A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
“Hi, it’s just me.” This might be the only phrase I know for sure
was on the years of messages the phone company erased
when they — inexplicably — changed my number.
The messages are gone, but the grief is still there,
ripe, a fullness I’m glad I possess. We think we want grief
to pass, but what would I do if it were gone,
like the messages, irretrievable? There are videos
of him reading poems, videos of him speaking, gesturing
in the way he did, but nothing remains
of his voice talking just to me. He might have said,
“You’re probably out doing something fun. I hope so.”
But I can’t be sure anymore, can I? “OK, hon. Good night.
Maybe we’ll talk tomorrow.” Would he have said it that way?
So many other things got erased. He couldn’t remember
his grandsons. “Who were those two guys who were here?”
I, to my shame, answered in a tone that said,
You should know that. I never spoke that way to him
otherwise. When we did crosswords, we searched
for simple words, tree or snowflake. “Do you know what it is?”
he’d ask, aware of his slowness, and I would mostly say no,
but sometimes yes, to keep some truth in the room.
To anchor us. The disconnection began long before he couldn’t tie
people to names or places to memories.
He got disoriented away from home, and the last time
I took him to visit my sister, on the way back,
still in an unfamiliar city, he asked, “Are we on Portage Road?”
looking for something he could recognize.
He might ask again a minute later.
Then he said, “Now, do you have any children?”
and I, too, was lost. Trying not to cry, driving
on the dark street. He often marveled at the GPS —
“Isn’t that something! There’s something up there
that knows where you are and tells you where to go!”
He’d point up through the roof of the car. He said it
almost every time we drove. He liked to marvel at things —
the procedure the surgeon used to repair his retina
or to zap the cancer. He’d talk with admiration,
as if it were not his own body under threat.
Some piece of him stood apart ever since
my sister died at nine, stepping off a train by accident
while our family traveled through the foreign dark.
A few months before the end, in the car,
on Portage Road, blocks from his house,
he asked, “What was that weird thing
that happened in Morocco that killed your sister?”
I read The Sun as I eat my breakfast — a recent, conscious departure from the morning news. When I saw the February 2022 table of contents, I turned immediately to Jane Hilberry’s poem “My Father’s Messages Erased from My Answering Machine.” My mother’s messages were erased, too, a year after she died. I was devastated. Eight years later I feel her presence every day. Still, I had forgotten how much I miss her voice, sharing her seemingly inconsequential, but always sweet, musings. I see now that none of them was inconsequential.
I wept with sadness and joy this morning, thinking about Hilberry’s father: how the tragic death of his daughter decades before, juxtaposed with his lifelong habit of wonder and awe, illustrates one soul’s capacity for love.