Yeah, I’m well aware that it’s been a while, but so what. I owe you nothing.
My dad’s been sick for a while. Years, really. He’s suffering from an affliction called Frontotemporal Dementia, which is pretty much what it sounds like. His short-term memory is pretty much shot, and his ability to speak is challenged, at best. The disease manifests itself in vocal tics — loud screams that sound somewhere between a shout and a laugh. His ability to walk is hindered, and he sleeps all the time. The bright side, I suppose, is that he doesn’t realize the condition he’s in. He’s my dad, but he’s a stranger all the same. Worse, still, is my resistance to spending time with him. I don’t know how to interact with this person who raised me, who I’ve known for 39 years. I see him, only I don’t see him. He is someone else entirely, and to pretend that everything is okay seems beyond me. I don’t know how to be with him. I ask him questions that go unanswered. I speak and hear my words drowned out by his screaming. He is declining rapidly, and because of that I know I should be present. Selfishly, I’m not. I rationalize my absence by telling myself he doesn’t know the difference, which he most likely does not. Still, I know my rationalization is just that, and it’s my own shortcomings that need addressed.
I began this poem roughly nine months ago, and still I don’t think I’ve gotten it right. Not yet. All the same, I guess I thought by sharing it was to acknowledge my dad, still here, now.
According to the rules of the world
I must love you. And I do love you.
I love you as any son loves his father —
not because you made me
into what I am today,
but because you made me at all.
I owe you for that. A phone call,
at least. Or maybe I stop by the house
for a bite or whatever beer you’ve got
tucked away into the corner of the fridge.
Some sort of thank you for the middle school
drop-offs and afternoon pick-ups
on those rare nights I didn’t sleep at mother’s.
A card, even, for all the times
you unleashed my brother and me
upon the pristine shopping mall, armed
with enough singles for an afternoon’s
worth of pizza and the flash-bulb bleeps
of the arcade, where we washed ourselves
in the static hum buzzing from every screen,
bathed in the glow of Galaga, Tempest and Joust.
We elbowed our way through the tiny riots
thick with the sinewy bodies of boys
too eager to hiss Fuck! at the cartoon villains
who bombarded them with bricks and hammers,
who stole away with their women, who teased
their dumb, young brains into believing
any of it mattered. We pushed forward,
my brother and me, because we wanted it, too,
and wouldn’t give in until we fed every last
quarter into the games’ slim, black mouths.
Our bellies sick with pizza grease and loss,
we’d head for the mall’s exit, waiting for you
in the cold while trading stupid jokes and punches.
And then, at last, you’d arrive, your red Dodge
grey as the Pennsylvania sky, windows
steeped in bird shit, the back
passenger door that wouldn’t lock, not once.
I sparred with my brother. I gave up after-
noons with you for the din of the arcade,
or was it you who gave them up
so that you might live some other life,
away from us, where there was no such thing
as children, and there was no such thing as loss?
Whatever. It happened one way
or the other. Who can remember?
I grew old and watched your brain go black.
I look at you and wonder if you wonder,
if you recall one iota of this life we shared
or if you’d even want to. I traded away
my memories for whiskey and beer.
You traded yours away for nothing.