At O’Hare, after a first jump west to California,
I thought my father was dying, as I waited
for the connecting flight. Being hungry
I ate pizza with the people eating pizza.
Feeling uninformed, I bought newspapers,
opened magazines at a bookshop wall.
Near my gate, I pretended not to watch
a dozen others waiting, as they pretended
not to watch me. But finally, in a hectic airport
restroom, I heard the crying man in his stall.
Oh God, he cried, behind a stained steel door.
He didn’t sound old. And in his privacy, not shy.
Oh Dear God, rang harshly in the close tiled room.
I stood alongside others, a simple traveler
at a public urinal. Behind me the restless waited
their turns. Oh dear life came the third cry.
I shook myself, zipped, found a vacant sink for washing.
Spurting water dwindled to a trickle on my hands.
I lathered and rinsed as I’d been taught. Grabbed
for paper towel. Didn’t linger at the mirror.
Some days I walk down the street
where we lived and the fat man
who stole tomatoes
sits under the same old sycamore
tapping out his angry rhythms
on the knotted roots. And though
the children are no longer ours,
the oaks are no less generous
to the sidewalks with their shade.
Overhead, sweet air still arrives
through many simple branches—
some reaching skyward for joy,
others downcast for a reason.
We were like good trees
the years we lived on this street.
We were so green. Fresh as leaves.
And the days whispered through us.
There it is! Just before putting out the light.
Here in the doorway to his room.
The unmistakable smell of him,
though his train pulled out an hour ago.
Not a child’s smell anymore, but a young man’s air
of college nights and long wool coats
and jokes so cool they cannot be explained.
You had to be there, Dad, he says.
Now in his scented wake I wait,
knowing he’ll soon be gone for good,
graduating to some new city,
paying too much rent.
And this room where for years he slept
and read, while brown hair broke through
on his face and chest… Soon
it will be a place for someone else to rest.
But not quite yet.
This fragrant air is sweet to me
tonight. The dusty heat rising
from baseboard vents. The windows tight.
His house-warmed high school books
upright in their case.
Like me, they’ve done their work.
What we instructors had to say
has all been said. And what he took to heart
is as unfathomable now
as what he cast away.
For he’s moving on and on his own
to worlds he’ll live to see
but I will never fully know. Of course
he’ll stop again to sleep and eat.
We’ll speak again of Charlemagne
and Russell Crowe. But the being of him,
that second self housed for years
nearly inside my skin, is elsewhere
flowing on, flown.
How does a father live, I wonder.
But it’s late now. At the stair
my wife is calling. And so I remember
that morning my son was first handed to me,
still blood-smudged and birth-slippery.
And because I was a new father then
and because my inexperience showed
the midwife taught me how to hold a child properly.
Lightly now, she cautioned.
But also pulling at my arms, testing me,
until I sensed what it meant
not to let go.