The Poet Spiel: “On Swallowing”

As Father’s Day is this weekend, here’s a poignant poem by longtime reader and contributor The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom Taylor, about role reversal and a kind of closure for a difficult father-son relationship. Spiel’s recent books include the illustrated retrospective Revealing Self in Pictures and Words.

On Swallowing

To think on such a day that I might make a joke about the Jello,
about it being what I liked about my stays in such sterile facilities.
How they bring you Jello on a tray.
But my father’s mind was traveling elsewhere;
was wondering if I’d walk him down a hall that was not there
to someone only he could see—
he was leaving us but barely knew which place he was,
nor did I.

So, I tempted him with milk, I said:
You remember how we’ve always loved our milk, you and I,
here, take this straw, can you hold this in your mouth
between your lips. I know you’ve always loved your milk, Amos.
Try a sip of milk, I’ll help you with it.
Try it from this straw.

But he had no suck and it dribbled down his chin;
his throat forgot to swallow and his eyes wandered down a hall
that only he could see, wishing that I’d walk with him
to where he thought that it was time to go.
Let’s go, he’d said:
this man who’d told me just the day before
he’d had enough of life
and now it was his time to go.
Let’s go, he said,
but I was baffled by the plural of let us.

I simply did not know to whom he spoke nor whom
it was that he might see to walk with down that hall
that only he could see,
and yet he’d earlier called me by my name,
just as the day before when much to my surprise
he had given me the gift that surely every son must wish:
he had told me that he’d come to see me as a man,
that he honored me—
this man who could no longer swallow,

whose trembling disease would also rob his heart of the impulse
of when to beat,
and it would happen in this place
and on this day with milk upon his gown and green jello on his tray,
while I stepped outside his room to breathe
and consider what I’d seen
in a decade where his body lost its tune and he could not hold it still.
His mind on track but could not send its signals
from a soup spoon to his mouth;
humiliation at the spills upon his lap,
coordination lacking at his knees.

Can I help you, I would ask.
Then anger in his eyes that he might need,
that he would need at all.
This determined man who taught me as a child
how to swallow milk shakes from a straw.

No, I can do it, he would say, I can make my knees go,
as I stood aside and suffered with him as he fell off of his bike.
As he taped his bleeding wounds,
as he lamented he’d no longer have the pleasure of a spin
down to the Platte River to watch the waters that he loved,
where he loved to rest in peace
off on his own away from Fern and her restlessness of mind.
That he no longer drove a nail without a finger getting smashed,
his hands so out of sorts that he could not turn a screw.
That he would never ride another horse, nor tend the birthing of a calf.
That in a restaurant, the children stared because he shook so bad.
That even though he wished that he could live to care for Fern,
he’d reached the point where he was through;
he’d had enough of what he could no longer swallow,
and I understood,
I truly understood
as I wandered round those halls.

So much of life I had complained of all the horrors of life
I could not swallow.
He’d insisted that I look upon the brighter side.
But now, he said he too had had enough of what he could not swallow.

Then, I heard the code blue call.

I knew it was for him
but by the time I got back to his room,
his doctor had blocked the door; the door was shut.
His doctor’s face was telling me
my father’s life had ceased.
I pressed my head against the door
as his doctor spoke, He’s gone.

I banged my head against the door
and loudly uttered fuck,
the word my father most despised
but might expect me to have said;
I shouted FUCK
but never doubted that he walked on down that hall I could not see
with a companion at his side;
and of my shout, he’d found a way to swallow it.

And on the day before this day,
he’d honored me as man.

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