THIS SMALL THING
for my father (1942-2007)
I. This Small Thing
It was strange to me that the nurses
could shave him but weren’t allowed to
trim his nails. He was so thin by this time
he resembled his always thinner twin brother,
who, fighting the future, never visited.
Everything about him was now small,
save for his nails. His face free of
its hieroglyphics and ruddiness, all
stories and sadness bleached, smooth
as watered stone. I sat there for four hours
holding his hand, his fingernails digging
into my palm, hurting me. But he didn’t
know, and hadn’t known anything for days.
He squeezed my hand, maybe thinking
of his mother and when her hand meant
warmth and unnamable things. I couldn’t
know. But I remember fearing then that
the sum of us is mechanistic. That dust
makes eyes water as easily as death. I was
so eager to inhabit his hand grasping
mine with meaning, to anthropomorphize
my own father, which sounds ridiculous,
but might be what we must do. When
morphine finally loosened his grip,
I clipped his fingernails. His toenails next.
One thought only as I worked: God
damn it. And God damn it. You will not
claw your way out of this world.
There will be a life
you did not choose;
it will include
There will be a room
you will not leave;
it will be a room
you did not choose.
Don’t regret what you did
not find, say, a secret
diary where he
unpacked his thoughts
in the private, melodic
voice you always wanted,
something that might
resolve his silences,
pathologize his sighs.
By now I’ve searched
the whole house
and found only lint.
But I can tell you this:
when you’re later given
one of his jackets,
check the pockets first
thing. You might find
a match or a Jolly Rancher.
You might find more lint.
It doesn’t matter
what you find, only
that you found it
and know it isn’t
a gift or a clue.
—from Rattle #32, Winter 2009
Erik Campbell: “I read and write poetry to remind myself that I have a soul that needs a periodic tuneup.” (website)