January 7, 2021

Robert S. Carroll, M.D.

THIS MUCH

When the boy asked the man,
“How much do you love me?”
the man went down on one knee,
then he leaned toward the child,
and opened his thick arms
as wide as the earth
until his hands were behind him,
and, like Atlas, the world rested
on his shoulders and back.

At the funeral home before the burial,
I asked to see my father’s body,
even though the Rabbi said,
“I would not recommend it.”
It laid in a black walnut casket
in a room behind drapes.
When they opened the casket,
I saw it dressed in a shroud.
A hood covered the head.
I wanted to see it.
The director said,
“It is not recommended,”
but Susan and I insisted,
so they undid the tie.
His skin was pale white.
The Rabbi said, “Jewish bodies
are not prepared for viewing.”
His face felt cool.
I ran my finger down his cheek.

When the ceremony began,
the Rabbi asked me to speak.
The measure of a father
is not only how much he loves children,
but also how much children love him.

I have a picture of him on my refrigerator
holding his grandson, Daniel, in his arms.
I can see my father beaming as Daniel sleeps.
Twenty-five years ago that baby was my son, Joshua.
Twenty-five years before that, he was me.

As I left his hospital room that last Sunday night,
I kissed him on the cheek and turned to go,
but then I turned back and kissed him again.
Then we flew home, and then he died,
so we all turned around again
and in the night between coming and going,
I stood at the side of my bed
with my suitcase laid open.
I saw the shirts, underwear, pants,
socks, belts, and ties, and I couldn’t remember,
was I packing or unpacking,
or for where or why?

Then, back in Tennessee,
the other pallbearers and I carried the casket
to the grave and lowered it into the ground,
and each family member in turn—
I was first, then Susan, Josh, Bonnie, Nancy,
and the rest, except for my mother—she couldn’t—
each threw a shovel-full of dirt.
The earth went thud as it hit the black walnut.

Later, Daniel asked his mother
why we throw dirt on Papa Joe?
Then he asked his father why are we sad?
Then he asked Joshua why we laugh when we’re sad?
So we told him, “When we love, we feel it all,”
and we showed him the world on our backs.

from Rattle #8, Winter 1997
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