A Season of Long Goodbyes

Two years ago i posted some thoughts about my dad’s recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s (here) and then some additional words on Father’s Day last year (here). What I haven’t mentioned is that Mrs. Blather’s stepfather, “Poppa George” to my girls, has also been in a health-related battle over the last several years. George was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a particularly nasty form of bone cancer, and then, if that weren’t bad enough, later COPD, a degenerative respiratory disease. In natural, medical terms, neither of these conditions is curable. They only treat symptoms.

Over the last months I’ve watched both men take care to say the things they wanted to make sure got said, while time remained. Those of us who love them have done the same.

On my last visit home, just as I was walking out to my car to leave, my dad fought through his verbal roadblocks and found the words tell me he was proud of me–something I’ve never once doubted but had never heard him say. Just a few days ago, my wife and her brother spent some time with Poppa George and had the most amazing conversation about life, death and eternity. And last month, right before Daughter #2 headed off to Kenya for four months, she visited Poppa, laid on his chest like she used to do when she was little, and he prayed over her and blessed her. It seemed clear to him that he knew they would not see each other again this side of heaven.

In recent weeks I’ve been thinking about all this and calling it, in my mind, “the season of the long goodbyes.” Yesterday afternoon that phrase kept rolling around in my head so I stopped and did something I haven’t done in decades.

I wrote a poem.

It’s built around the metaphor of a human life as a single day. And around the idea that our parents start out seeming so amazing in our eyes; then in midlife, so ordinary; then at the end of life, so frail. For better or worse, here it is:

Season of the Long Goodbyes

We knew them strong; when their climbing sun
had scarcely risen much above the trees.
They sang us “hello,” and “welcome little one,”
with jostled, nonsense words and rhymes on quieter knees.

Just as freshly opened eyes must squint at morning glare,
so for a blessed time we saw them only strong and wise.
No mystery unsolvable, or broken thing beyond repair
by long-leg’d heroes in sweaters and bath-robed disguise.

Then with some acclimation, we grew to see them as they were in fact,
as midday’s tactless light put all frailty and flaw in harsh relief. With clear
vision came the astonishment of seeing all the power they now lacked.
Yet we, in hard-won disillusionment, held them all more fiercely dear.

We knew them strong, but along the relentless arc of blurry years
came a sudden grasp of just how long the shadows now have grown.
One, with stolen nouns. Cruel, creeping bewilderment. And tears.
Another, slowly robbed of strength and hope; Of breath and bone.

So begins this season of the long goodbyes. And on its cooling air
floats a severe urgency to speak all our prideful hearts have long held bound.
The whispered thanks for sacrifices made and countless acts of care.
The tardy repentance. The finally finding of some common ground.

Bless’d we count ourselves, for many get no farewell time at all.
Just a crashing fall of night that leaves a thousand vital words unspoken.
Robbed of opportunity and days, these now must call
and wait on Heaven’s second chance for hearts so broken.

And so it goes, this subtle aching sunset treason—
failing light yields, in degrees, to twilight skies.
Hurry not, yet hasten now sweet, bitter season . . .
tall-shadowed season of the long goodbyes.

© 2009 David A. Holland

As I was working on the final lines last night, we got a call. Poppa George had just passed. At home, in his sleep.

We thought we had a little more time. But then, we always do.

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