"I’m Sorry" and "Congratulations": Death and Poetry

All week, I’ve experienced a juxtaposition of “I’m so sorry for your loss” and “Congratulations!” side by side, sometimes even simultaneously, like at my father-in-law’s funeral when one person gave me a copy of the small article on me being named poet laureate in the Kansas City Star while someone else offered his condolences. The cards and notes that come in the mail and the emails I download offer me the same mixed message, which seems to add up something my brain hears as, “Mazel Tov! And remember, life sucks” or “This too shall pass, so don’t get too excited about any of it.”

Perhaps what’s most odd about it all is that I can’t tell by the face of whoever is approaching which message will pop out. I’m sitting at my computer at a coffee shop, a man behind me turns around, taps me on the shoulder, and says, “Sorry to hear about your father-in-law, and please give Ken my best” or a woman I don’t know on the street passes by and yells over her shoulder, “Great to see you in the paper.”

For years we’ve dreaded the loss of Gene, and for years, I yearned for some recognition and a lot of readers, compounded by the piles of rejection slips, and years spent shepherding books to publication. No surprise that now, during a very good year indeed as a writer, the void left by Gene is like the Grand Canyon compared to the little ant hill of successes. This is not to say that I don’t appreciate being congratulated, the forthcoming publication of books, and the quiet calm of being seen alongside the hard-won peace of feeling good in my writer’s skin.

Meanwhile, there’s the Grand Canyon behind my shoulder, a place I peer into and, just like the actual Grand Canyon, can’t see to the bottom of it all. My father-in-law, although he used to tease me that “how could this be poetry when it doesn’t rhyme?” — even while he stapled together copies of my chapbook for six hours one day — never issued even the vaguest rejection slip or “this doesn’t quite suit our needs at this moment” messages. In the almost 26 years I knew him, he accepted me always, helped when I asked, tried not to impose when he needed help, and probably served me hundreds of tacos, dozens of roast beef dinners, and a whole lot of bowls of hamburger soup. Despite the reality that since his heart surgery four years ago, and his seizures two years ago, he had lost a lot of short-term memory, mobility, strength and lung capacity — and he was leaving this life a little bit at a time — his death is still unfathomable to me.

Yesterday, lying in corpse pose at the end of yoga class, I saw him in his oversized red woolen cap and 30-year-old gray coveralls, just coming in from chopping wood and happy to stand close to the fire place. He was always cold, and it broke his heart a little when he could no longer run that blower connected to his fireplace when he went on oxygen. In a strange way, it’s as odd that he grew so old and fragile as it is that he died. Diagnosed with rheumatic fever during WWII, he tinkered on the brink of serious illness and regular life for over 60 years, and now that he’s gone, I am sorry for his loss, but I could almost congratulate him for leaving behind years of illness, pain, and discomfort.

But since he’s gone, and I can’t tell him anything directly, I just share this poetry — which doesn’t rhyme, but I think he would be okay with it anyway:

In the End, There Is Only Kindness

for Gene
February 19, 1925 – February 10, 2009

When the floor slips and the time comes,
when interventions falter, there is only kindness,
a lantern to hold at journey’s end, then hand over
so someone else can lift the light enough
to illuminate where to step next, and how.

In this kindness, there are always stories:
Telling the checker who rang up his milk twice,
don’t worry, everyone makes mistakes.
His long wait among aging magazines at the VA
so a homeless vet could get his medication.
Gravel on our walkway because he didn’t want
us slipping when we brought home the new baby.
The vase of roses he left on my kitchen table
and for Alice because roses were on sale.
Jokes about being old and decrepit while he
cooked everyone dinner. How he power-rocked
the babies to sleep, his heart beating through theirs.
Christmas stockings and grandchildren to wake up early,
coins to collect for each one. Oxygen in one hand,
a cane in the other so he could see a grandchild
in orchestra or band, graduation or swim meet
even when his back and memory hurt.
The dishes or long drives, reaching for the check,
and taking the time to greet the stranger eating alone.
Only kindness matters in the circle of love
he made out of this world.

In the end, there is always the beginning,
a seamless turn from here to there
even if everything is different from
the irreplaceable loss shining and aching at once,
a kind of river running alongside our lives,
or weather reminding us that
we love, were loved by a man here only
for kindness, which is not just a kind of love
but the only love there is.

– Caryn

2 thoughts on “"I’m Sorry" and "Congratulations": Death and Poetry

  1. Beautiful essay, beautiful poem.

    I could see him through your words even before I scrolled down to see the photos of him.

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