Poetry = Life

by Lesléa Newman


"Writ­ing these poems kept me alive." That sen­tence was spo­ken decades ago by Paul Mon­ette about his book, Love Alone, Eigh­teen Ele­gies for Rog, which was pub­lished in 1986. Rog was Roger Hur­witz, Monette’s part­ner who died of AIDS (as did Mon­ette in 1995). I nev­er for­got those words, and they came back to haunt me in 2017 when my per­fect­ly healthy father unex­pect­ed­ly and sud­den­ly died. I had a bot­tom­less howl of grief inside me that had to be let out before it ate me alive.


I know that los­ing a par­ent is expect­ed; it’s the nat­ur­al order of things. It is not akin to los­ing a part­ner, as I learned in 2012 when my moth­er died and I watched my father try, and large­ly fail, to cope with the loss of his wife of six­ty-three years. Still, los­ing my father on top of los­ing my moth­er changed the land­scape of my life completely.


In some ways, after my moth­er died, my father and I became part­ners. Instead of part­ners-in-crime, we became part­ners-in-grief. I stayed with my father for a few weeks right after he became a wid­ow­er, sup­pos­ed­ly because he had nev­er lived alone and didn’t know how to cook a meal or do his laun­dry. But I could have hired some­one to per­form these tasks. The truth is, I need­ed my father as much as he need­ed me. My father and I need­ed to mourn my moth­er togeth­er. We need­ed to be ful­ly in each other’s pres­ence in order to ful­ly expe­ri­ence her absence.


After a few weeks, I did hire a house­keep­er so that I could return home, but my rela­tion­ship with my father only inten­si­fied. One night soon after I’d left, he told me that one of the hard­est things about liv­ing alone was there was no one there to ask him, ​“How was your day?” when he got home from work (my father kept his robust law prac­tice going until he was eighty-eight). So every night for the next five years, I called my father at 7:30p.m. after Jeop­ardy! to say, ​“Hi Dad. How was your day?”


My dad and I lived two hun­dred fifty miles apart, so I couldn’t just drop by for lunch. Instead, I vis­it­ed him for a long week­end every month. That went on for a few years until he had a series of mini-strokes and my vis­its became longer and more fre­quent, as I tried to ascer­tain what he need­ed and how to man­age his care. Even­tu­al­ly he had to give up his law prac­tice, give up play­ing ten­nis, give up dri­ving, and give up the home he had lived in for fifty-three years. My dad absolute­ly hat­ed mov­ing to inde­pen­dent liv­ing. The day he moved in, as I helped him set­tle in, I asked, ​“Dad, what do you think?” He shrugged and said, ​“I don’t know. I’ll give it a year.” And then what? I won­dered. I didn’t have a chance to ask. Always a man of his word, my dad died eleven months and twen­ty-sev­en days lat­er. He was found in his room. No one could fig­ure out what hap­pened. I believe he died of a bro­ken heart.


And now I was bro­ken-heart­ed. I didn’t real­ize how com­plete­ly my life had become bound up with my father’s until he was gone. A huge space opened up and the only way I knew how to fill it was to pick up my pen and write. I final­ly under­stood what Paul Mon­ette meant when he said that writ­ing the poems of Love Alone kept him alive. Writ­ing the poems that became I Wish My Father kept me anchored to the earth. As I wrote, I felt my father sit­ting beside me; I could see the smudged Clark Kent glass­es rest­ing on his face; I could hear him singing ​“Oh What a Beau­ti­ful Morn­ing” in his off-key voice; I could smell the Old Spice after­shave he slapped on his cheeks every morn­ing before he head­ed off to work. I could hold onto him until I was ready to let him go.


In the Jew­ish tra­di­tion, one mourns the loss of a par­ent for eleven months, which is just the time it took me to write I Wish My Father, coin­ci­den­tal­ly—or per­haps not coin­ci­den­tal­ly—the same amount of time it took me to write I Car­ry My Moth­er after my moth­er died in 2012. Shar­ing my par­ents with the world through poet­ry is the best way I know to assuage my grief. It com­forts me to think that when I read from the books to an audi­ence, my par­ents are lis­ten­ing as well, smil­ing down from the world to come.



WITH­OUT WARN­ING MY FATHER


is sprung from the hos­pi­tal ear­ly Friday

evening, seem­ing no bet­ter yet no worse

accord­ing to the doc­tor who dismisses


him with an indif­fer­ent wave of his hand

a lit­tle too eager to get on with his weekend.

My father refus­es my offer of help

and gets dressed in slow motion, then insists

that I pack up a week’s worth of newspapers,

a half-emp­ty box of tis­sues, a flim­sy comb,


a tooth­brush, and a kid­ney-shaped pink plastic

spit­toon. Sat­is­fied that he is leav­ing nothing

behind, he smiles and waves like royalty


as an aide push­es him past the nurse’s station

down the long hall­way, into the groaning

ele­va­tor and out to the park­ing lot.


It’s not until we dri­ve halfway home and stop

at a red light where a fam­i­ly of five crosses

the street—moth­er in long skirt, father in gray suit

with white sneak­ers gleam­ing on his feet,

chil­dren gussied up, sub­dued and somber—

that I real­ize it’s Yom Kippur


the holi­est day of the year. ​“Gut yontiff,”

I say to my father, point­ing. He stares

but does not wish me a good holiday


in return. When we arrive home, he heads

straight for his reclin­er and instant­ly falls

asleep, his mouth slack, his hands clasped


on top of his chest, his thumbs twitching

through his dreams. Dark­ness falls

an hour lat­er and he star­tles awake,


looks around as if he has no idea

where he is, sees me, sighs, and says

“God will for­give us,” then dozes off


again. I tuck a green and black afghan

my moth­er knit a hun­dred years ago

under his chin, as I remem­ber sitting


in syn­a­gogue with my father when I was

a lit­tle girl. How I loved braid­ing the tzit-tzit

of his tallils, the white fringe so smooth


and cool beneath my fin­gers, while the men

all around me swayed and prayed, their deep

voic­es wring­ing as much sweetness

and sad­ness out of those ancient words,

as they could, that heartrend­ing minor key

com­fort­ing me like a soft shawl wrapped


around my small slen­der shoulders.

I stood when my father stood,

I bowed my head when my father

bowed his head, I sat when my father sat,

his ​“Amen” the sweet­est and saddest

of them all. Last year for the first time,


we drove to ser­vices, my father unable

to man­age the two mile walk between home

and shul. We sat up front hop­ing that would

help him hear, but after the third time

he asked, ​“What page? What page?”

lick­ing his third fin­ger and fran­ti­cal­ly flipping


through the prayer book like he was

look­ing for an impor­tant number

in an out­dat­ed phone book,

I was relieved when his head dropped

to his chin, then mor­ti­fied once more

when he began to snore so loudly

the rab­bi threw me a look and I took

my father home. I know God will

for­give my poor aged and aging

father for not attend­ing temple

on this Day of Atonement

but I don’t know if the same God


will for­give me for not knowing

what’s best: to pray or not to pray

that the Book of Life be inscribed


at the start of the new year

with my father’s holy name

under­neath my own

“With­out Warn­ing My Father” copy­right ©2021 Lesléa New­man from I Wish My Father (Head­mistress Press, Sequim, WA) Used by per­mis­sion of the author.


This article was originally published by Jewish Book Council on March 8, 2021, and is reprinted with permission.


Lesléa New­man has writ­ten more than sev­en­ty books and antholo­gies, includ­ing the high­ly suc­cess­ful and con­tro­ver­sial pic­ture book, Heather Has Two Mom­mies. She has received many lit­er­ary awards, includ­ing, recent­ly a 2019 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award, the 2020 Syd­ney Tay­lor Sil­ver Medal, and the 2020 Syd­ney Tay­lor Body of Work Award.