April 29, 2020

“My Father Sits Through Sorrows of Glory”

A poem by Charles J. Vassallo, MD

I am a neuroradiologist with a Master of Fine Arts in poetry. During the course of this pandemic crisis, I have been "stranded" while on vacation in Hawaii. Of course, I could be in worse places. However, not knowing when I will be able to return to my home in New York to visit my 96-year-old father has caused both a degree of anxiety as well as the inspiration to write this poem.

My Father Sits Through Sorrows of Glory

Affixed to life, Alert necklace drooping
on a sunken white chest,
wisps of hair sprout around small nipples.
His body is skinny and bony now
as if he has developed an exoskeleton
like that of a crustacean.

He sleeps in a bed in a barren cubicle
he does not know.
Sometimes he wakes
to a coterie of blank faces
who stare with mindless energy,
move through his space like misty apparitions,
to fill pill bottles huddled on the dresser.

They sweep the floor, open the shades,
ignore ugly plaster pits where
prior residents had hung paintings.
My father stares back bemused.

A metal walker and others’ arms
guide his rigid shuffle,
weight shifts foot to foot
befuddled as to where to put his hands,
as if his pants pockets had disappeared.

We herd him into a behemoth car,
lift each leg as if it were an appendage
of a rare porcelain doll
to travel to meet kin —
sometimes young ones —
most of whom have never had
even a five- minute chat with him,
at least not any words they would recall.

He sits in the rear, lowers his head
into his collar like a turtle’s.
His eyes betray a bit of fear, some panic.

Later, he will sit alone in his chair
day-dreaming well past dusk,
flickering visions anchor him
to this world.
I once believed he was amiss
in his reflections,
ornery and unyielding,
often making others feel unnerved
as a caterpillar might;
not because it is dangerous but
because it is repellent.

He’s different now . . . better tempered.
His laughs are small,
issue forth like tiny paltry sounds,
minute puffs of wind,
a disembodied voice.

That voice that taught me to care
now hunts for a missing noun, a fugitive verb
as if the world depended on it,
as if all the problems of time
would be remedied if only . . .

I love this old man
who has grown past desire,
beyond danger.
Now he lets little woes pass,
asks only for a little more time,
content to patiently observe
the ancient struggle of breath
against life.