(Poem by Heid Erdrich and photograph by Tasha Lutek originally published in The Good Men Project, Oct 19, 2015 and posted the same day by Heid Erdrich on her Facebook Page where she encouraged sharing, so I did, and I am.)
Refused the sugar soaked sponge,
the offer to read aloud a childhood book,
the trembling water glass catching the light.
Refused with a stutter of expression
the hesitant knock at the door
the one more goodbye.
Waved away embrace
and tender whispers days before,
the day the black-vested Holy Man
touched a last fragrant offering
of cedar to his brow. He asked for nothing.
All comforts he gave back.
He smiled to listen to them laugh.
He let the loved ones know, at last,
With one word: No.
He would not distract his dying, fill his time.
Already the fullness of life squeezed
into his room–he’d sent it ahead place by place,
notion by notion and face by face.
He said no. He had work to do.
His son understood, cleared the room. He withdrew.
My father died 2-1/2 years ago, in Spring of 2013. I’ve been thinking of him a lot lately, partly because I just wrote a magazine story on a child who died at around the same time. I thought about how close and far away both deaths seemed. I thought about losing a father, and imagined, however horrible, losing a child.
I think a person you loved very much can be on your mind kind of peripherally but then along comes a poem like this one by Heid and suddenly you’re right back there, right back in that room where your father died. The room wasn’t nearly as stark as the one photographed but I see it like that. Plus as I recall my Dad used to do a number on sheets and pillows as he slept (I do, too)–although not, I suppose, to the degree of removing the sheet all together.
But one thing that is the same is that my dad died well, like this man in Heid’s poem: kind of in a no-nonsense, blue collar way. Enough with the guests, already, although that last afternoon my sisters and my mother and he spoke about all of our kids and I like to think he smiled to listen to them laugh.
He’d said “No” before I arrived, a few nights before he died. He said no, although the disease he suffered was chronic and insidious, heartbreakingly inefficient. I knew all along he’d have to choose. He chose no, and very shortly thereafter he left us, bereft.
I think in those last days he did just as Heid describes here, did the work of sending the faces and the places and the notions on ahead of him. It looked like work, although I might not have recognized it as such without these beautiful words by Heid. I think, no, I know, he did the real work after he insisted we all go home the night he died. Only my older sister stayed. I think she understood, like the son here. My older sister is a hospice nurse; I think she understood.
I wasn’t there. But in my mind, my sister cleared the room. He withdrew.
Thank you, Heid Erdrich, for this time I’ve spent, again, with my father. And my big sister, whom I love so very much, as well.
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