Last week you had a vivid dream in which the lyrics to a beautifully sad Willie Nelson song you’d never heard before went scrolling through your head. When you woke up you went to the computer and googled the first line: I have a thing for the things of this world, but no such Willie Nelson song exists. You took this as a sign that you needed to write a poem that began with that line. But you put it off.
Yesterday, while you were driving in the pre-dawn dark to a tiny airport on the Panhandle, you went through a drive-through to get a cup of coffee. You took the coffee from the nice girl, so sweet and patient there at the drive-thru window at 6 a.m., and said thank you. Before you got back on the road a message ticked into your phone. You checked it. Then you pulled off the road and sat there and read it again. You sat there and thought, no. Not possible. This was a man you have known all your life. He and his wife knew you before you were even born.
You sat there in the car and called your parents.
? you asked your mother, and . . . was her answer, and ? and . . .
I’ll put your father on, she said, he’s right here.
— and then your father was on the line, your father who managed to say He was my oldest and best friend before he burst out into those awful, heartbreaking sobs when he heard your I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, and had to hang up the phone, and you sat there in the car for a while before you started it up again and pulled back onto the road.
Why is this so hard to write? Because it’s not a poem, you can hear your father’s oldest and best friend saying, although he was far too gracious ever to say such a thing. Poems rhyme, you can hear him saying, although that, too, he would never say. You think of that sad song you dreamed last week, the one you put off writing.
On the way to the tiny airport, there in the pre-dawn dark, animal eyes glinting from the ditches the whole way, you could picture them in your head: her, short and stout and devout, and him, smiling. You could hear his voice, hear the sound of his car door thunking shut in the driveway of your parents’ house, hear the songlike melody of his deep voice. You could hear the Swiss relatives yodeling down the valley when you were a child lying awake at night. You could see their Christmas tree, lit and glowing through the window. You could see him in the barn with the baby calves, in the farmhouse before it burned down that awful year. All the way back to the frozen north, from airplane to airplane, he kept appearing in your head.
There he is, walking through the kitchen door. Walking into the diner because he heard you were home. Behind the wheel of a big old car on a dusty rural road, pulling off to the shoulder and waiting for you, the eternal walker, to run up to him so he can roll down the window and find out what you’re up to. Telling you how special you are, how beautiful you are, things you know damn well he says to everyone he loves but which always, somehow, when you hear them from him, make you feel that way.
This is hard to write. It’s not a poem unless it rhymes, you can imagine him saying –he never would say something like that, but he wrote a lot of poetry, and every line of it rhymed.
There is no time of your life that you can remember without him in it. He is threaded into everything that has to do with the place you still call home. There he is dancing the polka with your mother on the dusty second floor of the dusty rural dance hall. There he is standing in the field, telling you about the beaver pond and how gradually, over the years, the beavers have come to trust him, and how he will take you out to see them one of these days. There he is showing you the soft ice cream maker that they kept in their pantry, the magical soft ice cream maker that used to make a half-gallon of vanilla every night until he had the emergency triple bypass. After the triple bypass you wrote him a letter that must have said other things but all you remember is the one line that made you sit down and write it: Do you have any idea how much I love you? You remember how tight he hugged you next time you saw him.
When was the last time you saw him? Last fall, it must have been, when you were sitting in the booth at the diner with the men, all his friends –was anyone not his friend?– while he sat on the red stool opposite you until you got up and sat next to him on another red stool so you could talk just to him. Oh this is hard to write. You have begun and erased this at least ten times since you sat down at this table.
Poems aren’t big blocks of words, Al, you can hear him saying, even though he would never say such a thing. Poems rhyme. This isn’t a poem, Charlie, you imagine saying to him. Make it a poem, Al, you can hear him saying.
Long ago there was a silent rift between you and someone dear to him, and you didn’t know he knew about it, and you would not ever have brought it up, and you retreated, you backed up and away, you thought you might not have anything other than polite conversation with him for the rest of your life, and that should be all right, that should be enough, you were a grown woman for God’s sake, you lived a thousand miles away for God’s sake, but late one night when you were home visiting your parents you saw his car pull into the driveway and you leapt into bed and told your parents I can’t talk, I’m asleep already, tell him I’m asleep, but –so utterly uncharacteristic– he went past them and came into the room where you were hiding and told you how sorry he was, and you could see it in his eyes, on his face, in the way he leaned toward you, huddled stupidly on the bed with the blanket pulled up around you. You hadn’t ever seen a look like that on his face, his always-smiling, always-interested, always-calm, never-judgmental face.
This taught you something, which is that when you see a rift, repair it. Or at least try. So that you know that at least you tried. This is very hard to write because there is too much to say. There is too much to protest. Is there anything good here? you said to one sister last night, anything at all? You could feel her silence over the phone. Um, they were not young? They never saw it coming? They went together? They went instantly? No. None of these are good enough to make anything about this good.
This is going to be the biggest funeral that Steuben has ever seen, you said to her. There will be no place big enough to hold the mourners.
You want to write about him, to honor him, but you can’t do a good enough job. Try some rhyme, Al, you can hear him saying, although he would never say such a thing.
Okay, Charlie, I’ll try some rhyme. Here you go. This one’s for you.
The news came that Charlie had died
his loved wife – his “bride”– by his side
I tried to write a poem in rhyme
but I knew there was not enough time
to say anything that needed to be said.
Too sad. Too many memories in my head.