A poem I wrote about my father, who recently turned 79 and has been showing the signs of a mind and body slowing down and no longer being cognisant of the happenings of everyday life in real time. Not all the time, but enough to be of justifiable concern. It is old age. It is diminished brain function. It is both unexceptional and deeply saddening. It occurred to me that this sometime inability to be present means the company and conversation races away from him. But then he somehow comes back and participates joyfully. This poem tries to guess at what the experience might be like for him.
Breasting the Tape
They’re not where I am, these faces I know.
I am elsewhere, on the sunlit paths of my youth,
jumping, in shorts, over dustbins by the back door,
and escaping. Running. Running. Running. And grinning.
I grin now too, but at what I don’t know.
Asked if I remember, I know I don’t. Too hard
to pull a face from the fog, a name from a bagful of letters.
I offer one thing I do know, and draw my finger from Point A to Point B.
I sag and I slump and I stare into space. I don’t think
I am frightened, but I may appear to be, as someone
who I am sure came from me looks at me
with love and concern. My eyes ask why.
I am certain it is my fault. I am certain I was there.
I am certain I made the call. I am certain I
set the tone, showed the way, lit the fire, gave the push
– and now he is gone. But I’m told I’m wrong.
Mostly, my legs are gone too. Like my memories,
they no longer hold me up in this world. I walk
on kindling – brittle, easily broken – but I don’t
hear the snap and crunch as I stumble. As I fall.
Everyone is faster than me, racing ahead,
leaving me in the chasing pack. But suddenly,
I am back. My legs are strong, my hunger to compete
burns, and I am eating up the ground under my feet.
I see them all, from start to finish. From past
to present. My sons. Their partners. Their children.
My wife. Friends. Family. Animals. Trees. The smoke
in my hand. The drink on the table. The love I feel.
I am running again. And I am grinning too.
I greet them as I overtake. A back-slap. A bum-pat.
I am back in the here and now. I know who I am.
I am running. I am winning. I am breasting the tape.