My birth father was a violent, unpredictable man. After he and my mother finally divorced, the last thing any of us kids wanted was another man around. So when Mother remarried, we weren’t the most welcoming to our stepfather. But he won us over with his quiet steady caring, his reliable responsibility, and his willingness to take on all five of us, to become Little League coach and Scout leader. Eventually we were calling him “Dad.”
Mother died first. Years later, when Dad was facing a protracted end due to cancer and had to be in a nursing home in a town where none of us kids lived any longer, my sister and I divided the week between us to go stay in that town and spend each day with him, our brothers pitching in when they could. When Dad’s end was near, my sister called, and I packed my kids in the car and drove like a drag racer to make it to that town in time. We all did. Dad died in my arms and my sister’s while the boys all stood around him as close as they could get. Afterward, one of the nursing-home aides said to me, “Surely, that man was loved!”
This poem is for Dad on Father's Day.
CONVERSATION WITH MY MOTHER’S PICTURE
You and Dad were entirely happy here—
you in purple miniskirt, white vest and tights
(you always wore what was already too young
for me), Dad in purple striped pants,
a Kansas State newsboy’s cap
made for a bigger man’s head.
You both held Wildcat flags and megaphones
to cheer the football team who,
like the rest of the college, despised you
middle-aged townies, arranging for their penicillin
and pregnancy tests and selling them
cameras and stereos at deep discount.
But you were happy
in this picture, before they found
oat-cells in your lungs.
After the verdict, he took you to Disneyland,
this man who married you and your five children
when I was fifteen. He took you cross-country
to visit your family, unseen
since your messy divorce.
He took you to St. Louis
and Six Flags Over Texas and to Topeka
for radiation treatments.
I don’t think he ever believed
you could die. Now he’s going
the same way. And none of us
live in that Wildcat town with the man
who earned his “Dad” the hard way
from suspicious kids and nursed
your last days. For me, this new dying
brings back yours, leaving me only this image
of you both cheering for lucky winners.
Published in Heart’s Migration (Tia Chucha Press, 2009)