Poetry Break

“Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World” by Sherman Alexie

After he passed away, I wrote my father a letter. In all the years we spent estranged, I never once bothered to write him anything. There were things I wrote about him, but they were never meant to be dedicated to him. Every so often, I write him another letter. It feels like life after my father is much life during his time on this planet. There are times when it slips my memory that he’s gone, because he was always gone. It’s just it was never this permanent.

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Personal

“This clock never seemed so alive”

Pardon my morbidness, but hasn’t 2019 felt like a decade than just the punctuation to one? The events of 2016 seem like a distant daydream in hindsight. And maybe in 2022, 2019 will feel just the same. I guess it matters on a certain point of view.

It’s easy to focus on that bad. (And that’s not even considering the political aspect.) Buried my cat and two of my son’s fish. Worked under one of the worst supervisors I’ve had in all my working years. Witnessed the breaking of a fellowship. Lost some good coworkers and one of the best supervisors I’ve had at the library. And I learned that the one coworker who helped me survive and manage the 2018 Summer Reading Program would be leaving us before Summer 2020. A terrible Star Wars sequel.

And though bittersweet, I made my peace with my estranged father the night before he exhaled his conclusive breath.

But I shouldn’t ignore all the good. All the changes, some that I wanted to implement for years, that came into the children’s department. I spent the majority of my days reading. The memories made. Gaining a new supervisor whose visions will continue growing a department I’ve held so dear to my heart. Knowing that no matter who I lose in this job, that the teamship I helped cultivate will get us through. The smile spread across my sick father’s face when he realized who I when visiting him at the hospital. Gaining those few moments that I longed for so much in my adolescence. Knowing that he got to meet Shaun before he died.

And those hours spent talking to a person who makes me feel less like the monster and more like the person I aspire to be.

And as I stare into the mirror, seeing my disheveled hair glint more each day with the flecks of white growing in, I know that my time spent here isn’t for nothing. I don’t pretend to know what the future holds. Or if the next year will be better than this one. Or that the next decade will promise something spectacular.

I do know one thing, though…

Stream of Consciousness

“Every single word of the conversation we just had”

The noise is suffocating. And I can see that her ear is bothering her. And knowing the looks and whispers that will come by us getting up together, I ask her if she would like to step out for a moment. Get some fresh air. Our friends share smiles. There is some egging on. Not sure if she sees any of it. And I’m sure there are some jokes passed around as we make our way through the crowd into the great outdoors. Our only company are the banished smokers. And we sit across from each other just talking. Nerd stuff. Our usual conversations. And then…

“Where did you go right now?”

I’m seventeen and it’s summer. The scent of Candies perfume fills the atmosphere of our bodies. She whispers all the dirty things we should be doing. And she looks into my eyes as she asks me her question. And I can see the pain that lingers behind them. And I can hear the words she’ll tell me when I inevitably break her heart in a matter of months. When I meet the sweet cheerleader girl who’d rather play guitar in a band. When I meet said girl’s best friend, the redhead from San Antonio.

“Are you even listening to me?”

We’re fighting again. And I know we’re at the end of our time, but both of us are still trying to wedge the puzzle pieces together. We’re just too afraid of having to start over. She’s made too many plans. She’s got it all figured it out, while I’m still struggling to find out who it is that I want to be. Though, deep down, I know it isn’t the person I’m growing into. And I turn to her, and I see the tears in her eyes, understanding the pain that I’ll introduce in a matter of weeks when I go missing. When I break up with her over a phone call because I’m the coward I deny being.

“Are you ok?”

Her green eyes inspect mine. She who watches me sleep whenever she awakes first. She who I long to hold on to even as she runs away from me. She keeps me centered. I called her my balance to my counselor. There’s so much I want to do for her, but can’t get past my own anxieties. We’re at the stop light and I know the words she’s about to tell me. She’s uncertain, but I know the truth. She’s pregnant. And my life is going to split into two. There were times when I wanted to leave because it seemed easier than remaining a slave to what I felt for her. But at that moment when the words slip from her mouth, I know that I want to stand by her side for as long as she will have me. And while the possibility seems endless, I began to wonder if she can see in my eyes the pain she will cause me. And I wonder if it’s with the same clarity that I have when I see it the pain I’ll cause her.

“I think it’s my mommy’s friend.”

Shaun and I lay in bed watching TikTok videos when the phone call comes in. And I ignore it because it’s late and nothing good can come of this. When I listen to the phone call, it’s from the hospital. The information doesn’t compute correctly. My mind doesn’t process it that I’m hanging on to the fact that they mispronounced Jeanna’s name. When I call back, I learn of her condition. Stable but critical. An oxymoron to put me at ease, I imagine. On the way to the hospital, I’m calling her mom. I’m calling her brother. I’m calling Izzy and Marci. When I get there, the nurse takes me aside and tells me she’s the only survivor. Her mom, Marci, and her nephew gone.

“Can you be strong?”

And I’m sitting next to my father. He has less than a day left when I tell him that there was a time when I watched him from afar. That whenever he visited, I’d hide behind my grandmother’s plants just to catch a glimpse of him. That in the sixth grade, I darted from the backyard to the front when I saw beat up Dodge pickup drive by. And I told him that there had been so much anger that brewed up inside me when he never bothered to look for me. But we are both adults now and we both share the blame for not having a relationship. Neither of us budged. And I tell him that I didn’t hate him. “And if you need to go, it’s ok. You can go. I’ll be ok.”

And I’m here. With her. Watching her hands. Watching her eyes. And I’m searching for myself in them. And I think about what I’ve lost this year. And all that I’ve gained. And I replay all the conversations we’ve ever had. And try to memorize all the words to each of them.

“But are you living in the moment? Or are you living just to remember?”

And every ghost I’ve held on to. Every moment when I looked over my shoulder to what I had and what I lost. The guilt I’ve carried for not being there, and not being enough. And the moments when I could have tried harder. It’s all led me to this. Now.

Personal

“It’s Getting There”

First time I killed my father, I’d just turned 20. In some whirlwind of inspiration fueled by Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, I penned a short story I’d later call “David.”

He died again after writing an incomplete story about a man getting dressed for his father’s funeral. And again, later that year, about a man who remembers his father moments before he receives a phone call with the news of his passing. Oddly, both stories were titled (the first being a working title) after Bob Dylan songs.

A few years ago, during the throes of depression, I started planning a story about a man who returns home after his father’s death. I might have drafted the first few chapters, but nothing came of it. Mostly, because I realized that I seemed to pull my inspiration from the Jonathan Tropper novel, This Is Where I Leave You.

However, none of these writings prepared me for the actuality of it.

The day I learned my father was dying, we were eating at Burger King. My mother, after all these years, still doesn’t know how to broach the subject of death with me. So she does it awkwardly and quickly.

I took it in. Ingested it as I ate the Chicken Parmesan BK was still pimping. I’d known the man’s health wasn’t good. It wasn’t even ok, I think. But I expected him to come around. To live through this as he had everything else before. I didn’t even take into consideration his age.

“How long does he have?” I asked.

“Just a matter of time until his heart gives up,” she said.

I nodded. Whatever I felt up to that moment, slipped from me. I felt numb. Felt exhausted. Felt more like a version of me I hadn’t expected to encounter that day. Or ever. But I kept my face straight. Bottled that shit up nice and tight. I wouldn’t allow myself to feel until later that night.

When he smiled at me in his room at the MICU, it was the first pang of regret I felt about our distanced relationship. The years we spent estranged marred by self-pity and hardheadedness, vanished. And the reality of it set in.

My father was dying.

He passed away on 15 July. We arrived to the hospice after I got out of work. I walked to his room as my mom signed in the visitor’s log. I pushed open the door to his room and that’s when I noticed the sound. Or lack thereof. It took all I had not to drop the food and milkshake I held in my hand.

There my father lay, on his bed, with the TV on. The breathing machine that had been connected to him for a little over a week now stood silent in its corner. The empty crawled its way through my mind. The adrenaline pulsed. As my mother and nieces got close to the room, I looked at her.

“His machine is off,” I said. “Why would they turn off his machine?”

There wasn’t a doubt in my mind. I held the answer. I just didn’t believe. My father passed away sometime between the time I got out of work, picked up my dinner, and arrived at the hospice.

My father and I didn’t have a relationship. I went years without seeing him, without talking to him. We were more strangers than family at times. And I think that’s what hurts the most. Neither of us budged from our fixed places.

The Sunday before he died, I had a few moments alone with him. I leaned in close and I spoke. And while I won’t share with you in great detail, I will allow a few words to be printed here. “It’s ok if you have to go. I’ll be ok. We’ll be ok.”

Personal

“If I don’t make it known…”

I walked around my good intentions/and found there were none/I blame my father for the wasted years, we hardly talked/I never thought I would forget this hate/then a phone call made me realize I’m wrong…

The nightmares come often; I just don’t talk about them. I don’t write about them. There are no entries in my journal or one this page. I mentioned them on Twitter a few times, but not anymore. A nightmare is only as strong as you let it, right? It’s a repetition of that night, almost a year ago. There are alterations. A director’s cut. Alternative scenes and endings. In one of them, the others await for me. In another, none of them are there. One plays out like the night did, only she doesn’t make out of the OR. And darker still, I wasn’t on vacation. And he wasn’t with me that night.

I’m not stranger to nightmares. At a young age, I was plagued with sleep paralysis. And if you’ve never experienced that, I envy you.

When she was in the hospital, I’d put Shaun to bed and wait until I knew for certain he was asleep. Then I’d lie there and cry. Or I’d cry in the shower. Or I’d sit in the chair and cry. As the nights wound up, after the funerals, after the time spent in her room in the ICU, things started to even out. The mourning was still there, but the smiles at work weren’t false anymore. At least, not all of them.

Because that’s the thing about nightmares. When you live them. When you live with them. If you live within them. You have to put on a smile otherwise others will know.

I walked around my room no thinking/just sinking in this box/I blame myself for being too much like somebody else/I never thought I would just bend this way/then a phone call made me realize I’m wrong.

“My dad is dying.” Do you know how strange it is to type those words? In my adult life, I don’t think I ever referred to him as Dad. Father, sure. Javier, always. But Dad? I can’t remember the last time I called him by that name. I know I was a kid.

He’d been sick for a while now. Mom informed me of his doctor visits. When things with his leg to a serious turn, we spoke about the possibility of amputation. Things have a way of progressing. Symptoms and sickness have the tendency of getting worse.

I avoided visiting him in the hospital until last Friday when Mom told me his heart rate wasn’t improving. The leg, amputated. His heart stopped a couple of times before the surgery.

“Look who came to visit you today,” my mom said as we walked into his room in the ICU. Room 10. Jeanna stayed in Room 4 last year.

My father searched my face for some recognition. Something that would give him a hint. Of course he wouldn’t recognize me. It’s been at least a decade since the last time we saw each other. I’m older now. Wider. Tired.

“It’s Willie,” she told him. “He came to visit you today.”

And there it is. It’s weak, but it’s there. The flicker of light in his eyes. The twitch of his lips as he tries to smile.

They were transporting him to the hospice that night. There would be a room made up for him for his final days. It’s where I saw him today. But the smile was gone. Not that he wasn’t glad to see us. No, I’m sure he appreciates that. It’s just that finality of it is hitting him, I’m sure.

I sat by his bed, not saying anything. Just taking it in. I scroll for the picture of Shaun on my phone. Jeanna sent it earlier. Before I arrived at the hospice. Before I saw the look of defeat on my father’s face. He has his first pet goldfish. Seth and San, he called them. And a part of me wants this to be a normal father and son moment. One of those moments on TV when the torch is passed down.

“Hey look, Dad. It’s Shaun. His first pet goldfish. Remember the goldfish we had when I was that age?”

And that’s when it sinks in. Because, yeah, we had goldfish. Yeah, for a time, we lived under the same roof. But I can’t conjure up the memories we shared together. Sure, I remember the anger. The drunkenness. The shouting. The leaving. I remember running after a rusty Dodge pick up because I thought, for a second, that it was him. Because most of our father/son relationship was me stealing glances of him from afar.

I tried to remember putting my hands on both his cheeks and just looking into his eyes, exploring what lies beneath much in the way Shaun does with me. I tried remembering lying in bed with him, slowly falling asleep, or just talking about whatever popped into my child mind. But there’s nothing there. Just an empty void.

And it’s not anger that I feel now. And I wonder if it ever was anger that I felt. Perhaps my teenage brain misinformed me. And maybe my twenty-something brain didn’t comprehend that I couldn’t forgive someone who I was never angry with.

I just know that I’m not ready to lose him permanently.

And I if I don’t make it known that I’ve loved you all along/Just like sunny days that we ignore/Because we’re all dumb and jaded/And I hope to god I figure out…

Personal

Once I Was Seven Years Old

World’s such a big place when you spend your childhood looking up, searching the faces of strangers looking for familiarity. And I spent a lot of my time looking for you in the eyes of others. Wasted my youth reaching out for your hand when you kept pulling away. There’s no evidence of your departure as nothing circumstantial proves you were ever here.

Spent my teenage years writing poetry, reciting the lines and practicing all the words I wanted you to hear. Thought about all the birthdays you missed, all the phone calls you never made. The fishing trips we never had. The trip to the zoo that never happened. The look on your face when you taught me to drive, and the smirk spread across it as I cut myself shaving for the first time. I think about the day that when you met the love of my life and how several years down the line, you met my son for the first time. Think about the moments we should have had, and how’d I be a different man if only you were a strong enough father to teach me all things I needed to learn.

When I offered you a seat at my table, you refused to take it. I did my best to mend what you let break. Wondered if I’d spend my adult life much like my childhood, begging for the affection and attention that should have been given freely. Promised not kill myself for a man who wanted of me. Promised that my son would never know that need. That he would never wonder if his father loved him. That he would never have to steal glimpses of me.

Once, I sped to the front yard after seeing your truck drive by. Couldn’t remember the last time I saw your face. Except it wasn’t you. Never was. And I think about those days, wondering if this may be our last chance to say our proper goodbyes. In a perfect world, I would have been looking up at your face, not searching for it. In a perfect world, you’d know the type of man I grew up to be and wonder if you had some part in it. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t be wondering how I’d feel if I lost you permanently.