Beginning is easy. Finishing is hard. I often have grand ideas for a poem that will never be written. Today, it was: “To the Roses Should They Bloom in the Spring,” which was to be a study in the volatility of nature, and an exploration of the unique pleasure that comes from making predictions towards an uncertain future. My poem felt so self-evident, so palpable, as I walked by the old wooden fence after a morning rain, looking at the cut vines and the ragged thorns. The green stubs, pointed skyward, felt unstoppable – a threat of life, poised in anticipation of a warmer season than this. I felt guilty for having chopped at the vines so savagely in years past, when it seemed they would render the gate impassable. Now, they clung to one another like cold children, each entwined in the arms of the next – bare, sober, and dependent on one another for the collective strength to defy gravity. Yet they were bold, and unapologetic, in a stark contrast against the wet, gray wood. Life will find a way, absent the cruel and thoughtless hand of man. But we cannot know for certain, we won’t know exactly how, until the spring bloom. It is a delicious anticipation.
When my father was old, before he passed away, before he sank so deeply into his comfy chair that none could lift him out of it, he confessed to me that all his friends were dead. It wasn’t sad. He seemed to be yearning for sympathy not at all, but rather, reciting a factoid like it was a crossword clue: #92, six letters across, starts with F. A person whose friends are deceased. I was expecting a twist of allegory, a lesson to be learned, but that was never his way. Emotions are to be locked up, quarantined like a stranger with a wet cough, and so we never have to make any sweeping conclusions. Life is just life. There is no meaning. Mental note: have younger friends.
If I did not have this beautiful family I would have removed myself long ago to the top of some menacing hill, where I might throw down obscure platitudes that could then roll on of their own accord. My own modern Confucianism, crossed with the nuggets I pulled from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:
Your best moments are impossible to share.
If you can imagine yourself not writing, then don’t.
Opinions are meaningless.
Always be patient with yourself.
I could go on; beginning is easy. It is the conclusion that comes with a requisite period of hand-wringing, nervous by the hot-stove of thematic fusion, waiting for a sense of completeness to rise from the flat-dough of conjecture. What if this, what if that, and on and on until the mind dozes off. But what does it mean? Nothing.
Eat the rice. Clean the bowl. In Zen meditation, this phrase is used to illustrate the importance of habit, and of staying in the moment. Thoughts are fine, but moving on to what’s next with a clear and present mind is zen. Thoughts can often be their own obstacles; better to simply have instinct about one thing at a time.
In my world, the flowers have choices to make, and the sky laughs at their indecision. In the world that was my father’s, everything is still. We are assembled from first principles, we aspire to uphold our duties and preserve our honor, we look for truth and avoid fabrication, but there is no space made for feelings. Emotions are simply the clothes that we wear. They are not flesh. On his last day, my father slept, and did not wake up. I heard his lungs fight for air. I watched my step-sister rub his cold feet. We ate burritos by the bed, while his soul poured itself into the sunset.
I have a neighbor who likes to drink. He invites friends over, invents cocktails, and starts conversations. Yet, he told me once about his fantasy of living on an island, surrounded by birds and bushes and books, with a wood stove, and plenty of tea, and a large supply of warm blankets. Somewhere on Vancouver Island, perhaps. I wonder how long he would last out there, with only his wife to talk to. He is a loquacious and lovable fellow. I think of him as a friend-collector, much in the way some people like to collect plants, or shoes, or adventures, because he seems more interested in possessing my friendship than he is in creating new experiences, or following up on any of the things he likes to talk about. But then, my wife explained it to me: he makes promises when he is drunk. He remembers none of it. I remember every word, and had been perplexed by it, until she helped me understand. Drunk promises are hard to keep. It’s just conversation. But these were good ideas: a monthly night-out for the husbands, a support group via text-messages; periodic music recommendations. Beginning is easy. I might have helped facilitate something, until I saw the empty promise for what it was.
Maybe there are doers, and dreamers, and nothing in between. I don’t know. I drove out to Medford for a practice last summer with a pair of musicians (drums, guitar) that were desperate for a lead singer. I brought my Weissenborn, we played a few songs, and there were a lot of smiles. I had a show set up the next week at a nearby winery, and everyone was excited to perform. We practiced a few more times. The day of the show, the drummer had a fight with his girlfriend, and was left with “no choice” but to drive to California to save his relationship; our guitarist called another drummer friend from Yreka to fill in. The show was great. I never heard from either of them again. I’ll bet those two are back in that musty living room, doing more dreaming than doing, and cursing their unfortunate luck. Finishing is hard.
How often does this happen? How many good ideas get swallowed by the haze, and how much social confusion is sown in the wild growth of lost conversation? How many star-gazers find what they are looking for, only to lose it again in a fit of cowardice? I can imagine my father, not paying attention, not even seeing the rise and fall of these dream-flashes. Having spent so long unburdened by an emotional exterior, there would have been no public face to wear the mask of disappointment. It’s just conversation. I still wonder if he could smell the burritos that we ate as he lay dying.
When I was with him that afternoon, it wasn’t over yet. The thought was that, perhaps, we would have one more day with him. Maybe he would open his eyes one last time. That night, at the hotel, I got the text message: “He’s gone.” His wishes were that he be cremated immediately, which meant within a few hours. No wake, no funeral; just flame, and ashes. I was desperate to see him again. I should have taken his hand when I had the chance. I drove to the hospital in my rented Mustang (why not? I’d never driven one) and could not find a way in. The front door was locked; the plaque said “Emergency Vehicles Use Side Entrance.” I looked for a side entrance. I was frantic. I did not know whether to get back in the car, and drive there, or just stay on foot. I found the intercom, eventually. By that time, I was sweating from the stress, and from jogging in the summer humidity. I wasn’t drunk, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that might be the problem. I am very lucky they didn’t call the cops on me. I had to see him. The night janitor took pity on me.
The wing of the hospital that he was in had been recently renovated, and felt like a vast, empty spaceship. I followed wordlessly through wide halls, past bland art, white walls, gray stripes, and matte, metallic tiles. When I arrived in a whirlwind of grief-stricken distress, my sister and brother-in-law were sitting quietly on a wooden bench by the door. No tears. Am I the only one that cries in this family? Is there a reason you weren’t getting my texts? Thank God for that janitor.
I remember the black sky through the window behind his bed, the yellow reflection of light from the hallway, and the rough, white cotton behind his head. Mouth open, eyes closed. I kissed his withered forehead. My tears fell on his pale face. I told him all the things I should have said when he might have heard me: that I was proud to have been his son; that he would be with his brother now. He would have told me to calm down. My father had no patience for affection. When you hugged him, he would grab you by the shoulders so you couldn’t get too close. His hand was cold, and I ran out of words. It was over.
I walked the perimeter of that hospital at least two more times, looking for where I had abandoned the rental car. I vaguely remembered having parked in a handicap spot, to be closer to the door that wouldn’t open. My mind was a frenzy of recollection – like the movie of my life was playing in the background, and if I concentrated hard enough, I might see his stubbled face and laughing blue eyes, in the same silver pair of glasses he wore for what seemed like my entire childhood, and the long leather jacket he stole from Al Pacino in Scarface. He was such a warm and generous person before the armchair, before the footrace of old age tired him out, and before his friends all went away. In my dream, I am hugging him, and he doesn’t mind at all.
Paris-born singer-songwriter, poet, and blogger Krister Axel was raised in New York, and got his degree in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He lives with his wife and two children in Ashland, Oregon, and writes about music every day at CHILLFILTR.com from his tiny attic-office (with a view).
“Drunk Promises Are Hard to Keep” was a finalist in the 2020 Accenti Writing Contest.