On my last day off, I was doing one of my favorite things: reflecting on the past year and planning for the coming one — essentially, writing. (In the third grade I created homework for myself. This is who I am.) The radio was on — some background music, the tea was hot, a chance of snow that never came; it was a woo-woo person’s cozy dream. I sat with my head tilted like a confused dog and stared; wrote and wrote. The radio program changed to Fresh Air, and I turned the sound down so I could remain focused. Yet.
I didn’t recognize the name of the guest, Patrick Phillips, immediately, but I did recognize the book he’d written, Blood at the Root. Terry Gross and Phillips talked about Forsyth County, Georgia, its history of racist violence, and Phillips’ upbringing there. I drifted in and out of the conversation, in and out of my writing. Specifically, I was reflecting on my father’s heart attack and open heart surgery.
Gross typically lands transitions (I take notes as someone who’s not), but in a bit of a stretch, in what felt like out of nowhere, she asked Phillips about his father’s open heart surgery. My head shot up. What?
She asked him to read the poem he wrote about it.
I hadn’t made the connection he was the poet Patrick Phillips. I had never heard this poem. This episode was a re-run, and what an odd coincidence it aired on the same day, at the same moment, I had been writing about my own father.
Writing is powerful in that it makes us pay attention: Phillips’ poem changed me, if only for an afternoon; my own writing put me in the place (literally) to hear his poem.
I sat at the dining room table, staring into the radio’s yellow fog — ON — and the feelings came.
This is the first sentence from the poem he read, “Elegy outside the ICU,” as it appears in his collection Elegy for a Broken Machine:
They came into
this cold white room
and shaved his chest
then made a little
purple line of dashes
down his sternum,
which the surgeon,
when she came in,
cut along, as students
took turns cranking
a tiny metal jig
that split his ribs
just enough for them
to fish the heart out —
and the dark blood
these hulking beige machines
as for the second time
since dawn they skirted
the ruined arteries
with a long blue length
of vein that someone
had unlaced from his leg.
To me, this poem shows strength in its willingness to observe, its looking at and saying what is. Like most courageous acts, this poem is evidence of vulnerability. (What he does with syntax is worth another post for another day.)
I did not witness any of this in my family’s experience. I saw my dad the night before his surgery and hours after — waiting, not watching, being my chief role.
In my family, someone cracking her knuckles who must be stopped is an emergency. Someone crying who must be stopped is an emergency. Someone missing an earring is an emergency. Painting a room only hours before guests arrive is an emergency. An actual emergency, however, is anything but.
Shortly after I found out my dad was having a “heart event” (his words), I learned from my sister that he had talked with her to make sure she could stop by and feed the dog dinner. In the same way in which he might if he were working late. It wasn’t until they told him he would need a procedure that he decided to alert us.
Certain members of my family would tell you this sort of stoicism is a show of strength; they loathe criers and huggers and direct conversation, and after three years of art school, I can’t blame them. But often stoicism isn’t stoic — a radical acceptance of reality — at all; instead, it feels like denial, the opposite of strength. Our weaknesses may be what allow us to weather a crisis. Weakness (if unconfessed) may be one sort of salvation.
Once doctors determined my dad would need open heart surgery, my sister leveled with me that it would not be overreacting to come home.
There, the situation was far from humorless: For instance, the night before the surgery, my dad had a second “heart event” much more painful than the first. (Not the funny part, I’m getting there.) As the nurse rushed to her computer coordinating with a doctor, checking whatever nurses check in these situations, my dad’s roommate kept calling for the nurse — not his nurse, using the call button, the nurse trying to stop my dad’s “heart event.” She told him time again to use his call button. Finally, peeved, she said, “What do you want?”
“Could you, uh, get me a Heath bar and some apple juice?”
After my dad’s surgery, it took me a while before I wanted to walk into the ICU to see him. My mom had warned us: He won’t look like himself. You don’t have to go in if you don’t want to. (He was unable to speak, and for the most part, he was asleep anyway.) When I walked into the ICU, I was nervous. He would be in Room 1. Room 1 was just inside the automatic doors. I looked to my right. There, my father, hair shocked gray, face gray-brown, swaddled in a bud of blue blankets. My eyes opened wide and welled with tears, made hopeless eye contact with the nurse, who whispered, “Your dad’s in Room 7.”
The sight of my dad was still humbling — intubated, like a submarine full of portholes, swimming through what? the man who had carried me until I was too big to carry lying drugged on a bed, waiting to make certain small gestures as a sign of maturation, of health. But after Room 1, what a relief. He was the basic peach of many white people — not his colors, tanned leather and red, but a color of the living.
By the time my dad was moved out of ICU, my immediate family was exhausted and on each other’s nerves. One edgy, irritable, unable to stifle any comment or let any errant noise go; one traditional and a bit of a martyr; one cruel because she is the most fragile of us all. At one point I used pantomimes for eating cheeseburgers when my dad tried to blame my mom for his dietary habits. We are not people whose great strength reveals itself in times of trouble. But we are people who show up for one another. We sit in waiting rooms and endure rude doctors and frantically demand nurses switching shifts give showers pre-op and work our ways through mazes to find bathrooms and then attempt to relay directions. We drink and eat like gluttons because we are gluttons and know we will not eat like this again for a long time. Food has been there for us. For me, so has poetry. My dad’s life restored to us, given, gifted, like this poem was to me, except I would have never known the difference if the poem hadn’t arrived in my little house. This revelation, a paper dressing gown, leaves much to be desired, some embarrassment, more questions than answers — EKG, meter, heart, syntax, morphine, mystery. Enjambment for now instead of end-stop.
Phillips’ elegy for a father still living is really an elegy for a moment, a certain understanding of self and relation to mortality and parents. An elegy more like a notch nicked into a tree trunk or a glance at a watch — realization at the time it is: incredible and brutal and here already. It’s usually our understanding of time, our marking of it, that adds meaning and heartache. But an elegy isn’t just mourning loss, it’s freeing space for what is and what is to come. One year passes and another, like a lizard tail ripped off and growing back, comes to take its place. One view of the self passes and another, like skin over a scab, grows over. I love my family newly now; I love writing newly, too; love a never-ending autotomy; the elegy for what once was opens, like a cavity in a chest, like ribs, “just enough … to fish the heart out.”
You can listen to the full episode of Fresh Air with Patrick Phillips here.