The grief, when I finally contacted it decades later, was black, tarry, hot, like the yarrow-edged side roads we walked barefoot in the summer. Sometimes we’d come upon a toad flattened by a car tire, pressed into the softened pitch, its arms spread out a little like Jesus, and it was now part of the surface of the road, part of the road’s story. Then there was the live toad I discovered under the poison leaves of the rhubarb, hiding there among the ruby stems, and if you ate those stems raw, enough of them, you’d shit yourself for days. It isn’t easy to catch a living thing and hold it until it pees on you in fear. Its skin was the dull brown of my father’s clothes, my grandfather’s clothes as he stood behind the barber’s chair, clipping sideburns, laying a warm heap of shaving cream over a bristly chin, sharpening his straight razor and swiping it over the foam-covered cheek of my father, who often shaved twice a day, his beard was so obstinate, even in the hospital bed. When I laid a last kiss on his young cheek, the scraping hurt my lips. Do you ever wonder, in your heart of hearts, if God loves you, if the angels love you, scowling, holding their fiery swords, radiating green light? If your father loved you, if he had room to love you, given his poverty and suffering, or if a coldness had set in, a cold-bloodedness, like Keats at the end, wanting a transfusion of the reader’s life blood so he could live again. Either way, they’re all safely underground, their gentleness or ferocity, their numb love, and my father’s tar-colored hair, and the fibers of his good suit softened by wood tannins, and grandfather’s glass eye with its painted-on mud-colored iris, maybe all that’s left of him in that walnut box, and Keats and his soft brown clothes, and the poets before and after him. But their four-toed emissary sits in my hand. I feel the quickening pulse through its underbelly. Hooded eyes, molasses-tinged, unexpressive, the seam of its mouth glued shut.
Jesus, with his cup
The barber, with his mug of warm foam, his badger-hair brush.
My mother and sister and me and the dog, leashed with a measure
of anchor rope, in the hospital parking lot, waving good-bye
to my father from his window on the 7th floor.
Just him and his tumor, rare as the Hope Diamond,
and his flimsy paper cup half-filled with infirmary water.
The lump in my throat, a tea party cup left in the garage all winter,
holding the silver body and wing dust of a dead moth.
The barber, sweeping the day’s worth of hair into the basement,
remembering how he’d traveled to Memorial
to lather the face of the dying man and shave him smooth
in his raised hospital bed and sometimes he shaved the faces
of the dead as a favor to the mortician.
Wondering how this particular life was the life that had been chosen for him.
The barber, walking home in the dark
to a late supper of torn bread in a cup of heavy cream.
Even the mayor’s wife sipping from a teacup
wreathed in Banded Peacock butterflies wonders, in her loneliness,
why me? Why this cup?