On Finding My Father’s First Essay

It must have been hard for him on days 
when the sun hit the muddy delta, 
sending up what smelled like failure, 
rotten and man-made. Still, he drove 
his old, rusty car down Pacific to 
the college, where he sat by those 
half his age who knew little of how 
they would begin, how easily beginnings 
turn into a thousand dark miles of water.
But they knew school, much more about it
than he did-which words to use when, 
how to give nothing but the requirement, 
to hide between clauses and commas.
This was his mistake of the essay 
called “What Life Means to Me”:

         My shadow on the ocean’s face, the frayed 
         water behind a boat. Rainbows and valleys 
         and leis for my daughters, that they forgive 
         me for leaving and all that I couldn’t give.

Some nameless face read through it, asking 
for predicates, circling fragments, then went on, 
knowing our father’s tears, yet deeming them
unremarkable. I can see his hands thumbing 
the red-marked page, searching for a glimpse 
of understanding and finding none, his face 
burning with shame for not knowing how much 
it would take to begin again, to go back across 
the water. He must have left that day thinking 
he had to work even harder for our love, to be 
a real father, responsible and clean as grammar.

Copyright © 2008 by Brandy Nālani McDougall. This poem appeared in The Salt-Wind: Ka Makani Pa'Akai (Kuleana Oiwi Press, 2008)Used with permission of the author.