Poem For My Father

In memory of Harold J. Greenwold, 1921 to 1980

Part I – Tell me your secret, says the solicitor

My father was a master at saying no.
When they called him up for a drawing for a free home in the Poconos
if only he’d accede to some ridiculous demand of theirs,
a survey, perhaps, or attending a matinee in an auditorium down in Philly…
but let us stop here and remember him before the phone rang:

It was October, but the red leaves bore no beauty,
he was wandering around the house,
a man at home during the day,
in his bathrobe, wearing men’s slippers that I never cared for,
they were so un-hip, they sloshed over the floor making silly noises,
not the way I cared for his handkerchiefs anyway,
giant handkerchiefs that, when he was at work,
I’d fish from the second drawer in allergy season,
or borrow from the same drawer a pair of his long black stretch socks.
I took the liberty of using his razor also when I took a shower
and shaved my legs in the master bathroom.
He raised fierce hell about the razor thing.
I always promised never to do it again, but always did,
and tried to wipe away the little hairs as best I could,
but in some mysterious fashion he always found them.
There must have been little hairs stuck to the blade.
They were always better razors than mine,
real Gillettes with those double-bladed edges – swords –
they talked about on commercials, not el cheapos like mine.

We were in the family room, like two lost Golden Retrievers,
Dad and I, not my favorite room, dark wood paneling that looked fake,
a stone fireplace I couldn’t reconcile with the rest of the house,
I never liked my parents’ taste in houses, though I’ve always lived there,
always read my books there, but my father and I found ourselves this day
down in the family room, there was a red phone hanging on the wall.
And I was accompanying him on his journey around the house,
looking at the things he loved,
the carpets that came all the way from China,
the unabridged dictionary that stood on the desk from B. Altman.
You could even, if you wanted to, look out the patio door
and see the leaves on the trees outside. I hated them.
My father’s body looked smaller in his robe.
He hadn’t shaved in days and the stubble was coming in like a dark forest.
We were right there at the foot of the stairs where the red phone hung on the wall.

It rang.
He had nothing to do all day but pick up the phone,
it was like a miracle that it rang and gave him something to do,
this is my father, you must remember,
who played ping-pong as if it were the World Series,
Hitting the ball with his brother Marv, his arm cocked in battle.
You could hear that ball, goddammit, the syncopation of that
hollow little plastic thing wherever you were in the house,
even if you were upstairs in the pink bathroom, you could hear it,
that da-dum, da-dum, like Pygmy drumbeats.

So he got the phone as if it had come to save his life,
he answered it and held the red receiver to his ear.
I was never able to appreciate the charm he held over women,
or why he read that charismatic bullshit he subscribed to –
Marcus Cerullo! – that was just the way he was,
and I could vaguely hear the female voice on the other end,
you can always tell it’s a female because it’s higher up,
and then, he was very kind and waited until she was done,
he had time, and waited until she was done,
and said in that calm voice that made him famous, even to this day,
“I just got out of the hospital with a brain tumor and have six months to live,
what would I want with a house in the Poconos?”

II. Think only of the arbor vitae

It’s like I’m walking through cobwebs, he said at the start.
Like there’re cobwebs and I’m pushing my way through them.
When it happened, all this and sundry up to the hospital bed in the family room
and that bedstand that swings out in front of you when you eat
and then rolls away when you’re done.
I thought, My God, is this how I will remember my father?
Yellow and immovable and needing to be fed and hearing him slurp,
bald, of course, like they always are after radiation,
and the box-like commode next to the bed waiting for his next bowel movement.
And those godawful vegetable drinks my mother made for him,
believing until the last moment they would save him,
them and their orange bubbles and pieces of carrots
that weren’t pulverized entirely.

I wondered what it felt like to lie next to a man who was dying slowly next to you,
rotting on the inside, the smell of him not your father’s anymore,
the look of him certainly gone, oh I tried to memorize what it felt like
being with him, it was impossible, but if truth be told,
he stopped being my father early in the game.
I hated going in. I had to read the newspaper to him.
That was my job. He appointed me.
I had to do it every day for six months while his head grew massive with disease.

Can you imagine what that does to a girl to see her father like that,
we used to play catch in the front yard when he’d come home from work.
He’d go in for supper and then I’d wait for him on the front lawn,
there were some arborvitae growing near the porch,
and he’d pitch high balls to me.
Pitch…that’s entirely the wrong word.
He’d throw a ball underhand into the sky, as high as it could fly.
And the neighbors would come out of their houses to feel the warm summer breeze,
and he’d say, Watch Ruthie catch the high flies!

He’d throw the ball up and I’d look high into the sky,
and could never find where it went.
I wondered, how could it disappear so quickly,
and then in the middle of my puzzlement, there it was!
Sailing down with terrible speed, getting larger and larger,
time going faster and faster, while I’d circle around the grass in silent ecstasy,
choose my place to stand, and expect its imminently perfect arrival.

Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Creative Nonfiction, writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry from her home in Willow Grove, PA, suburban Philadelphia. Her poems have been published in Metazen, River Poets and Ray’s Road Review. Her short stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Raphael’s Village. A mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people and families affected by depression and bipolar disorder.

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