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Poetry

While my brother and I
waited for our father to die,
which took longer than
we thought it would,

one of the hospital’s chaplains
came in to visit us.
Her name was Cynthia,
and the first thing she did

was read some passages from
The Book of Common Prayer
as we stood around our father—
but she stumbled over

every other line.
Then she read some prayers
from a different book
and did just fine.

Afterward, she explained
that she was a Baptist
and the Episcopal prayers
felt cold and strange. She asked us

if there was anything else
we wanted her to read,
and I said the Twenty-Third Psalm,
though I knew it might lead

to tears. Maybe I wanted
to cry, to prove I wasn’t
some stiff Episcopalian
for whom emotion was alien.

She asked what our father was like,
and we tried to tell her
while he was lying there
utterly unlike himself,

his eyes not seeing anything,
his breathing labored
without the ventilator.
“What was your favorite thing

to do with him?” she asked.
Right away, one of us said
cutting firewood
and the other agreed.

“What was his favorite song?”
We stumbled then. It felt wrong
that we didn’t know,
but then we told her how,

back in the days
when he drove us to school
he used to sing the songs
from Gilbert and Sullivan plays.

Then Darren, the young minister
from our parents’ church, came in
and my brother whispered,
“Here comes the competition.”

That made Cynthia laugh.
It was like something Dad would say.
Darren, in a very formal way
but without stumbling at all,

read some prayers that had
too many references to evil,
as if our father were in need of
an exorcism before he died.

After he left, I told Cynthia
what Dad had said about Darren:
“He’s too religious.”
That made her laugh again,

but she said he meant well.
We realized gradually
that she was planning to stay
for as long as we needed

which turned out to be
four or five hours—
to the very end, and then
beyond the end, because

she wanted to spare us
the ordeal of having to see
our father’s body being
zipped into a plastic bag.

Meanwhile, she kept us company.
We talked about a lot of things—
our children, her son
who lived in…Kansas City?

I can’t remember much of it.
It felt strange to be chatting
about this and that,
as if nothing was wrong, as if

our father wasn’t even there,
but then we’d turn back to him
and fall silent again,
and that also felt strange.

At one point she looked at us and said,
“You need your wives.”
She was right, we did,
but they were back home with the kids.

Nothing about it felt right,
but Cynthia helped us through.
If he hadn’t been the one dying,
our father would have liked her too.

 


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