I came across an article by David Orr, author of The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. According to Orr, Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” with his friend Edward Thomas in mind. After an initial reading, Thomas thought that Frost, through the speaker in the poem, was lamenting the uncertain nature of making choices, suggesting his life would have played out differently if he had traveled a different road.

Frost, it turns out, was mocking Thomas, who frequently complained about the routes they took on walks through the woods. Unaware of this backstory, readers assume that Frost is arguing in favor of the road not taken, praising independent spirits for forging their own paths.

We can’t experience a life we didn’t lead—we only know the path we’ve taken, the one we’re on right now.

Wherever he went, my father didn’t travel lightly. A heavy smoker for over fifty years, he carried in his chest the weight of a thousand ghosts. He was depressed but never diagnosed because a doctor might have the audacity to suggest he quit smoking.

My father died at age seventy in the hospital where I was born. Doctors assumed he had lung cancer, but we never found out because he refused any tests.

Naturally, I inherited his nerves. Three years prior to his death, I was hurting so much I decided one day to disappear. Medicine works best in small doses, but it’s easy—when you think about it—to fit a bottle in your mouth.

There were signs we missed, being caught up in our moods. I shared a poem with him once about my life being an arduous climb up a mountain that extends higher and higher with each step, death a slip within reach.

Our only hope is to keep climbing, he said, without looking down.

“This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.”

He spoke from experience, having survived as a young man what doctors called a “break from reality.” In the days leading up to his hospitalization, he had visited different churches, determined to find his calling into ministry.

I don’t know if my father found God, but he did take solace in the poetry of Frost, Tennyson, Keats, Byron and Blake. A student of language, he conducted his ministry as a high school English teacher for thirty-two years.

He looks human to me now, but as a child I saw him as a larger-than-life figure of strength. I remember disagreeing with him many times about my choice of friends, but I also remember how hard he fought for me, like the time my bike was stolen. Acting on a tip from a neighbor, he confronted the kid’s parents and threatened to call the police. The kid confessed, apologized and never messed with me again.

These are the pictures I paint of him in poems and stories. There’s an art to reproducing one’s father—retracing his steps, repeating his sins.

Fate is genetic; it comes before and after us. One of my favorite philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, didn’t believe in fate. He argued that we must create our lives every day out of nothing. Without being consulted first, each of us was thrown into the world, and this thrownness throws us for a loop. Even suicide, Sartre reminds us, is an act of being in the world.

No stranger to mental illness, German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote, “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”

To create my life out of nothing, I must, at every turn, risk my life. Faith—in myself, in my father, in God—requires both a leap and a precipice.

This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.

Whether or not we recognize our path, it’s easy to get lost in the woods.

Above A Whisper

A previous version of this poem was published in Nervous Lethargy.

I walk on blades
Of grass around
My father’s grave

Avoiding sunken
Markers careful not
To wake the dead

I want to share news
About a great job
My own place to live

The love of a woman
Who finds me
Worthy of affection

But none of this
Has happened
And it’s getting late

I tell him about
Another mild
Chicago winter

And Vegas picking
The Cubs to win
The World Series

My voice breaks
Like mist
Above a whisper

As birds fly in V-formation
Over headstones
Fixed in solemn rows

Silent Prayer

After writing two books—the first on philosophy, the second a collection of poetry—I see my writing in a new light. I am a better philosopher than a poet, and this is fine because I write always with the spirit of a poet. Blogs, emails, research papers. Even grocery lists.

I’m writing this now because I want to say what I truly am: a reader.

Recently my mother and I visited my father’s grave. She brought a book of prayers that bring her comfort and insisted I read one out loud, and I did because we both needed to hear it.

Afterwards my mother paused and turned to me. “You have always been a great reader, even as a child.” I took her at her word and said a silent prayer. Later I read a little Baudrillard and thought of this blog and the books I have written and the things I still want to say.

Have I ever written a word without reading it to myself first? Am I not my ideal reader?

A great writer is a patient reader who knows when to pause and see the world anew—not as it appears, but how it might have been, or how it will never come to be. A great writer erases him- or herself from the world word by word, offering a different version of events in which he or she has already disappeared, or never arrived.

Socrates, as envisioned by Plato, said philosophy is a preparation for death. Socrates wrote nothing down. He couldn’t see for himself that writing, too, is a preparation for death—that writing about the departed brings us closer to death.

Two interpretations among many: I went to read a prayer in a cemetery, but there was no sign of my father. Or it wasn’t clear I had read a prayer in a cemetery until I blogged about it here. All that remains of my father is a sign.

Until I die I will write, but not before reading every word back to myself—not to ensure clarity, but to suspend meaning, to render the world more enigmatic for those I’ll leave behind.

Dedication Page

Last week marked ten years since my father died. I’ve decided to dedicate my book to him.

I finally settled on a title. The Intimacy of Communication: A Spiritual Encounter.

The book is in its final stages, and I’m learning more about Microsoft Word than I ever thought possible. The perfectionist in me wants everything “just right,” as if a typo makes me a bad person.

I expect perpetual greatness from my writing when better-than-average in some parts might be good enough. Did I expect greatness from my father all the time? Did I assume he shouldn’t get angry or that we’d always see eye-to-eye? If so, I was a fool, or at least a child.

Books endure revisions—and revisions of revisions. Whole paragraphs disappear, chapters expand and contract, wordy prose turns poetic.

Over the last ten years I’ve reimagined our father-son narrative. Some days a piece of dialogue we shared gets a fresh—or murkier—interpretation. Some days the character played by my father undergoes dramatic rewrites, revealing tragic flaws I hadn’t considered.

It’s hard for a son to grasp the power of his father’s presence, but even harder to mourn his death. As my book nears publication, have I even begun the process?

Friendly Confines

My dad liked to say that in life people are free to choose their own confinements. He chose to become a teacher and found himself confined to the classroom. He chose to become a father and when I arrived he built a life based around my mother and me.

I say that our confinements help us appreciate the limited amount of freedom we have. By becoming a teacher my dad was not a librarian or a fireman or starting first baseman for the Chicago Cubs. The classroom became his world. He was bound by district rules, standardized tests, report cards and textbooks. But he had the freedom to teach Hamlet or the five-paragraph essay as he saw fit. He encouraged students to follow their passions, even though as teens many thought little of the future.

I’ve heard a theory that the major events of our lives happen no matter the daily individual choices we make. My dad was in a way destined to teach—maybe not in Chicago, maybe not English—but still a teacher. Even after his initial dream of becoming a minister wasn’t realized, he wanted to help people—lifting their spirits, nourishing their minds. Minister or teacher—he was in the same ballpark.

Oftentimes we try too hard to force the action in our lives. We push for things we think we want, only to see them escape our grasp. Then there are those opportunities we never considered, appearing out of nowhere.

There’s power in submitting to the possibility that my life follows some kind of destiny. Accepting the will of the universe and learning to live with myself? How freeing.