an anniversary

On this day in 2006 I was sitting at my desk working on a poem for my creative writing workshop. I was getting ready to print copies and head out to grab a bowl of lentil soup at my favorite middle eastern restaurant, Babylon, before class. The poem was about returning to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It wasn't very good. I think the last stanza was about the cockroaches that had climbed into the upper floors of houses to escape the rising flood:

I think they will outlast me, here.
Such creatures are accustomed
to clutching what remains.

My phone rang. It was my best friend, Sam. (Names have been changed to protect the wounded.)

From here it's difficult to tell this story without sounding like a child, or a very bad writer.

As soon as I picked up the phone I heard him crying. Sam said, "my father died."

What I said in response is lost from my memory. It must have been something like "Oh my God," or "Oh, Sam," or "Where are you? I'm coming." He'd been on his way home when his stepmother called.

I remember it was sunny and cool. I remember the sun streaming into my room, through the warped glass, across the hardwood floors that left more than one splinter in my feet over that year. We stayed on the phone until I found him, sitting on a curb, curled down into his knees.

We went to his house. He sat outside and smoked cigarettes and occasionally his face went blank. That was horrible to see, because after the blankness, he would recall all over again the magnitude of what he'd lost, and his face would crumple into an expression I've never seen on any face except the face of someone who has lost, someone whose heart is profoundly broken.

It was as though he was tied to a water wheel, and from time to time he would sink beneath the surface where everything was blurry and muffled and otherworldly. But the wheel kept turning, and eventually he'd rise up again into the world as raw as a baby, and be battered by lights too bright, sounds too sharp, a reality that nobody can ever be prepared for.

We went up to his room and he started to pack. Down under the water he'd go, placing his deodorant, his razor, his toothbrush in a bag with orderly focus. Then up he'd rise (what brought him back? A memory of his father shaving? The realization that the next time he'd brush his teeth, it would be at his father's house where his father was no longer? I couldn't ask. I can't ever know.) and sob.

I remember I called in to rehearsal for the show we were working on. I said I wasn't coming.

The afternoon is muddy. I don't know if I was with him for 2 hours or 6. I don't remember saying good-bye. I can't imagine that he does, either.

I do remember he told me this story (paraphrased to accommodate my failing memory):

"My dad and I were supposed to have dinner together, but it wasn't going to work out. Then he called me and said we had to make it work, because he had a feeling that if we didn't go to dinner, he wouldn't see me again for a long time."

Sam spent a lot of time in darkness in the months after his father's death. He didn't reach out to a lot of friends, or at least not to me. That was fine. Ours is a friendship that flips the bird at distance.

I went home and wrote another poem that night, equally bad, equally ineffective at communicating my thoughts. Hell, I had no idea what I was thinking or feeling, and I had no business trying to write a poem about it. But I did, and here it is:

This One Defective
For SM


Get ready. This is the failure I tried to write for you.
The first time I met death,
a squirrel fell and lay.

A tree withered, split, turned brown.
The virus hacking in my lungs
simply quit one day.

A rabbit glassy in his cage.
A cat, gone out for good.
They pass. They die.

They need no more than a syllable
and do not haunt me.
Oh, my friend.

I tried to write for you.
How can I name whateverthisis
when a name limits sorrow to one identity?

I believed I could seize grief's hand,
palm its size. I cannot.
This is no quieted rabbit.

I failed.
I could not name the wild
of a screaming, all-alone, ocean-eyed child.

Nothing on this page is true.
I failed. I could not name the wild
I tried to write for you.

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