Alexandria (RIP Ronald Baggs, 1941-2014)

You never knew what talent you had
Until one year for my birthday
I asked for the greatest gift you could give
The story of your life

I wanted to know who you were
Before I first met you
A grey-bearded wrinkly man
At the age of thirty-nine

I was your last child 
Unplanned but not unwanted:
When the pregnancy was difficult 
And the doctors counseled yit to abort,
You and my mother
Unanimously decided to keep me 
Whatever the risk 
“You were the best mistake I ever made”
You always quipped

And I wanted to know who you were 
I wanted to know who you both were
You were thirty-nine and thirty-four
When I met yit, after all
And I was thrilled beyond imagining
When the chapters started to 
Pour in through the mail

You never knew you could write
But you wrote so well
With clarity, intelligence, humor, and depth
Not a word too much
Not a word too little
Little need for an editor there

You wove your life story seamlessly 
With current events of the day — 
What we now call history
(You were born in 1941 after all)
You included illustrations 
Ranging from silly cartoons
Of childhood mishaps
To aerial views of places you lived 
All tied together 
With the perfect writing style for the job

I loved reading your memoirs 
Alongside my mother’s
Because each made your personalities 
Shine through in your writing style and 
Choice of subject matter 

But you didn’t think you were a writer
Until you sat down and wrote
Mom said you always had it in you
But you were nearly seventy
Before you let it out

(When you were diagnosed with terminal cancer
Metastatized everywhere
No hope of cure
Months if you’re lucky
Days if you’re not
You told my brother 
“If there’s something you want to do
Do it
Don’t wait
None of us knows
How much time we have left.”)

But you were a writer
And you finished your memoirs
And started writing a novel
Based on our family history
During the Okie migration
When you became too weak to type
You dictated to Mom

She told me how thrilled you were 
That I was writing a novel too
I will finish this novel
No matter how long it takes
Because it meant that much to you
Even on your deathbed

You became a writer in your old age 
But you also became a storyteller 
Among the oldest still alive
On your family’s side
To remember
Not just your life
But the lives passed down to you
In stories
From the elders who came before

And now all that is gone
Your only older relative
Your aunt Voicy
Has severe dementia
Everyone else is dead
All that knowledge is lost

I shall seek that knowledge 
The only way left to me
By lowering myself underground 
Where the roots of our family 
Grow deeper and deeper
And the soil is rich with love

I won’t learn any stories 
I haven’t already heard 
Those died with you
Such a wealth of information died with you

I don’t think you fully realized
How much was hidden
In the caverns of your mind
Much like mine
Like dragons we hoarded rich sensory details
In caves hard to get in or out of
But when found
They shone like jewels

But even if I learn no more stories
From our underground root system 
I will be saturated 
In the essence
Of what it is
To be who we are
And the smell of rich soil
Will be its own reward

Understand that to me
Your death was not only
The loss of a loved one
It was also the burning 
Of the library at Alexandria 
And so is the death
Of anyone old
But especially 
An old relative
What is lost can’t be retrieved 

I only wish you were still here
To fill in the blanks
Between the stories
And to share our dragon hoards
And to smell the soil 
On each other’s skin
And know through smell
As through no other sense
That we are a part of each other

Continue reading

Poison Oak Fears

My fears are growing like poison oak
There are phone calls every day
They say “Come Skype with your father,
Though he’s feeling very weak today.”

Video chats with my father
Are the best conversations I’ve had
We don’t talk, we just sit and look at each other
And the love blooms like flowers befween us

My father can no longer hide
How bad he’s feeling
Sometimes parts of his face turn bkue
And as if he has become translucent
The light of eternity shines through him
Sometimes he clearly struggles to breathe
Sometimes the pain jolts through his body
Sometimes he has no energy
To do anything but lie there and look at me
Out of half-closed eyes

We have little need for words now
What can be said has been said
He can read on my face unconditional love
I can read on his body both love and suffering

So we lie in our hospital beds
Thousands of miles away
And we stare at each other and feel the love
As if we were still hiking the ancient forests
He hiked me through as a child

Those forests were filled with love
And so are we as we stare at each other
Each of us falls asleep
He sometimes loses track
But love — the important part —
Still blooms like redwood sorrel
Carpeting the forest floor

But fear grows like poison oak
And I fear that one of these days
The message will no longer be
“Your dad may be well enough
To Skype with you a little today.”
I fear that instead it will be
“Take your dexamethasone right now
Because your father passed away.”

Will I cry?
Will I go numb?
Will I be enraged?
Will I throw myself into projects?
Will I become unable to function?.
Will I be able to be there for grieving relatives?

One thing I know
No matter what shows on my face
My tears will outnumber
The drops of rain
In a redwood forest in winter

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Return to sender: no longer at this address

My mother is a wizard with plants
I kind of knew it already
But when my father was upset
Because he'd never see the morning glories
Bloom again in his life
My mother secretly coaxed
A morning glory vine
Out of season
To bloom, and climb, to bloom, and climb
And she took him outside
To show him the magic she'd done
And that's how much my mother loves my dad

My flowers are my poetry
I coax the words to bloom and grow
And climb and climb into his heart
Even out of season
I use words to express the wordless
And that's one kind of magic I have
And that's how much I love my dad

But one of these days
I'm going to write a poem
It will be full of obscure mountain lakes
And treks across the mountains to the sea
And forest floors that were so much more
And owls hooting up in the trees
It will show him every place
That I could feel his love
Without the emotional bombardment
Of living in the city

And it will be a perfect poem
For that time and that place
It will certainly be better than this one
It will show him that I care for him
(As if he doesn't know by now)
It will show the depth of love
That death can dredge up when you're lucky

And then i will get a phone call or an email
It will start out:
“Go and take your dexamethasone right now.”
And I'll have a sinking feeling
But I'll take the syringe of steroids
And put it in my feeding tube
Then go back to the phone or the computer

Then they'll say
“The news is bad
Your father has passed away
He was far too tired this morning
To check your blog today.”

And all that's left of my magic
Will be words on a screen
Words he may have understood
But will never hope to read

From that point on forwards
We'll be separated by time
We both will have existed
But from that point in time onwards
I will be here and he won't

I wonder how much dexamethasone it takes
To avoid adrenal crisis when your dad dies
I wonder how much magical love it takes
To stand the pain you feel when you realize

That you will never talk to him again
You'll never hug him again
You'll never sit next to each other
With an elderly cat spread across your laps
You'll never ask the questions
You forgot to ask when he was alive
You'll never play with his beard again
And there's so little time
There's so little time

But I'm wrong
Like people are often wrong about time
Eternity is all around us
That's all the time in the world
Eternity is where love exists
Outside of time and space
So even if he never reads my best poems
He'll feel the love that went into them
Just as he feels the love
From that morning glory vine

He feels the love from his two pet dogs
He feels the love from his wife
He feels the love from his three adult children
He says he's lucky to be surrounded
By so much love

So I'm terribly sorry, Ron
If some of my poems don't reach you in time
And i'm terribly sorry Ron
If I try to Skype you and it turns out you're gone
Just know I love you more
Than even the best poet can convey
I love you more than I could ever say

And love is the magic that made my mom
Able to grow those morning glories
And love is the magic that makes me able
To write poems daily after years of dormancy
And love is the magic that connects you to me
It's the way we can feel each other's love
Without any form of contact at all

I hope the place I built for you outside of time
And filled to overflowing with my love
Will see you through

And I hope that I'll continue
Writing poetry to you
Long after you've gone

And I hope it reaches you in Eternity
Or wherever it is you're going

And I hope that even the worst of it
Conveys this message:

I love you
I love you
I love you

My Last Gift to My Parents

Father, your heart is like the sun
Shining on a granite mountainside
Your heart is like the pine trees
Growing up to the tree line
Your heart is like the Sierras
You were seldom absent from
And I know that's where your heart will rest
When your souls merge with the sun

Mother, your heart is like a garden
That grows wildflowers, vegetables side by side
A garden that can only be tended
By someone who knows the lay of the land
Your garden could even be mistaken
For a random flow of wild plants
If it weren't for the fact they're all chosen
For the birds and the bees and the fit of your hands

If you ever doubt that your eye for plants
Is the love that will see you through
Remember the morning glories
You enticed into bloom for a final view
He never thought he'd see one again
And I can bet he cried
When you led him outdoors
To the flowering vines
You had coaxed to climb up the wall

Your hearts have been growing inside each other
Since you were fifteen and twenty years old
My mother hiked in the Sierras
And my dad did some gardening of his own
That's what happens when you fall in love
For more than fifty years, with your hearts
Embracing, unwinding, unraveled, entwining
With all that time to germinate
Into something more than they were

Mine is the heart of a redwood forest
As if you hadn't noticed long ago
My body grew in my mothers womb
But my soul grew in the soil underground
And the redwood sorrel grew out the soil
And turned its leaves to the sun
And the sun sang a song so sweet and smooth
That the plants all stopped to hear
And they grew and they grew in their love
With every passing year
While underground the soil still did
The stuff of life and death and life again

You gave each other your hearts
Long before your marriage vows
And maybe you don't need to hear anything
I'm about to tell you now
But I'm holding up my redwood heart
And offering it to you
And you can plant if in your garden
And you can plant it in the Sierras
And because we are a family
It will.thrive in both locations

I offer you my redwood heart
Because it's all I have of any vaiue
Surely you both see by now
Love is the only thing that will bring us through
Love outside death
Love outside time
Love has meaning when nothing else does
Love conquers fear when nothing else will
Love is everything
Love is everywhere
So my last gift to you
My very last gift
Is my redwood forest heart

 

Bone dry

I believe that I'm strong —
Resilient I say —
Like rubber you push me
I push back, away

I believe I can handle
What the world throws at me
But then the world throws it
Too fast at me for me to see

It hits me in the head
I fall and hit the ground
My mouth is full of mud
I cannot make a sound
I guess I overestimated
My resiliency
I'm bawling like a baby
There is no dignity

Nobody wants to see it
Everybody looks away
When they see someone
Crying in this way

It's not demure
It's not polite
It's not crocodile tears
It's not sweet
It's not cute
It's only primal

It's loss of control
It's “I want my mommy”
And “I want my daddy”
And “I want whatever gods I believe in”
And “I don't care, I want them NOW NOW NOW!” <stomp>
I told you there's no dignity here

But I can't ask for my dad to solve my problems
He has no power to stop his own death
I can't ask my mom
She's got to take care of my dad
Without dying herself

If grief is love then my heart is breaking at the seams
If grief is love then it is only echoed in bottomless screams
And fearing to cry for fear I'll never stop
And crying in the least dignified way
Wailing, screaming, bawling my eyes out

And people ask if it makes me feel better after a “good cry”
It just makes me feel weary and tired and bone, bone dry
So I try not to cry, to no avail this time
For I am going to wail until the end of time
And it won't be demure little upper-class tears
It's the screaming and shaking that plagued my childhood years

I know now it stops
I know my resilience is real
It's not just hubris or pride
I really can endure most anything

But sometimes
Like now
That's just not how it feels
And I wail till I'm bone dry
Bone dry

 

 

 

We Fear The Coming of Winter

My father has terminal cancer
My mother has myasthenia and neuropathy
And a list of conditions so long
It would fill a whole page

They live in the backwoods of the mountains
Where there are no home care programs
And my mother takes care of him
As well as herself

She does this because she loves him
She does this because there’s no other choice
She does this because they’ve been together
Over fifty years now and are still in love

She drives with one hand at a time, sometimes
Because the other one has given out
Then she switches hands, hoping by then
The other has the strength to tough it out

Her eyes close so tight they’re like slits
She holds them open with her hands
By pulling up on her forehead
Or putting her fingers on her eyelids

Sometimes she needs oxygen
Sometimes she’s landed in the ICU
One time she stopped breathing
And they had to call a code blue

And every morning I wake up
And I wonder if she’s still alive
Every morning I reach out with my mind
And try to see what I can find

Because sometimes she feels like a cloud
That could dissipate in the morning breeze
And sometimes she feels like a film of ice
That could crack into pieces on top of a creek

And sometimes she feels like a tiny star
Too far away to see
And I wonder if she’ll get the chance
To say goodbye to me

Does she know that we all know
The sacrifice that she is making?
Does she know that we all fear
That taking care of dad will kill her?

Does she know that sometimes she looks
Like a shadow dissipating in the noontime sun?
Does she know that sometimes she looks
Like a story ending before it’s begun?

And she’s always been stronger than strong
When I was young she worked two or three jobs
Just to give us kids more opportunities
Coming home too late to see her drive in

She’s doing the same thing now
Taking care of my dad, herself, and the house
That’s three jobs at a time, still
It’s still that sacrifice

But I am so scared she will melt with the snow
I am so scared she will crack like a frozen branch
I am scared this time she won’t have the strength
In those huge reserves she’s so often tapped

She has love and grit and determination
But can those things be enough
When you can’t even open your eyes
Without using your fingers?

The winter is coming and that’s what we all fear
The winter is coming and will she disappear?
The winter is coming and what can we do?
The winter is coming and I love you

I love you more than the frost loves the ground
I love you more than the ice loves the branch
I love you more than the snow loves to whirl
I love you more than blizzards could ever destroy

Love may not save you but love will hold you up
Love may not keep you alive forever
But it will keep something of us all alive
But, love or not, the winter scares us all

But, then, winter or not, we have love
And winter or not, we have strength
And winter or not we have a bond so close
It’s impossible to break

We all fear this coming winter
But we all love our mom
And maybe that love will be enough
Maybe something will be enough

Mom, I hope you know we love you
That every single one of us
Knows the things you do
To make Dad’s last days as good as they can

We know what you are sacrificing
We know what you are risking
We know how scared you are of the winter
We love you every day

I love you more than I could ever say
I want you to survive my father’s death
I want to be able to see you every day
I love you more than I could say

I love you
I love you more
Than I could say