On the same day my father was in a car accident that eventually led to his death, my sister, Tricia, had a grand mal seizure. Family members were in the hospital supporting her when my father was wheeled in on a stretcher. His vital signs were fine. He was talking and joking, coherent enough to tell the nurses that his daughter had just been admitted that morning. Although we were shocked by the turn of events and amazed by the synchronistic line-up, the phone calls and emails spanning the seven-hundred miles between my family in Massachusetts and my home in Virginia were encouraging. We thought my father was being kept overnight for routine observation.
When I called Tricia’s house the day after her seizure, I choked up when I asked her husband how she was. I was stunned when he said, “I’m more concerned about your father.” My eighty-one year old father had a broken vertebrae in his neck. He would have to be put in a brace and would likely be bed-ridden for some time.
The screen door slammed behind me as I headed out to the mailbox. Walking our long gravel driveway with woods on either side, I was absorbed in thinking about my father when I was startled by a SWOOSH, and then the loud flapping of wings. A brazen vulture had swooped down close to my head, and then, as quickly as it had appeared, disappeared into the woods.
I don’t remember what mail came that day, but I was midway in my walk back to the house with a stack of it in my hand when I looked down and noticed a large black feather in my path. A white feather had appeared in a similar manner just after my brother Jim died, four years before. Another white feather turned up a month later, before the death of a second brother. A part of me knew the instant I picked up the black feather that my father’s journey out of this world had begun.
He endured six weeks of hospital interventions and complications before he passed away. It was a heavy loss with layers of grief that took time for me to process. Six months after he died, I wrote a poem after waking up in the morning with a sense that he had kissed me on the cheek. I called the poem “My Father’s Kisses.”
From the creased and fading underlining
of the mind’s lived-out stories
I summon them up
to soothe a new hurt
Although my father was sober in the last two decades of his life (except for an outbreak following the deaths of his sons), he struggled with alcoholism all his adult life. He was nineteen when he joined the army as an artillery soldier in WWII. Combat was almost more than he could bear, but it was witnessing first-hand the inhumanity at Buchenwald Concentration Camp that he always claimed broke him. Later, as a father of nine children, providing for a family of eleven took a further toll.
After the last kiss goodbye I mourned
the part of him that was always absent
compelled to purse his lips for a kiss of death
against the slippery edge of a glass or bottle
My father was a playful, loving man who expressed his affection as easily as he did his anger. I both loved and feared him when I was a child. I struggled writing the poem. It was like a lid on a Pandora’s Box of emotion that needed to be lifted slowly.
If actions speak louder than words
then his kisses should drown out my hurts
the sting of his words harshly spoken
under the influence of post traumatic stress
Stupid little shit
and other figures of speech
that leave indelible marks on young children
Can you make it all better, daddy?
I’m afraid when you yell like that
I don’t normally post long personal poems on the online journal that I keep, but I impulsively posted “My Father’s Kisses” on Father’s Day, the first since my father’s death. The discomfort that followed was unexpected and dramatic. I felt as if I was “in trouble” for sharing such a personal poem. I worried that my words would disturb others and wondered how my family would receive it. As my distress intensified, I couldn’t sort out what was rational or irrational about my fear. I not only thought about deleting the poem, but I worked myself up to the point where I considered not writing on my weblog anymore.
In response to my anxiety, my husband, Joe, suggested we go for a walk. By this time I was aware that the poem had unearthed a dark childhood fear. I knew I had done nothing wrong; but I still felt threatened. Walking on the dirt road paralleling the Blue Ridge Parkway, we were immersed in conversation, reviewing the roots of my feelings, when Joe stopped abruptly in the middle of the road.
“Why are you making us stop?” I demanded. “I need to either keep moving or go curl up in the fetal position somewhere.”
He just stood looking at me until I gave in and let out a big sigh.
“That’s why,” he said.
I took his hand and we began walking again until something in the periphery of my vision caught my attention. It was another black feather, about eighteen inches long. I wanted to believe it meant nothing, but I knew it was mine to pick up.
Turning it over in my hand, I reminded Joe about the first black feather that appeared the day after my father’s car accident. “Did you know he was the only one who knew I put a white feather in Jim’s coffin? He was nearby and saw me do it,” I explained. “He asked like a curious little kid what it was for. I told him – purity, journey, freedom – and he smiled like he was learning something new.”
Joe and I walked in silence after that. With my hands clasped together behind my back, holding the feather in one of them, I shifted into a timeless place. With my head down, I watched my feet move, feeling the reverberating cadence of each step. The dirt road became the sandy shoreline of my childhood home; the dusty gray gravel was beach pebbles. I felt small like a little girl again, and the feather quill I was holding onto was like holding my father’s hand.
With that realization, a feeling of peace floated over me. I knew my father was pleased that my poem told the truth of his story. I felt his presence bearing a message: Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to use your voice.
~ Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on June 30, 2006.