My Father’s Face

I wrote the first version of this poem around twenty years ago in San Antonio, Texas. My late wife, a city councilwoman at the tine, was attending a National League of Cities convention, and I had accompanied her.

My father and stepmother drove up for the day from their home in Kingsville, about 180 miles to the south.   I hadn’t seen him for the best part of a year, and I was shocked by the change. True, he had grown more and more sedentary since he retired, but, despite some heart trouble, he had always seemed vigorous and healthy. He was almost eighty now, and for the first time he looked his age. His gait was halting; he needed a cane; and he seemed to have lost his interest in life’s pleasures.

The poem is a sonnet, the form that I usually turned to in those days to document troubling emotions. I was trying to understand what was going on.   What I didn’t know until after he died a few years later was that his heart condition was much more serious than he had been letting on to the family. (My father was a master of denial).   What I didn’t suspect until I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, was that he may have shared the condition. The “sudden, pointless stops” described in the poem were one of my major symptoms before I received treatment.   It would have been just like my father to notice new symptoms in his body and never bother to tell his doctors.

 

MY FATHER’S FACE

My father’s face looks like a rumpled sock;
His feet are slippered; in his hand a cane.
His gait is slow, with sudden, pointless stops.
I cannot watch him without shock.
“I’ve chosen this,” I expect him to explain.
Instead, he finds the nearest chair, and plops.
And I think: “Is this my fate? To live by pill?”
“To sit and wait for passing time to kill?”

And yet, when he begins to think,
I see the brilliant person that I knew.
When ideas clash, he does not shrink
From combat; he takes the field anew.
And when he looks at death, he does not blink.
He faces it; considers it his due.

Kingsville, 1951

This is the first in a series of explicitly autobiographical poems I intend to post:

pocket knife

“Do you have a knife, boy?
I watched his fingers as they
Tapped the arm of his chair.
“Every boy needs a knife.”

I wanted one, all right,
One like his,
Small and sharp and bright with the sun
I wanted the power.

“A knife like this.”
He reached behind my ear like a conjurer,
And two inches of tempered steel
Became mine.

I could whittle.
“Soft wood’s best.”
I could carve the end of my pencil,
And call it sharpening.
I could cut twine,
And slice open bags.
I could make it stand straight up in the ground,
Sometimes.

“Don’t give that boy a knife, John,”
My grandmother said,
“He’ll cut himself.”