Sunday, June 28, 2015

"Row Your Boat Ashore" by Adele Gardner

Row Your Boat Ashore
(for my father)

Last night, I learned, you took your final breath
About the time I woke and worried
You had slipped away.  No phone call, so all's well:
But the heart knows, somehow.  That week before
You went to hospital, my chest was tight
With panic that all time had slipped away:
And yet I didn't call, I didn't stop by, didn't stop
Typing your words long enough to hear you speak to me--
I'd held that fear so long, though never so strong--
I felt I couldn't breathe.  You tried and failed,
An oxygen mask for life-vest, vent for raft
Kept you afloat till we could swim to you,
My brother catching me just as I left shore,
Pushing off for your house, our weekly visit.
He steered me to hospital instead of home,
Your final stop on earth.
                                                We waited, parched,
Thirsting for your words, your breath,
Hanging on that little sound--mechanical, loud,
But regular, as numbers monitored your fate.
You slept.  We stroked your head, held hands
That gripped us sometimes as you rose from sleep,
Head cresting for that sip of air, one eye
Peering for us through that distorting, liquid surface
Of pain-meds and sedation.  You floated, drifting there,
Effortless in sleep, but struggling when they demanded
That you consciously stroke the waves by yourself,
Stay buoyant on the strength of your own air.
You were tiring, eyes scanning for us, for shore.

We tried to lift you up, hold your head above water,
Hands stroking forehead, hands, arms,
Loving, encouraging words, our voices a beacon
That might call you back.  We praised your every breath.
The breathing trials went better when we stood beside,
Each of your swollen hands gripping ours,
As we prayed and told our love, to make your spirit light,
Help lift your burden and smooth you over the waves.
It worked enough that we began to hope.
They took you off the ventilator.  Mom called us for goodbye,
Then brought your glasses.  You saw us clearly through still water:
You held out your arms, hugged my brother
Like a man clinging to a spar, his hope, his strength.
But your hoarse breath filled the room, four times as fast as ours,
And we anxiously gulped each minute,
Afraid they'd not add up to hours.
So much pain, and yet you fought for us, for each breath,
Gripping our hands so tight
It was clear you were saving us, not the reverse.

We were drowning, holding our breath, our eyes flooding
As we felt your pain rasping with each shallow, rapid breath,
So much effort, to lift one chest--
Far more than you needed to crush our hands with love,
Hold us in shaking arms.  You brought our hands together in a cross--
My brother and I, then our entire clan--
Clear symbol we must stick together,
Keep this boat in one piece--each other, afloat--
This family ark you'd built with each patient breath
Over so many years.
                                    Stroking your sweating, swollen brow,
Sister says you should think of the calming lake,
Our favorite place--imagine yourself floating there,
Peaceful, easy.  Relax, try to nap,
As you did on the cool porch to the sound of waves.
You're slipping away from us, stealing away from shore,
The current carrying you out to the end of your tether--
But you will not let go, your grip stronger than ever
As the waves shake and rock you,
Your breath jagged, monstrous waves on the computer graph,
Your heart racing to keep up.
                                                I'd give anything
For one more breath, one more word.
Your eyes, the squeeze of your hand
Are all I have to translate.  Poet, dreamer, pragmatist,
You often used concrete symbols to make your point:
I think of all those people you taught to swim: my brothers and sister,
Aunts, uncles, cousins, me: the way you cupped my head in one big hand,
The other just under my back, your soothing voice
Telling me to relax, don't fear the water,
Just breathe.  I wanted to thrash, splash, get my feet
On the lake's stones: but you held me, and I held still.
We floated, daughter and Daddy, who was the world.

I search your face for the words you can't say, panic stopping me
From saying anything that might suggest your end.
You keep your eyes on us, so large and moist, looking frightened,
Uncertain for the first time, no lenses to shield and sharpen,
Straining to catch us through the blur
Like an exile squinting for each last glimpse of home,
The land dwindling as you put out to sea--a line, a point, gone.
Where are you, under that starry sky?  I'll guide your raft.
Swimming through night after day,
I fear my lungs will find their own watery grave
If you let go.  Brother talks to you in the darkness,
Telling his children's day, small points of color
Glowing along the shore.  At last visiting hours end.
I don't want to go.  I keep looking back.
Mom sleeps beside you in her chair.  At last
You slip your moorings, push off,
And quietly drift away from shore,
Eyes on her sleeping face, her own breath serene while yours
Rasps like the snore that guarded us so many years.
One last time, you row through night-lake waters,
Black and smooth as silk--dark as the night she swam,
Trying to decide on your proposal,
Till you swam out fearing for her life,
And found her calmly dripping
On the shore of your love.  Time stops,
The ticks of your breath silenced.  They close your eyes.
But you're already out to sea.

Adele Gardner

Poet’s Notes:  I actually jotted notes for this poem the day I learned Dad had died.  I wrote the rough draft just a few days later, waiting in the hotel room with my husband Marc the night before Dad's burial service in Elmira, New York.  A long night.  

It took almost four years before I could even look at it again, though I thought about it during the intervening years, which included two more deaths of close family and an unwanted divorce.  Alone in my house, bereft of my husband, I found myself revisiting that notebook at last, which included quite a number of works about Dad.  This was the poem that had stayed in my mind the strongest.  

At last I revised and shaped it, giving myself the chance to inhabit again that hospital room with Dad, living again those final hours.  Holding his hand, hearing his breath.  Listening as my brother Theo gently told Dad about all the things his kids had done that day--his own goodbye, though none of us knew that Dad would slip away that night.  

Perhaps Dad's spirit touched me--I could feel his hand on my shoulder, his careful presence, the way he gripped his pencil, intent on the page as he crafted his own poetic lines.  He'd been my guide in the world of literature.  His own poetry always inspired me, but I felt I'd never come close before.  For the first time I felt something of his essence in my lines.  Not only is this the poem of mine that's most important to me, I hope it is my best.

Editor’s Note:  The concept of death as a sea journey is an old one, but Ms. Gardner brings a freshness and deeply personal originality to the conceit.  Her repetition of "stroking" is nicely done, transforming (what I had wrongly presumed to be) her father's cause of death into something gentle and comforting.  The emotional gamut from fear to pain to sadness to hope and finally to peace is smoothly executed.  What a fine tribute to a fine man.  "Row Your Boat Ashore" was first published in the November 2014 issue of Songs of Eretz Poetry E-zine.

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