Reading Aloud to My Father
I chose the book haphazard
from the shelf, but with Nabokov’s first
sentence I knew it wasn’t the thing
to read to a dying man:
The cradle rocks above an abyss, it began,
and common sense tells us that our existence
is but a brief crack of light
between two eternities of darkness.
The words disturbed both of us immediately,
and I stopped. With music it was the same—
Chopin’s piano concerto—he asked me
to turn it off. He ceased eating, and drank
little, while the tumors briskly appropriated
what was left of him.
But to return to the cradle rocking. I think
Nabokov had it wrong. This is the abyss.
That’s why babies howl at birth,
and why the dying so often reach
for something only they can apprehend.
At the end they don’t want their hands
to be under the covers, and if you should put
your hand on theirs in a tentative gesture
of solidarity, they’ll pull the hand free;
and you must honor that desire,
and let them pull it free.