All my life I’ve been writing of it but not from it, directing
a bare light bulb at its profile so I may outline its silhouette
on tracing paper. Its gifts have been delivered to my door
in an unattributable basket, food nameless but nourishing,
cook anonymous, recipe untranscribed. I saw my father
carried from the couch into the waiting ambulance,
which wailed like my mother could not, like I did not,
as wailing is an art, its permissions learned. The rotating red
emergency light swept across his face like a rash, a red tide.
I was not there when he died. I was at school, learning
equations, trying not to pee my pants because peeing them
meant getting my wet bottom slapped by teacher
and carrying the soaked underpants home in a paper bag.
Even if I’d been there, if I’d shut down his eyes
with my fingers dirty from recess, I’d know nothing more
of it than I do now. He was so young, and death froze him
in time. If I knew him now I’d be his elder. I could tell him
to pick up after himself. To shut the door against the heat
or cold. His illness made me conscious of the veins beneath the skin,
the blue of a bruise and its gold aura, the bones that rise up
through the skin when one has been sick for a long time, unable
to wear a suit and tie anymore, wrapped only in a blue robe
belted at the waist, and a back brace. He’d take short walks
up and down the sidewalk in front of our house, pacing,
my mother called it, a word I contemplated, as I did the word
“throb,” until they became part of my consciousness, just as I imagine
he contemplated the thing inside him, the thing he was inside,
or soon to be, like a man walking the gangplank contemplates
the sublime blackness of the sea. Once, I ran from the school bus
and leaped into his arms as he paced, like a girl in a movie. Knocked
his chin with my skull, made him bite his tongue. He stuck it out
to show me the blood my performance had cost him. Blood type
O negative, which later I’d seek in other men, his disease,
histiocytosis X, which together made tic tac toe. We played it
sometimes in the hospital room, but our hearts weren’t in it.
Is anyone’s heart in tic tac toe? It’s a game built for hospital rooms.
His abdomen was interestingly swollen. His hands strangely cold.
My face oddly ugly as I cried looking into a hand mirror.
My consciousness growing adverbs, distended with them.
Anyway, the transformation was incremental; he’d been sick
my whole life, six years, then seven, so what I knew of Father
was a body in constant progression, though toward what end
I could not imagine. The closest I can come to empathy for that
destination is when I was put under for surgery. Ten, nine, eight,
gone. No comfort, no embrace, only absent, an empty desk at school,
an empty coat hook, a locker resonant with its own hollowness.
On the day he died I walked alone up Fulkerson Road to my
Brownie meeting, pressed my forehead to the screen door before
opening it and heard the girls inside praying for me. Absent
but present. Present to my absence. Is this death? For a while I thought
it belonged only to my father and family pets. It was months before
I understood my mother too would someday die, any time she left
the house she could die, like when she went on a three-day bender
with her brother and was spotted all over town, flipping burgers
at the Four Square, laughing or crying and dancing at the cemetery,
and I lay awake at my grandmother’s house, in the bat-filled dark,
waiting for word of my mother’s demise, drunk and hit by a train
at the unmarked railroad crossing by the underground house.
Even at home, watching Shock Theater on TV, pounding meat
with a mallet, reading a book, the one titled How to Raise Children
in Your Spare Time, death could take her. Only later, after shooting
a rabbit in mid-leap, I saw that I could kill and I too would die,
that my father beckoned me like Ahab in Bradbury’s adaptation
of Moby Dick for film, his body lashed to the whale by ropes,
his dead arm flagging back and forth with the heaving sea, mindlessly
beckoning, for the dead are beyond caring whether we follow them
into the brine or not. My father’s journey was one of disconnection
and reconnection. His mind carried him back to the ship he boarded
at seventeen, escorting MacArthur back to the Philippines.
In his delirium he shouted for the General, he was a sailor in his dying,
an archetype, not a family man. Have you traveled, in your wanderings,
to the Chapel of Bones in Portugal, the walls lined with human skulls,
femurs, fibulae, and teeth? Over the doorway: “We bones that here are,
for yours await” troubled me, its syntax unclear. Its arrangements
and sequencing. I tried to link one word to another, like struggling
to turn a bunch of reclusive birds, each the only one of its species,
into a flock. “We bones,” as if the bones are sentient beings,
like greeters at Walmart who are there to remind us that we too
will be greeters at Walmart, it’s only a matter of time. There with our
pole at the prow of the ferry. And here I have built, from these couplets
of metacarpals and finger bones, a memento, a bone chapel
where the brave may pray and confess and baptize their children.