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.