Lesléa Newman may be best known to readers here as the author of Heather Has Two Mommies and other children’s books. She is also, however, an award-winning poet, and her latest volume of poetry for adults is a wise and loving look at her father in the last years of his life.
I Wish My Father (Headmistress Press; Amazon/Bookshop) is a companion book to her 2015 I Carry My Mother (Amazon/Bookshop), about her mother’s battle with and death from cancer, though each can be read alone. (My review of the earlier volume is here.) I Wish My Father picks up after her mother’s death as Newman and her father face that loss as well as his own aging. It ends with his own death from a stroke. In its narrative poems, we see Newman’s own struggles as his caregiver, always loving but occasionally exasperated. Through vignettes and deft dialogue about supermarket trips, doctor’s appointments, looking through old photo albums, and more, she gives us an image of the man, stubborn and proud, as they navigate the last years of his life together. The particulars of their lives, however, also speak to the universals of change and loss and time, and everyday moments carry double meaning. One poem, “My father is slipping,” begins:
My father is slipping
his glasses up his nose
eager to see the stars
It goes on to show how other parts of him, too, are slipping away, making the title/first line re-resonate. Another poem shows him reflecting that he and his wife had always planned that he would die first. He then sits in the doctor’s office “to wait and wonder/when on earth he’ll be called,” and we understand that it is not just a medical appointment that he is wondering about.
Newman understands that aging is not a simple or linear process. Her father remains able to do complex arithmetic in his head even as he starts to see visions of people from his earlier life and ones who have never existed. Newman finally convinces him to move into a nursing home, and writes:
My father is moving out
of the house he shared with my mother
for more than 50 years and every damn
day I find a brand new way to break
his broken heart.
These are not easy or comfortable poems, especially for those of us who are caring for or have lost our own parents, but they are powerful in capturing what so many of us go through. They may offer the solace of showing us that we are not alone in our feelings of loss, frustration, grief, reminiscence, and love. Newman dedicates the volume to her father, adding the traditional Jewish wisdom about one who has died, “May his memory be for a blessing.” In sharing her memories of him, Newman is also sharing some of that blessing.
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