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My poem about my relationship with my father

  One of the hardest things I ever had to do was to help my father to die. We were not close for much of my life. Though he loved me, our relationship often felt awkward. Yet, it was up to me to show up at his bedside daily as his health declined and to try to be for him what I hoped …
By Seth Barnes

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One of the hardest things I ever had to do was to help my father to die. We were not close for much of my life. Though he loved me, our relationship often felt awkward. Yet, it was up to me to show up at his bedside daily as his health declined and to try to be for him what I hoped all my life he’d be for me – a friend.


My father gave me a lot of gifts over the course of his life. And one of the most precious gifts was perhaps unintentional. I needed an outlet to process all the pain and I turned to poetry. For three years now, poetry has been helping me bring what was on the inside to the outside, where I could try to make sense of it.


One early morning three years ago, scenes from my life with my dad filled my spirit – leading me to write a poem about it. It’s so important that we get God’s perspective on our relationship with our fathers.


I hope my poem sparks some thoughts in you about the arc of your relationship with your father.


The Arc of You and Me


9 years old

Your chair at the table

Was empty for a year.

Vietnam was a wound

Blood flowed from.

We all got lost trying to track

Ho Chi Minh’s trail.

We drew the line with your life.


America the beautiful had PTSD,

Reeling from the Tet Offensive.

A generation removed from

WW2, like your father

From the Mediterranean theater,

You returned home,

Blood scrubbed from your hands.

But Walter Reed’s secrets didn’t end

With the maimed.

The arterial pressure of suburban life

Was another kind of death

Begging for an emotional stent.


Here’s a good experiment:

Take a man

Whose father left him at 10

For an officer’s commission.

Take him to war and see

The ironies and mysteries abound

For generations.


Urgency and discipline –

Triage strategies that

Worked in SE Asia –

Frustrate colonels

Assigned the care of

Adolescents who are

Looking for the exits.


18 years old

My assignment was to be like you.




Seated and squinting

Finding the sick cells,

Pronouncing pathogens.


But who could diagnose me?

Living in the toxic ruins

Of a war that had me

Thrashing as though under water –

What did oxygen taste like?

I had forgotten.

My world had narrowed;

My spirit silently convulsed.


Our family’s med school erudition

Seemed to taunt:

“Medicate that!”

But how?

Maybe by trying harder?

I was too compliant for

The usual prescription:

Drugs and alcohol.

I self-medicated by leaving.


Behind me, the Missouri air had evaporated.

In my mind it shimmered,

Like a haunted place.

Crossing state lines, I must have

Gulped air deeply.

Must have realized, “I’m alive.”

Exhilarated; ready to celebrate survival.


31 years old

Singing “Cats in the Cradle,”

Whistling Dixie,

I didn’t want to go

Digging in old graveyards.

When you sent me an invite

To do just that,

Wrapped in a sea kayak adventure.


Floating by anteaters,

Howler monkeys and iguanas,

Flipped my script.

And you had another

Unspoken invitation:

To set aside conversations

That neither of us

Knew how to have

Or how to debrief

Their absence.


I didn’t have the stomach

For grudges and this

Felt like something I’d been

Missing all my life.

Could I really afford

To summon up the mute past

When our daily adventure

And the tropical river spoke

So eloquently of

The adequacy of good intentions?


Dali painted persistence, but

Maybe the evanescence of memory

Is a greater, embraceable reality.


59 years old

Back in a small room. 

I am the father. 

The military officer, 

The medical authority – 

You are me, vulnerable, hiding

In a place where

Horror movies could be made.


Needles, tubes and catheters –

Protruding and mocking.

Nails and stubble growing long,

Mutinous – laughing derisively.

You’re withering,

Thrashing, despairing,

Lashing out with blame.

Your eyes hungry for help.

My spirit is dying with you;

My choice was the same. 

Your path or a new one?

A path away from 

A room bleeding life.

My journey away from home 

Led me daily back to your bedside. 

Trying to offer the family

I was looking for 

All those years.


“Tuesdays with Morrie”

Showed us how it could be.

The relationship we sought

Made shy appearances 

Only to revert to the median

When your indelicate way 

Would return like a squatter.


Yet, in a year of caretaking,

You often smiled at me when

I brought parcels of hope: 

Scrapbooks, ice cream, music,

A football game, always a prayer. 

My presence and my

Often impoverished attempt at courage.


It’s presence that is

God’s gift to us both, 

A daily opportunity to keep

Flipping the script for

Two little boys,

Refugees from wars 

Neither of us asked for 

Or were prepared to fight. 

Sometimes barely alive, 

Scrambling to build bridges 

Over the devastation 

Back to a past 

Still in the process of healing. 


60 years old

Our nursing home purgatory

Kept time to the rhythms of winter,

Ran roughshod over spring,

Remaking it a season of decay,

Numbing the shout

Of phantom limbs;

Pulling curtains shut on

The promise of life

Vouchsafed outside by

Impertinent yellow tulips

And the noisy fuchsia azalea

Still rioting beyond your window.


Your room is a

Chiaroscuro contrast –

We throb with your pain and

Wipe tears from our angst.

“Does he want another drink?


I was six,

Sledding on your back

Down the hills of Forest Glen,

I was nine,

Spitting into my snorkel mask

In the blue waters off

Cinnamon Bay, and

Laughing at charades.


Knowing you can hear,

I give you instructions –

“Find us a good hike, Dad,

You won’t need a map,

(Not that you ever wanted one),

Hug Granddad for me.

You’ve lived a good life.

You’re free to go now,

I love you, Dad.”


But never good at goodbyes,

You hang on a few days,

Giving me time to

Breathe in the spring air,

See the white dogwood,

And hug my children tight.

It wasn’t the seasons

Of our lives

That defined them,

But the arc of all

That was us that

Encompassed them.

You and I arrived at

This place where,

Now I’m a steward of

All that is still you,

Moving with you into

A future together that

Before I would have faced alone.

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