My dad died thirty years ago today …
“Grandad looks like John Wayne,”
my daughter said, pirouetting away.
In the westerns I wrote he filled in corners –
the stage coach driver, the friendly sheriff
with spreading paunch and bowed back,
his holstered gun never drawn in anger,
yet stubborn as a mule when the chips were down.
In photographs he holds me high above
his head like a talisman: pride bright
in his blue eyes I could never fulfil.
Writing, he stands between my sentences:
bits of a life that catch like grit in the mouth.
Once I ran, sobbing, after him until, reaching
down, he swung me, safe, in his arms.
He stands in all the doorways of my childhood.
Stands for my meanness, my grudging thanks,
those shifts of direction which push him
further and further behind.
Driving home to visit I’d passed him
on the road before I realised, stooped
and suddenly slow, one leg turned sideways,
an old man I’d failed to recognise.
Laughter and meaning clogged thick in his lungs:
they moved him to a private room and fitted
a green mask fast over his face; each breath
rattled dry stones along the bed of his throat,
his mouth peeled back and back
until it disappeared.
Yet a week or so before he died,
the old smile alive for a moment in his eyes,
he beckoned the prettiest nurse and as
she bent to catch his words,
nuzzled the hard plastic of his mask
against her face to steal a kiss:
an act of imagination great
as any John Wayne ever made.
My father is dying.
Scent of apples from the night stand.
I reach out my hand and rest one
hard against my face; he taught me
to tell the real thing from the fake:
hold it close beside the ear and shake.
A genuine Cox, the seeds will rattle
loose inside their case.
You see. He told me
and I swallowed every word by rote.
Five cotton towns of Lancashire,
five woollen towns, four rivers
that flow into the Wash – Witham,
Welland, Nen and Great Ouse.
Once learned, never forgotten.
My father is dying.
He died nine years ago this June.
They phoned from the hospital with the news.
His face a cask once used
for storing living things.
A cup of tea, grown cold and orange,
on the stand beside the bed.
Fingernails like horn, unclipped.
Though dead, my father is still dying.
Oh, slowly, sure and slow as the long fall of rain.
I reach out again for the apple
bright and sharp,
safe inside the hollow of my mouth.