Remembering Dad At The Lawyer's Poem by Max Reif

Remembering Dad At The Lawyer's

Rating: 3.2

1. The Wrongful Death

I'm at the Hobart Law Firm
In downtown St. Louis.
Mom's in the room
With the closed door,
Giving a deposition
In her lawsuit
On dad's 'wrongful death'.

Dad's death
Was slightly ironic.
Grossly overweight,
He loved to eat
And hated exercise.
Mom insisted that he go
To the Rehab Exercise Center —
She was the kind of person
Who wouldn't accept a no.

One afternoon, walking his laps,
He tripped over one of those
Portable electrical outlets,
That they'd left unmarked
In the middle of the floor.

His fall left his whole body
Black and blue. A day later at home,
He suffered a heart attack.
In the hospital, his doctors
Did an angioplasty,
From which he never recovered.

2. At the Hospital

The night I arrived
At the hospital, he seemed ok
Except that he talked too fast,
Believed my wife had moved to Seattle,
And tried to get dressed to go to work
Every twenty minutes or so.

Next morning, though,
His doctor told us
He'd need a respirator to survive,
And even that wouldn't guarantee anything.

My brother burst into tears.
Three months before,
He'd lost his youngest daughter.
He'd let them place her
On a respirator, just before the end.
Now he felt he'd subjected her
To unnecessary indignities,
And refused to see it happen again.
Mom and I immediately concurred.

The hospital withdrew
From dad's feeding tubes
Certain antibiotics
That were keeping him alive.
A couple hours later
He began to fade.

We sang together
As I stroked
His bald head and forehead
With a wet washcloth.

The cantor from Temple
Came in and joined us.
The three of us sang Louis Armstrong's
'What a Wonderful World'.
Soon after, dad sank into sleep.
The cantor's solemn bass began
Some Hebrew hymn
Whose meaning I quickly divined as
'Welcome to Heaven'.

A few hours after that,
The line on the monitor went flat
While 'Gone With The Wind'
Played on the radio in the room —
Fitting for a man who'd gone to Hollywood
To be an actor in the '30s and still loved movies.

Mom threw her arms around Dad,
The first time I ever remember
Seeing her embrace him.

He didn’t look any different, but his spirit
Had slipped away like a thief.

3. Our Relationship

In truth, his spirit
Had slipped away from me
When I was 8 or 9.
That was when 'Daddy' became 'Father'.
That was when he'd greeted my kiss one day
With 'Men don't kiss, men shake hands.'

Till that day,
His arms had always been
Safe harbor of my life,
Always open for my little boat
To return there, happy.

I write this at 57.
I never really got him back.
The eternal drama of father and son,
Tension of the messy truth
Of two separate individualities
Who are more than a mold and its copy,
Slowly began to unfold after that early
Withdrawal of his affections,
And a truce, anxious or friendly by turns,
Was the best we were
Able to do after that.

4. Making Peace

And so on that night
Walking into his room,
I felt a burden.
Packing my bags
Back home in California,
I'd felt the concern of every son:
'Do we have unfinished business?
What if this is it? '

He'd long been a kite
All but out of sight
In the skies of my world,
Though my finger
Still held onto a string.

Tiptoeing into the room,
I saw him in the bed, eyes closed.
As careful as I was, he heard my feet.
Opening his eyes, he shouted with an almost
Absurd glee, 'Maxie's here! Now I can die! '

Mother and Fred and Ann came in
A little later, and then they left again.
Alone with him, I brought the question:
“Anything you want to say to me, dad? '
And prepared for whatever he might reply.

'I'm very proud of you! ' said the benign
Voice of this man who'd long berated
What he’d called my hippie philosophy,
Quoting for decades after
An offhand remark I’d made back in '68
About not 'believing in work”.

'I'm glad you're working at the school, '
Dad continued. 'Education's a wonderful field.
Now if you can just
Do something with your writing,
You’ll have everything you want.'

I listened, stunned
At his oracular words,
My burden dissolving as he spoke.
Next day he died.

4. A Hymn and Meditation on His Demise

We let him go,
We let him float away,
the kite of his spirit
Left the moorings of his body,
Let go of the string from the other end.
Gathered by his bed,
We saw a little later he was gone.

Of course, we never told him,
'We're taking you off
Your antibiotics now,
You'll go to sleep
And wake up in another world.'

His death was so peaceful —
Was it fair to him?
Rilke wrote of a baron
Who died on his estate.
Every night for weeks before,
He wailed and screamed all night
Doing fierce battle with Death
As his servants quaked downstairs.
Since he was lord of his estate,
He did just as he pleased.
A powerful death, un-anesthetized,
As it should be, the poet wrote.

Sometimes I wonder, Dad,
Whether you even
Know you're dead today,
Or if your kite's
Still hovering somewhere
Just beyond our atmosphere?

5. His Pain

The pain of my father's life
Is more than I will tell you,
At least while Mother is alive.

I wonder about writers
Who leave trauma
In the wake of their words.
Society looks on Steinbeck
As a hero, while I'm not sure
He had a friend
Left in Salinas.

'Truth is not truth
If it hurts another's heart, '
A great man has said.

Yet sometimes
One must speak out,
Or India would still be British,
We'd still have WHITE and COLORED
Drinking fountains.

I'm glad that Gandhi
Spoke his truth,
But I'm not ready
To tell you certain things
I've realized
About my dad.

And will I ever
Really know that truth?
Some things seem true
From my perspective.
But can I really wrap my hands
All the way around the truth?

Perhaps blunt truth is the only club
Strong enough to trample
Some falsehoods In its wake

Dad seemed a sad man,
So I thought.
He tried to make
The best of disappointments.

But there was more
To him than I can know.
I’ve met young men he knew from work
To whom he was a mentor, a father figure.
I saw the respect for him
That showed upon their faces.

5. Coda:

Now Mother's coming out.
The opposition lawyers
Have all left. The
Deposition's done.

I found a nice place
We can go for lunch.
It won't bring Dad back here,
Or make their marriage
Perfect, retroactively,
And I don't know
If in God's Book
There's such a thing
As 'wrongful death'.

But though the family didn't
Even cremate him
The way he wished
(he just said to do that
'cause he's cheap,
My mother said) ,

He told her
'Sue the sons of bitches'
As he lay there on the floor.

And in this,
She's being true.

Michael Gessner 19 June 2005

The tone is rich & varied as orginal idiom.

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Michael Shepherd 20 June 2005

A small novel, or biography, or poem - whatever, a wonderful read, honest and touching.

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Herbert Nehrlich1 20 June 2005

I cannot remember reading such a real-life story, so very well put together although it doesn't seem to have been put together at all, it just is and someone put it on paper. Because it needed to be told. Superb writing in anyone's book. And the nitpicker who picked at it it just filled with envy. (Not I but I am) Thanks, H

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Poetry Hound 21 June 2005

A terrific essay. Very poignant and honest.

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Jerry Hughes 03 October 2005

historically I've shied away from narrative poetry, but this one got me in, Max.

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Max Reif 22 June 2005

Well, Jefferson, I think I can see your point (it's easier to see when it doesn't come as a diatribe: -)) . I often look at a poem a little later, find lines that I feel unsatisfactory, and try to improve them. I agree with you that there should be no 'throwaway lines' in a poem, and I feel my best work is also different than simply 'a short story (or essay) in verse.'

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Max Reif 21 June 2005

Herbert wrote: I think we write poems for ourselves and any appreciation from others is a (welcome) byproduct. I was thinking of how to respond to the 'controversy', and a thought like Herbert's was swirling in my head. I wrote the poem as an exploration. It's true, I'm not a metrical technician. Often, I let the language 'do itself'. (When I'm really 'on', I find alliterations and such often arise naturally) . I know Yeats, to name one poetic craftsman, was well aware how each of his lines scanned. I think if there's one criticism of my poems I'd make, it might be that I can get a little 'prosy' sometimes. But, as Raynette wrote, there ARE also poetic elements. Writing the poem was a most fulfilling experience for me. So far, I don't get quite that fulfillment out of reading it. I'm glad some others do. What are we to make of issues in which some people say 'black' and others 'white'? Perhaps a subject for a poem. Thanks to all who have responded.

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Herbert Nehrlich1 21 June 2005

Further to this, I am trying not to let the sentiments of the poem get in the way of my cool judgement. Somewhere, way back there, perhaps our fathers may be related. However, the poem is very close to perfect, I have read it out loud to the family (most of whom are not exactly poetry lovers) and they were all glued to their seats.As a matter of fact, I will read this at our next (medical) workshop as our current subject matter deals with death anticipation and more. I cannot understand Carter's views on this but it gives me an uplift when I remember that he used the very same words on some of my stuff. No doubt about it, this is a superb poem, just ask those who read it. I think we write poems for ourselves and any appreciation from others is a (welcome) byproduct. H

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Raynette Eitel 21 June 2005

I don't often stay with poems this long, Max, but I read every last word of yours. The metaphor I liked best was your father's spirit being a kite. That took my breath away. I think the part you shared about your father not hugging you after age eight was so telling...of both of you. This is indeed a poem. The stanzas make perfect sense and I think it would read well aloud, if you had the right person. There are parts of the poem that seem a bit prose-like but just when I think I'll tell you to cut that part, you throw in another metaphor to save it. Last word. I love it. Raynette

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Max Reif

Max Reif

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