a few thoughts & a poem about my dad…

I loved both of Sati’s beautiful poems about her father.   I was especially moved by Sati’s second poem, the whole poem, but esp. these two lines:

Even coldness has a holy touch-
your forehead white and proud against my hand.

It brought back my last experience with my father — at least with my father’s physical body. As my father lay there – cold – in the funeral home – a private viewing for my mother, sister, and me before the closed casket funeral the next day – I too ran my hands over the forehead and structure of my father’s peaceful 91 year old face.  I’ve always been told I looked exactly like him. Being there that day I saw my own death mask.   I was deeply touched by the connection I felt with him, and the inevitability of my being in that  self same repose one day.

Although this is a Dharma Road poetry blog, I imagine — and hope — there will be buddhists and non-buddhists alike meeting here.   Some will believe in reincarnation or won’t;  others, in heaven or not.  Personally I am most comfortable with not assuming anything. The truth is simply that I don’t know. What I know is there is great mystery and love and compassion.  And gratitude. (and lest I fall into the trap of pollyana-ism, what I also know is that there is dukkha, or suffering).  My dad was definitely not a buddhist;  he was culturally Jewish, but a dyed-in-the-wool atheist.  Still he lived his aging and dying with a huge amount of equanimity.  I was amazed, and so grateful.

Here’s a poem I wrote shortly after my dad’s death.  Two years after his death, it still rings true for me.

Reflection in the Wake of Dad’s Death

Part I

So here’s the problem.

If I believed in heaven OR reincarnation,

I would know where my father’s spirit has gone—

Well, more or less.

Without a particular belief system,

I don’t know.

Dad believed when you die, it’s just all over.

I don’t know if that’s true either.

What to do?

Develop some expertise in

Not knowing.

Part II 

You ask, how do I do this? Funny you should ask.

 Part III  

Gayle’s recipe for developing expertise in Not knowing: 

One part Mary Oliver poem —

              …Still, what I want in my life

             is to be willing

             to be dazzled —

             to cast aside the weight of facts

             and maybe even

             to float a little

             above this difficult world.

             I want to believe I am looking

             into the white fire of a great mystery….

One part David Wagoner poem—

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you

           Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,

           And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

           Must ask permission to know it and be known….

One part David Whyte saying—

The deeper conversation starts right here, and the first question is not far from       exactly where you are.

One part the Dalai Lama’s laugh.

Put it all in the oven and bake daily.  Don’t stop baking.

Prep time:  none.   Oven temperature: as hot as you can tolerate, and cooler when you need it cooler.   Baking time: as above, forever.  Serves: all beings.

Part IV  

So this is how it is now.

I wake up every day not knowing.

Dazzled, or floating…

I try to find my nearest question.

I laugh, sometimes I cry.

I think of you, Dad.

Wherever else you are (or aren’t),

you are here now,

in my heart,


Part V

Months later, the baking continues.

There is Not Knowing and there is peace, an okay-ness with not knowing.

♥   Gayle

Excerpts are from the poem “The Ponds” by Mary Oliver; the poem “Lost” by David Wagoner; and from a talk given by David Whyte at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco on May 29, 2009.


One thought on “a few thoughts & a poem about my dad…

  1. Thank you – the sense of cold returns to my hand as I read, the cold of touching my daughter as she lay dying and with the sense of cold is the sound of her breathing as it ends…..
    the questions continue to be baked at varying temperatures depending, but the baking has no time pre-set. it is what it is.

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