In Longwood, Florida
at the end of a cul-de-sac in our four-roomed house
Greybeard spoke slowly through his false teeth,
like an invalid (not all there),
but he stood in the kitchen with tin cans,
he joked and he cooked in the Crock Pot –
Mom loved him; we laughed,
his Navy words coarse,
not fit for children but told anyway.
Mom looked in the other direction.
Greybeard’s daughter, my step-sister, visited.
She sat on the fat arm of our Rooms-To-Go couch
loud patches of burgundy and jungle green, silvery thread –
we were so proud of that couch.
The lilt of my step-sister’s words was also coarse,
face ruddy, compressed. Not pretty, not then.
She was fighting her body which begged to break down,
but she had a new baby. Diana.
Tiny fingers, mink eyes. I didn’t hold her
but knew she was perfect by the way
we all looked at her.
It was the twenty-sixth of September, me eleven,
four days before my birthday.
I hoped for a Barbie.
It occurred to me I was too old for one, now –
I might be embarrassed to have it, but still I wanted.
I’d never had one before. Why not now?
Why not this birthday?
I made a promise with myself:
If I get one this time I will never ask again.
I knew Barbies were currency and my mother had none.
That day, the day they visited, was Greybeard’s birthday,
four days before mine. That’s why they came –
not because my step-sister was sick.
(We didn’t see her pallid face, we didn’t ask her how she felt,
we didn’t want to know what would happen to Diana
if her mother’s body gave up.)
Greybeard’s face was serious
right up to the punchline
and my step-sister’s cough was dismissed
by our laughter.
I went back to my white-washed room,
messy, like climbing into a toy box,
stacks of pennies, clothes, and miniature clay food.
I pulled a YM magazine, October 1995, from a stack,
pressed flat the slab of clay with my determined palm.
More grapes. More corn on the cob. More hamburgers
for my Barbie to eat.
The baby wailed around the corner.
I peered from the hallway: child over the shoulder.
My step-sister faced out so Diana looked at me
down the tunnel of light as I hid behind the door.
Her face was half-drawn, quiet now.
She seemed to know that she was someone
and I was someone else.
Diana and her mother didn’t stay for dinner –
they kissed Greybeard goodbye.
In fact my step-sister only stayed five years more
and my Barbie was long in the landfill
when she got tired of fighting.
Diana, smaller than I was when I met her,
put her hands against the coffin.
She wailed like she had in the hallway
without embarrassment, or remorse.
She seemed to know, once again,
that she was someone,
Greybeard’s eyes would have watered the ocean. No Navy jokes now.
And like that, his tears were not needed, they weren’t helpful.
He just did what he could to survive
the failure of others’ survivals.
Diana had a brother, four years older,
who passed time with trucks and cartoons.
But he too was sick, like his mother,
and like her succumbed, one year after.
Could we have cared for him more?
Could we have protected him
from the string that his mother left behind
for him to trace with rubber-like fingers
to follow her home down the dark hallway?
Would he have known, if we’d shown it better,
that she was someone and he was someone else?
Diana pressed her hands against the coffin.
The short box and Greybeard’s eyes, like craters,
held no sea.
“Greybeard’s had a stroke,” she said.
“He won’t wake up,” said my mother,
who once held his hand with tenderness,
who once rubbed her own father’s feet when he was dying
never shedding a tear
once she knew what was coming.
It isn’t mine to criticize life
for being unable to cope without death,
or to criticize doctors
for making us die incrementally.
But why the show of it?
Why my surprise, why can’t I look away
like my mother, look down the long hall
and see what’s coming?
Graybeard does wake up.
He slurs his speech, but then he always did,
a little like an invalid. I can’t see him,
not through this geographic distance,
but I imagine the cold blue eyes
filling up with water,
filling up with sea.
I wonder if he knows how close he was,
close enough to touch his daughter
and his daughter’s son.
Diana is eleven, she holds his hands, she says,
Don’t speak. I know your jokes, I’ll tell them,
and he manages to smile.
They said his jokes weren’t fit for children
but this one knows – she seems to know –
that she is someone,
and he is someone else.
She trades her Barbie for something bigger,
something much much bigger.
I send socks in the mail, and a stupid postcard,
one that changes images when you tilt it.
You think you’re seeing something
but it is really something else.
The socks, I hope, will warm the sea,
will keep the fish from turning belly up in the cold
or the water from leaking out and finding somewhere warmer.
I want to see the sea, the raging blue, or even less a blue
any blue. Diana says
and she must know, somewhere in her mink eyes, sees,
the rope that leads to home
In memory of Douglas Irving Richardson
9/26/42 – 3/18/11