My brothers took me to St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston’s medical district to see my father, who had collapsed earlier in the day with an aneurysm and stroke. This was February, 1976. My brothers were still in high school, and I’d turned twelve a week earlier. My father was forty-six, and my mother, forty, was beside herself. I vaguely remember writing in a small, secret diary I kept then something about the late February air feeling “biblical,” and that my father appeared in his hospital cot in ICU “like a ghost of an orphan.” A bit melodramatic but if anyone noted that my father’s stroke was too real for a novel much less a diary, I don’t remember it. The suddenness of his illness had that kind of feeling anyway and, from that day on, my father never regained the full use of his speech.
The hospital was over on Holcombe Boulevard. Everyone knew the upper floors were reserved for the most critical patients. By the time we arrived in the late afternoon, visiting hours were over. I could just stand on tiptoe to look into the high window in the door into the intensive care ward. That’s when I saw a part of him only as if he were effaced.
A hospital room is never just a single room. Implicit in its rectangular shapes are hundreds of thousands of other ones just like it all over the world. Everyone, from the patients to their concerned families, are in the hands of the hospital staff. There is always the odor—aroma, stench, redolence—of disinfectant and linoleum, and always the hum and whiff of lifeless air-conditioning and florescent lighting, and bouquets of despair. Every view of the corners of hallways and shut windows and couches and the sound of ringing telephones, every glimpse of a sterile clipboard and all the discomforts, every parked wheelchair in the wide, white halls that might still hold the spirits of some lethargic stupor, invite you to reconstruct your life. What I could see in my father’s actual corner of ICU through the little square window at the top of the door wasn’t his body but desperate questions and swishing curtains.
But I knew how to reach the inside of his room. Getting up on my tiptoes and peering into the window I could imagine myself invisible and slipping through the crack in the door’s threshold. Once inside I put my face near his face and lifted his hand to touch the top of my head. With sheer force of will, I hovered over his bed so that what he saw was a vision of his own afterlife above him, some evocation reminding him to live, some reproach for him to look searchingly into the eyes of the spirit and become a man again in a way he hadn’t been before.
Seated behind me that first night were some other people in the waiting room but I don’t remember their names or the reasons they were there, though I knew both at the time. One gentlemen with a gray mustache held a briefcase over his lap but never opened it. He and my mother talked in low voices for a few minutes just before my brothers drove me back home late that night.
I hadn’t yet read anything by John Keats then, but if I had I might have recited some of his lines for clarity’s sake. Something for the desire to—
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
In his forties, my father was an athletic man with a handsome face like that of a navy lieutenant commander—which he was. A reservist, he would don his whites and report for duty down by the ship channel once a month on a Wednesday. His hair was dark with a sprinkle of gray, his small curls sheared close. His mouth was precise and gave the impression of always being about to smile. He was trim from running several miles a day and playing racquetball. It was his being struck in the head with the side of an opponent’s racket a few weeks earlier during a tournament at the downtown YMCA that likely triggered the aneurysm to burst.
It wasn’t until three months later that my father was released from the hospital, and I listened to his muddled talk as if I were listening to a secret language for which there was only the code you created to break it. But it was still unbreakable. His voice was spooked, and the few words he could stutter and coax out of his mouth were spooked, too, and quickly evaporated or were thrashed in the air. It was now understood that I would do most of the talking when I was with him. He confused my name with my brothers’ names. But the names of objects, animals, plants, trees, streets, cities, people, even friends he’d known a lifetime over—these words eluded him like birds disappearing into the soul. Words would swoop from his brain to his mouth and then get trapped there. And then, the words would fall back, as through a trap door, into some unknown region of the brain. He was of course still an adult, a father, but he could hardly speak his own language and found the whole process of using his words a disturbing trial. There was a great labor in his effort to speak and it came from a love of meaning so unlike what the poets talk about and so contrary to the arguments out there that language has no meaning. Once he wanted to talk to me about politics, which we enjoyed. He was trying to say something about the Soviet Union and he just started calling the Soviet Union and anything having to do with what he perceived to be the communist menace, “the red.” I didn’t get it at first, and then I did. Coming upon metonymy as his new way to talk, at least with those who were aware of this special shorthand—like “the red” for Soviet Russia—was like finding ways for language to pose for meaning rather than just be literally representative. The loss of language was irreversible. But metaphor, double-think, and the temptation to reanimate existence was not.
Just as Keats says that a “man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason,” I was given an opportunity to learn that the unknowable must be comprehended every day. Even learning something new—or relearning something once known as my father was trying to do again with his use of speech—doesn’t negate your sense of wonder. “The world is full of obvious things,” Sherlock Holmes says in The Hound of the Baskervilles which I was reading around the time my father got sick, “which nobody by any chance ever observes.” This sense of being observant was the same with learning to listen and talk to my father. Before his illness there were words in the stream of his consciousness. He could see them in the currents of his mind as they polished themselves up into his mouth. The words were like maps of a life unfolded into being. Now the routes were more like labyrinths. He could neither retrieve the words nor put them back. All that floated there was the mystery. In the presence of all that, I discovered too that there are mysteries residing in the consciousness of my own mind that I don’t want to get out of the way of. I was having a fresh understanding that pain and coming into consciousness are connected. As much as I might try to avoid the pain or face it, imagination alone would not bring—well, I didn’t know what. Enlightenment? Maybe.
Later when I began to read Theodore Roethke closely, and especially the end of his poem, “The Waking,” I would reflect back to this period in my life, those months in the winter and spring of 1976 and afterward after my father stopped being able to speak:
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
During this time in junior high school I had AV class 3rd period just before lunch. Audio Visual wasn’t a class really. We were assigned to deliver film projectors and television sets and set them up for the teachers. Once our assigned deliveries were accomplished—and before we had to retrieve the machines again at the end of the period—there usually was time in the AV room to listen or watch movies on our own under the guise of making sure everything worked okay. Whenever I could, I would plug in cassettes of famous speeches by John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Edward Kennedy which I had taken to memorizing. I had all of JFK’s 1961 inaugural from heart as well as some lesser known speeches like the one he gave in 1962 at Yale University upon receiving an honorary degree that more or less begins, “It might be said now that I have the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree,” and also his autumn 1960 acceptance speech to the New York State Liberal Party. The highlight for me is his definition of liberalism:
But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”
I memorized Bobby Kennedy’s presidential announcement speech from the late winter of 1968: “I run to seek new policies—policies to end the bloodshed in Vietnam and in our cities, policies to close the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old, in this country and around the rest of the world.” And I memorized his speech from April 4, 1968, given extemporaneously in Indianapolis on the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, when Kennedy says:
For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with—be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.
But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poem, my—my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
And I knew from heart the conclusion of Ted Kennedy’s eulogy for Robert given just a few months later at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City:
My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.
Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.
As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:
Some men see things as they are and say why.
I dream things that never were and say why not.
I was inspired by the Kennedy legacy and that period of our nation’s life as a time of great hope and achievement. I wasn’t born when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and I was too young to remember Bobby Kennedy. But I think of my own sense of what is possible in this country, part of the reason I became a writer, comes in part from listening and memorizing those words. No matter where I have gone in my travels that dream of possibility evoked by the Kennedy brothers has never died.
But it was more than the political message I was responding to. The elegance of the Kennedy speeches must have allowed me to admire hope out of dark things, and that both hope and the dark things can be loved, even if, as Pablo Neruda says, they might be loved “in secret, between the shadow and the soul.” From memorizing the Kennedy words and watching my father struggle to speak, I was learning that only if I were willing to risk everything could I find out how far I might go. I might only do that if I was willing to be vulnerable among the mysteries. There are mixed feelings in that assessment, but poetry would become a chance to find a clear expression for them.
“Against Our Will” is the fifth in a sequence of autobiographical portraits on the subject of my early education as a poet.