For William Todd

Not Waving But Drowning

picture of English poet, Stevie Smith

by Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
 And not waving but drowning.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
*

William Todd, partner to my dear friend Diane died, five years ago today.  When Diane phoned to say William, for whom she administrated end-of-life care for months in their tiny apartment, had died in the night, Manny and I weren’t surprised. We had visited the night before. The end hovered in the room.

I had always been very fond of William, who was among the most knowledgeable, literate, artistic men I have ever known, as eager to learn as to teach.

I remember Diane, who had been heroically devoted and conscientious for months, telling us, after we had been away, that William had lost most of his body weight. I wasn’t afraid of that. What I feared more was that I would annoy him. Inadvertently, I would add to his discomfort when he had been suffering so awfully for so long. For instance: after saying hello, I asked, “Are you scared?”

His face lit up. For once, my inappropriate curiosity was appropriate! Too weak to talk much, he said, “I’m petrified.”

Diane had set up a table near the hospital bed brought in by Visiting Nurse Service of New York. On the table was a photograph of William and his sister in Liverpool, ages perhaps seven to ten. I saw that same handsome, nonchalant little boy in the photograph lying in the hospital bed. He shook his head.

I said, no, you’re the same.

Another photograph was of a man in flight gear. Unlike me, William rarely talked about himself. And at the end, talking was difficult for him. Manny asked if the photograph was his father. He indicated yes. His father had fought in WWII as a bombardier. The last word I heard William Todd say was, “bombardier.”

Sitting with William as he died, I witnessed moments when he broke through the terrible pain and became more than lucid–pure. His death convinced me that a person’s death involves triumph, not an earthly triumph, but something larger than sorrow, and everlasting.

The poem above by Stevie Smith was familiar to me but when I spotted it on a blog William was designing years ago, it suddenly became ingrained in my memory.

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Villanelle for My Mother

me-and-cameron-sf

My daughter and I at the SF museum after she received a Masters in Statistics.

After writing a sonnet for my father’s 85th birthday, I attempted a villanelle for my mother’s birthday. She married my father two days before her 18th birthday. On their honeymoon, she expected a birthday party, cake, candles–the works. My father hadn’t expected this, thinking getting married was enough for that long ago week. But he never forgot my mother’s birthday again.

I’ve read that villanelles often serve as eulogies. Like sonnets, they use iambic pentameter. But what really emboldened me was that the first two lines were ones my daughter and I really exchanged. She remembers us saying the exact words. It’s not just me.

The poem glances upon the difference between a long life and a very short one. Decades ago, my youngest sister was killed by a drunk driver. She was eight and holding her best friend’s hand in front of our house. They stepped off the curb and my sister disappeared. Her friend looked around in disbelief. My sister had landed 80 feet from the spot where she’d just been alive and happy. No one in my family is or was the same after this. As a fiction writer, I wonder about the widely praised and much loved stories in which a dead sister intervenes from heaven. Or the famous short story by a writer bedeviled by his editors in which a child’s death feels less crushing after the baker serves the parents fresh baked, whole wheat muffins.

Too many people refuse to acknowledge their own tragedies, let alone embrace another’s.We all have limits and short comings. But society should champion those brave and sensitive enough to acknowledge another’s pain. You’ve no idea what a difference it can make–when someone’s hurt, instead of telling her to cheer up, tell her you recognize what she’s going through. She’s not alone.

When I said life if long, my daughter said
That she had heard it's short, so which is it? 
In truth,I said, our Life has hard, fast limits.

The puzzle will prevail in heads 
And hearts until our world is finished. 
When I said Life is long, my daughter said,

Perhaps lifespan relieves annoying dread,
Unlike the instant end--torture isn't it? 
In truth, I said, our Life has hard, fast limits.

But if you suffer shocking loss within it, 
Oh yes, it tears, it rips, and never quits.
When I said Life is Long, my daughter said,

Who measure Life in any given minute?
No one. For time enforces awful exits.
In truth, I said, our Life has hard, fast limits.

Enjoy the moment! Love exists ahead: 
Surprise! A birthday party, candles lit! 
Hurray for you--and Dad--beyond all limit.


June 22, 2016 by Kathleen Maher

Sonnet for My Father

 

green pond, dappled light

I’m not a poet, but a fiction writer. I like sonnets and often wrote poems for my father’s birthday. This year he turned 85 on March 29. I sent the sonnet, which was inspired by my earliest memory. My father read poetry from his Notre Dame text books to me and my sister when I was two and a half and she was one and a half.

He didn’t remember reading Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “Pied Beauty” to his baby daughters us in our matching cribs. But the words “dappled things” have always floated through my life. When I rode my bicycle down leafy streets or played in shallow water. Fixing my hair, squinting at the sunlight.

While writing it, I realized my father and I shared an especially dappled relationship: sometimes very bright, other times quite dark. We loved each other beyond all doubt but rarely agreed. I always admired him, even when I couldn’t go along with him. I admired his faith, which I’ve lost for many years, but once felt strongly. My father went to Mass every day since he was six. As long as I lived in his house, I, too, went to Mass every day. His idea was that sinners especially needed to participated in the sacrament. Of his five children, I often looked like the most trouble, or  perhaps merely troubled.

Two weeks weeks before his birthday, before I sent the sonnet, he fell and suffered a concussion. Complicating this was the titanium cage supporting his neck for fifteen years. He was having trouble with his arm, but still working, still shoveling snow and hiking. When the titanium cage was in place, the doctors discovered he had no discs between his vertebrae. He was a champion at overcoming pain. Nevertheless, over the years, he had his hips replaced and his knees. Many years earlier, he had a heart valve operation.

The concussion left him unable to swallow. His medical directive stated no IVs, fluids, or nutrients unless recovery was likely. By his birthday, it wasn’t. We had the chance to say good-bye. A dying person often has intermittent moments when of returning to oneself. Still, I doubt he followed my sonnet. As an especially rough years draws to end, with even further debasement of democracy in the offing, I take some solace in those bright moments past.

Before The Little Match Girl dies,
Before The Brothers Grimm, bed time meant poems: 
Notre Dame inspired quatrains and sighs,
Divine as prayers received at heaven's throne.

And still I hear your voice, buoyant and clear,
In "Pied Beauty," Glory Be, Dappled Things.
Imagine, father, all we must revere, 
Possessing blessings true Faith brings.

If infants could embrace the Holy Word, 
Too young to know what they can never know,
How seldom then would life appear absurd.

Instead, each tale untold I can't resist.
Against all odds, I strive and never win. 
Forlorn, estranged, in truth, I will persist.
If you rewind, you'll see my joy begin.

Recall how often against the wind we'd run
Becoming, you and I, wild boundless fun.
___________________________________                     
Kathleen Maher, March 29, 2016