We estimate a man by how much he remembers.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
Things seem to take on a sudden shimmer
before vanishing: the polished black loafers
he wore yesterday, the reason for climbing
the stairs, even the names of his own children
are swallowed like spent stars against the dark
vault of memory. Today the toaster gives up
its silver purpose in his hands, becomes a radio,
an old Philco blaring a ball game from the 40s
with Jackie Robinson squaring up to the plate.
For now, it's simple; he thinks he is young again,
maybe nineteen, alone in a kitchen. He is staring
through his own reflection in the luster and hoping
against hope that Robinson will clear the bases
with a ball knocked so far over the stadium wall
it becomes a pigeon winging up into the brilliance.
And perhaps, in one last act of alchemy,
as Jackie sails around third, he will transform
everything, even the strange and forgotten face
glaring back from the chrome, into something
familiar, something Solomon could know as his own.
"Losing Solomon" examines the many small losses, the daily subtractions and distortions of self, memory, and family suffered with dementia. It is not necessarily about, but lovingly dedicated to, my grandfather, Stephen "Snuffy" Kopec, a lifelong baseball fan. As I was writing the poem, it was his face I imagined in the toaster.
"Losing Solomon" was published in A House That Falls (Slapering Hol Press, 2005) and in Oblivio Gate (Crab Orchard Review, Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, 2008). Reprinted by permission of the writer.
At the Easel with Alzheimer's
My father is painting in the basement: blue,
green, yellow. The cinder block's wall white-
wash is tanned with dust and the ocean view
obscured by a flapping sheet of vinyl. It fights
the wind. He says he's inspired to blue. My call
comes to the studio phone. His greeting: I can place
you. You're the pharmacist, right? The pall
on his memory has not dimmed his bad taste
in jokes or how at the easel he's always affable
over the scribble of boar's bristle, the give
of canvas to brush. I skip over laughable
lapses, as when he asks me where I live
and then pretends he was kidding. Name-
dropping, his mind grows patches, nicks
and spores like the salt on his aluminum
windows that will eventually make them stick.
Painting down there, his panes always closed,
the air is warm and dry, not a hint of the sea.
What are you working on, now? His nose
nearly on the canvas, he can only say,
It's getting better, going somewhere. It's green,
blue and not as grim as it sounds. A brain
grows lacy and colors squirm like the skeins
of her yarns above the washing machine.
Don't fight the wind, I tell him. Be a net.
Catch the world by letting it slip the knots.
In my family, I watch the deterioration of my father. It's heartbreaking to see a rocket scientist lose the ability to use a computer, but it's also fascinating to see a lifelong painter sustain the connection with his past through the medium of art. My father is happiest these days at his easel, and what he has lost in intellect seems to be somewhat added back in an uncharacteristic peacefulness. The disease both gives and takes for all of us.
"At the Easel with Alzheimer's" appeared in Another Circle of Delight (Small Poetry Press, 2007). Reprinted by permission of the writer.
Prayer for My Mother
Let every moment of every day
break upon her with the dazzle of
utter newness, and let her exult in it.
Let wonder rule: the sky more lovely
than she's ever seen, the birds that
come by the hundred to her feeder.
Please let her forget that she does not
remember. Let her lose somehow
the torment of losing her mind.
Let there be insight in the one page that,
over and over for days, she reads
for the first time, never gets beyond.
Let the living past be vibrant in her
dreams each night, her mother, her brother
at her side, showering her with love.
Please let her eyes open in the morning
not to the despair of the lost at sea,
but to the familiar play of sunlight
in the leaves outside her window,
the solid sense that she is safe,
the firm ground of home.
For nearly two years, until she moved to a nursing home, my mother lived with my wife, our two teenage children, and me. Her presence was a gift: we coalesced around her, sharing the pleasure of her boundless love, the challenges of being her caregivers, and the sadness as her health declined.
"Prayer for my Mother" was published in Passager (2008) and Keeping the Quiet (Bellowing Ark Press (2008). Reprinted by permission of the writer.
The Inland Sea
All the little fears have schooled and darted
out to the hallway's regulated shoals,
the numbered rooms, the doors with coded locks
in case of trouble. Here the patients drift,
fish-jawed in their medicated stupors.
Mouthing dialects that no one understands,
their faces float up and their guileless eyes
look out at us, their brains a weedy bed
of plaques and tangles. They will leave us trapped
inside the real and comprehensible--
or leave us, anyway, to walk the hall
and try the door out to the tiny terrace
with its trellis like a cage or crab pot.
We find them there bewildered by the bars
and turn them back into the inland sea.
Their dignity another universe
might honor more than we do, seeing souls
where we see bodies failing into death.
Some fear is always lurking in the shadows,
some violence they can't explain. Drowned children,
they hold hands in plausible innocence,
as if in mastery of discipline,
both past and future utterly dissolved.
Their beauty terrifies us, so we think
it like no beauty we have ever known
and leave them for the ordinary shore.
The last time I saw my father alive he was adrift in the home, but as if
some part of his old personality survived, he seemed to be looking for a
way to escape. As I watched the heavily medicated patients move in the
halls of that building north of Seattle, it suddenly seemed to me that my
horror at their condition was misplaced, that in some weird way they were
even beautiful, or that my notion of beauty would have to be adjusted to
make room for what these people had become.
"The Inland Sea" was first published in The Cincinnati Review (Fall, 2004). Reprinted by permission of the writer.
My father was finally unconfused,
the noose of Alzheimer's snapped.
Around him the malodorous roses
and long shafts of lilies.
I squeezed his shoulder, patted it
like the flank of a favorite dog.
I knew this was a dumb, sentimental
gesture. I didn't care.
My sister said--the whole room listening--
that our father had gone now
to a better place. The funeral home
claque nodded like breeze-bent stalks.
I wished for a long moment my sister
was right, but then two men came
and closed the light from him.
His new roof screwed tightly down,
I could still hear him say, A better place,
Joyce? Show me the evidence. The organ
shook down dust from the oak beams.
Joyce sang loudly along on the first hymn
with the few people who'd come. In my head
I sang "Don't Fence Me In." Dad told me
he'd hummed this when the gates
of Stalag XI-B were flung open
and he hobbled out on makeshift crutches.
He was headed back to Kansas, its glorious
dullness and flatness, bars of sunshine
in his father's field, the amazing grace
of wheat and wheat and wheat.
As a poet, I was happy to be able to get my father back to Kansas--he was born and raised in Abilene. And I was very pleased that this poem won Atlanta Review's international poetry competition in 2002.
"His Funeral" was first published in the Atlanta Review (2002). It is also included in a chapbook, Leave Time (Finishing Line Press, 2005). Reprinted by permission of the writer.