"Writing these poems kept me alive." That sentence was spoken decades ago by Paul Monette about his book, Love Alone, Eighteen Elegies for Rog, which was published in 1986. Rog was Roger Hurwitz, Monette's partner who died of AIDS (as did Monette in 1995). I never forgot those words and they came back to haunt me in 2017 when my father died unexpectedly and I had a bottomless howl of grief inside me that had to be let out before it ate me alive.
I know that losing a parent is expected; it's the natural order of things. It is not akin to losing a partner, as I learned in 2012 when my mother died and I watched my father try and largely fail to cope with the loss of his wife of 63 years. Still, losing my father on top of losing my mother changed the landscape of my life completely.
In some ways, after my mother died, my father and I became partners. Instead of partners-in-crime, we became partners-in-grief. I stayed with my father for a few weeks right after he became a widower, supposedly because he had never lived alone and didn't know how to cook a meal or do his laundry. But I could have hired someone to perform these tasks. The truth is, I needed my father as much as he needed me. My father and I needed to mourn my mother together. We needed to be fully in each other's presence in order to fully experience her absence.
After a few weeks, I did hire a housekeeper so that I could return home, but my relationship with my father only intensified. One night soon after I'd left, he told me that one of the hardest things about living alone was there was no one there to ask him, "How was your day?" when he got home from work (my father kept his robust law practice going until he was 88). So every night for the next five years, I called my father at 7:30 after Jeopardy to say, "Hi Dad. How was your day?"
My dad and I lived 250 miles apart, so I couldn't just drop by for lunch. Instead I visited him for a long weekend every month. That went on for a few years until he had a series of mini-strokes and my visits became longer and more frequent as I tried to ascertain what he needed and how to manage his care. Eventually he had to give up his law practice, give up playing tennis, give up driving, and give up the home he had lived in for 53 years. My dad absolutely hated moving to independent living. The day he moved in, as I helped him settle, I asked, "Dad, what do you think?" He shrugged and said, "I don't know. I'll give it a year." And then what? I wondered. I didn't have a chance to ask. Always a man of his word, my dad died 11 months and 27 days later. He was found in his room. No one could figure out what happened. I believe he died of a broken heart.
And now I was broken-hearted. I didn't realize how completely my life had become bound up with my father's until he was gone. A huge space opened up and the only way I knew how to fill it was to pick up my pen and write. And I finally understood what Paul Monette meant when he said that writing the poems of Love Alone kept him alive. Writing the poems that became I Wish My Father kept me anchored to the earth. As I wrote, I felt my father sitting beside me. I could see the smudged Clark Kent glasses resting on his face, I could hear him singing "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" in his off-key voice, I could smell the Old Spice aftershave he slapped on his cheeks every morning before he headed off to work. I could hold onto him until I was ready to let him go.
In the Jewish tradition, one mourns the loss of a parent for 11 months, which is just the time it took me to write I Wish My Father, coincidentallyor perhaps not coincidentallythe same amount of time it took me to write I Carry My Mother after my mother died in 2012. Sharing my parents with the world through poetry is the best way I know to assuage my grief.
Bio: Lesléa Newman is the author of 75 books for readers of all ages including the children's classic, Heather Has Two Mommies; the novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard; and the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk. Nine of her books have been Lambda Literary Award finalists. She lives in Massachusetts. https://lesleanewman.com/books-for-adults/poetry/i-wish-my-father/