Saturday, June 11, 2011

Oldies: A poem about a death.

I honestly don't remember writing this. The filename claims it was on 5/25/10. I'm pretty sure it was inspired by some of my feelings at my father's death and funeral, but I think it ended up being a more generic description of losing part of your family. It fragments more than your family and your home; it fragments your life. It fragments yourself. Once again, I'm sure at the time I thought this was awful because it was during my dry spell, when I would sometimes push myself to write then regret the outcome and give up again. But I rather like it now. No title.


It was late in the month of May
And I slept in the church all day
Waiting for some shining god, or his priest,
To come and sweep me away

There were terrible ghosts in my head
Some of them not even dead
But the sound of the homily made me feel sickly
And the wine was a bit too sweet
So I called it a day

It was late in May

Crisp with shimmering dew
There were flowers and sparrows and
Pictures of you
With a smile on your face,
Hiding scathing disgrace
And me in your embrace
Smiles with tearful eyes

There were no goodbyes
Only the sorrowful dirge
Of a monotone wail
Wind gone out of our sails
A house of empty rooms
20 years, nothing left, because
It all left with you
Now we live in empty rooms

So late in May
I remember to this day
When the chaplain did speak
Of the glorious feats
Of the man who existed for the purposes
Of a soaring eulogy
So they cried for him, but not you
As we slipped into June
And the days became thicker than glue

But I lay on the pews
Dream of cobwebs and you
And the pump in my chest, under brutal duress,
Made me pick up my shoes
I said no goodbyes with no tears in my eyes
Only pride and a smile for what we went through
And with you, I said my adieus, and I left in June.



Two realizations on reading the poem now that I guess I must have known then as well: Second-to-last stanza is about the history rewriting that goes on after someone's death. No matter how complicated the deceased is - troubled, hard to live with, perhaps even abusive or sick - or how insignificant, in the eulogy, he becomes a saint and a hero. And beyond the eulogy, we remember what we choose to, in order to live with the fact that they're gone. The religious either convince themselves that they've earned a place in heaven or in hell; the less religious justify their resentment by recalling the negative actions he made while the guilty do the exact opposite. For a year or more, depending how traumatic the death and the aftermath are, this quasi-delusion continues and it's very difficult to hear other people with a different, even less extreme memory of the individual. But in time our memory is generally moderated; it can relax enough to realize both the good and bad in the person and his actions, and accept that we can still grieve for him without having to pretend he was a saint, or to admit that he can't be hated because he wasn't a monster. Very few people are saints or monsters. Too many people are convinced they know a lot of both in their lives. It makes them treat each other pretty poorly sometimes.

The last stanza just stands out because I don't remember what I meant when I wrote it. I think I was referring to my own situation: that I came home to grieve and deal with my father's death for months, then had to get up and come back to the East Coast to move on. I had to force myself to move on, in many ways. But I think it really means something else, figuratively and literally. It wasn't really about moving back when I wasn't ready. It's about moving on when you are. We lay in the shadow of a monumental death - I would literally lay upon my father's grave when I visited - and absorb the death, the finality, the crushing weight of memory. Then either we can't take the obsessive tragedy anymore, or we live in grief and memory so long that we can comfortably leave, feeling we've done enough, and then life does somehow move on.

In the few weeks after he died, I remember walking through the streets full of people and feeling like an a different way than usual. Not an alien: I was like a person who had just witnessed the end of the world, and was wondering why I was the only one who experienced it, why no one else seemed to care. The experience amounted to the end of the world for me, and for good reason, I think. This faded after a while, but the feeling that it would be impossible to move on anytime soon didn't. How could the universe continue without a center? How could I move on from something so desperately lacking closure, closure that I would never receive except for maybe within myself?

But my world did continue. It took me months to get back to Harvard, and when I did, I felt as if I did push myself to try to move on a little too soon. Some of the wounds were still open and I was still doing renovations on my shattered universe, adding a new fulcrum at the center that was the shaky column I had become. I was forced to be the center. Like every new adult, this is a terrifying burden to accept, even if it's necessary; it's unfortunate that many people have to wait so long to realize it and try to make it happen, because it's only harder when you're older. The same could be said of having to do it younger. Either way, I began shakily in late 2008, faking it until making it, then maybe a year before I wrote this poem, I got up the guts to not just leave the cemetery, but to admit that I didn't need to be there anymore. Now I could go back when I visited not because that's where my heart and mind still lived. I could go to accept the finality, accept that my life has moved on despite how significant the person gone was to my whole world (much as I hated and doubted it during our time together), and comfortably look at the grass his body was beneath and be okay with the fact that the bones beneath were where they would be until they disintegrated, and his lasting impact on the world would stay in the minds of those he left behind, the genes that he left behind in me, until they disintegrate, too. Moreso, that's how it should be. And I can accept that that will never change, for anyone who dies, no matter how saintly or how awful.

I no longer have to imagine my father as a saint to prevent myself from being destroyed by guilt. I can remember him for what he was. I know he did a lot of bad things. He was an incredibly good man with a terribly difficult life that made him do plenty of wrong things, things that hurt the people he loved fairly often. But he did them out of his own pain and fear and neuroses, not out of malice, and so he was no monster. He was my center and I'll never forget how significant that was. He made me who I am and it turns out that person isn't so bad, even if it's a fractured person who has to do a lot of work to stay functional and adjusted in the world. And I can do so with no tears, but with pride in what we had and what we went through.

Apparently that was in June - not literally, but maybe figuratively, who knows. I hate forcing symbolism and meaning on poetry despite lack of intention on the artist's part. Thanks, high school English.

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