Laughing Dancer, Glinting Fish

Dedicated to Daniel Eberg “OJ” Petersen, 1941-2010

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I.
I kissed your skull, Dad, hard.
I could feel it there
Just beneath the skin that had
Stretched thin and tight on your head,
Your deathbed Death’s Head,
All that was left to be seen
Of all that you had been to us, to the world.

I kissed your skull-hugging skin
So hard. My lips thought, I think,
They could catch your spirit
One last time, on its way away,
And so they pressed your bony brow
In a sudden passion of son-love.

You’d been gurgle-gravel breathing for hours.
‘You sound like a coffeemaker percolating, Dad!’ I joked
And the room laughed, eased, uncles and aunts
And spouses and friends helping our vigil.

But when the last breath hitched,
Followed by no more, no more,
I just up and kissed your just dead skin,
Just after your last ever breath.

Just after my brother, who beat me to it,
Always quicker on the emotional draw.
He kissed your dead head and said ‘Love you, Dad!’
And ran out into the deep snow weeping.

And then I kissed you too, so hard and long
On the freshly dead skin, still warm,
Mumbled my love too and crept out
After my wailing brother to crumple my own
Face in my own fashion and cry more quietly
In a strange neighbourhood across the busy street,
Wading through the hard-packed impeding drifts.
(What a sight I must have been from inside
Their warm windows and corpse-free rooms!)

Our sister missed your last breath, Dad,
And I’ve always felt bad about that.
She got to the death scene just a little after last call,
A little late, smiled wryly, annoyed at your timing,
Cut a lock of your hair and cleaned up her brothers’ tears,
Saved her own for later, big strong sister.
(She talks to you still, she says, and I would never
Begrudge her that or gainsay the fact.)

Out in the hall our tall towering little brother
Wept and wept like the surprise kid-brother we
Remembered, except that his gangling length took
Now two of us to embrace it on those steps where he wept.
(He writes songs for you that punch us in the guts and sting
Hot tears into our eyes with all their naked love and longing.)

Me, I just read all your old books and pay
Belated attention to which words you underlined,
Wishing. Wishing I had learned
Of your privileging of the heart, this,
Your deep wisdom, while you were still living.

II.
And that was maybe the most numinous,
Haunted, uncanny moment of my life so far.

When you slipped in an instant from view, you,
Leaving only a much-loved body,
It was like you slipped through our fingers,
Dodged us, you, all of a sudden swift
And oddly agile,
Eluding our grasping clutches
Like a devious laughing dancer,
No longer portly of deportment,
A lithe spirit faster than old flesh,
Glimpse of your coming glory
(If we’re to believe that old story.
If we can bare, that is, to sing along
To that old record of you belting out
Your glory-hallelujah song).

And we knew you were gone.
Gone, gone from that shoddy little room
In that shabby little south side apartment.
Nothing left but an empty body on a bed,
Empty because something had deserted it.

That’s when the unexpected hit me.
The sure and solid absence in that room
Was like a tingling touch from another world.
An iron door had slammed irrevocably shut.
We would not be hearing from you again, ever,
Not in any ways we currently know.
And yet that iron-clad closing opened
Something I hadn’t anticipated.

I have some hope and faith, sure.
I grabbed that baton from you, Dad,
For what it’s worth in my sweaty slippy grip,
But I’m still just a frantic bat flapping in the dark,
Chasing echoes with half-broken sonar
And I just did not expect a palpable tap from beyond
In the moment you left, when you were of a sudden gone.
I shuddered with the weirdness of it. Still do.

To watch someone go, really go, jolted me with
The way it made anything – anything – seem possible,
Made existence look more open and permeable and perforated
Than I ever would have dared to guess could be seen or felt.
But there it was – you, you, leapt right out of your own mouth,
Jumped like a glinting fish right up out of life itself,
And all unexpected I felt edens and angels and dark jerusalems
Leap up in that quicksilver disappearance, that iron-barred absence.

So strange.

So strange to find the trash-compactor walls of existence didn’t
Slide a few more feet closed upon my panic and horror –
No, the walls of life trembled and bowed outward a split-second
And I thought I heard, as it were, someone shouting in a tiny tinny
Muffled voice through thick concrete: ‘We’re trying to get you out!’

I hardly dare hope at such a voice, but I can’t deny I heard it.
Or thought I heard it, at least—when I least expected it.

III.
I still remember that warm and cherished last hard kiss
On your tired old skull (not old enough to die – you should’ve
Been around a bit longer – but old enough to be old)
And the ferocious love I felt that seems not a whit diminished,
Like a dread eternal thing that no measly death of a loved one
Could ever alter or soften or erode by a jot or dot.

And I’m still baffled and awed that loss and permanence
Can rub titanic shoulders so chummily
While little mortals wonder and wail away down here between
Skulls and kisses and near misses of transcendence.

Why do these words for you ember up and keep returning?
I love you, Dad, and I still feel your glory burning.

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