MY FATHER WAS A FIRM BELIEVER
in Reader’s Digest. Every year he’d gift me
a subscription and every year I’d tease him
that I’d never seen a magazine so perfect
for the bathroom, regular as bran, one muffin
of reading a day, every day of the month—
31, 30, and one with 28—features you could
get through in bowel movement time and maybe
sneak in a “Laughter Is the Best Medicine” joke
or “Life in These United States” anecdote
before flushing. Even the page size, the cover
format, was a perfect fit for a toilet tank.
Whole novels were condensed to editorial
essences, first-person essays reduced to chance
crossings of paths, one shared intersection,
a single transformational incident recalled or
character encountered that left an impression
enduring as dinosaur tracks in high mesa clay.
The Digest, like my father, accentuated
the positive, skirted the evil footloose in
Chicago and the world. No matter the subject,
the pieces skewed inspirational, motivational,
the journalistic equivalent of geologic upthrust,
capturing a cataclysmic moment of time
in mini-memoir perspective that exposed
a fossilized artifact sandwiched between
strata of sentiment, layers of birth and death.
My father believed that people were good,
that given the choice they would choose right,
that they could be steadfast in their choosing,
and that even reading about their testings and
temptations had vicarious power to redeem.
It didn’t matter that the articles, the lives,
were abstracts or formulaic, that the stories
had been pre-cooked and regurgitated
in an easily assimilated form, as if offered
to assuage wide open beaks and swollen
throats of hatchlings, giving them the strength
to fledge; regular feedings measured out
in daily portions, twelve times a year.
There were gale force winds the day my father told me
he was dying but I did not hear him or listen close enough
to fully comprehend. His words on the telephone scattered,
like sycamore leaves on sidewalks, downed
palm fronds and power lines, like my neighbor’s roof
that blew off into hillside brush later that afternoon.
I should have gone immediately. In hindsight it’s clear.
Instead, I waited for morning, showered, shaved,
brushed my teeth, drank another cup of tea.
“My heart is failing,” I believe, is what he said to me.
On the two-hour drive to the hospital I remember music
I’d chosen to play: “West Texas Plains,” “Love and Danger,”
“Bandera Highway” —songs I don’t listen to today.
There was little traffic on the freeway, as if to speed
my passage, rush me to lifelong regret. My father
didn’t wait for arrival. Sometime near dawn he left.
No nurses, no orderlies, blank monitor screens. His body on
the sheets still lay. Too late for listening then. His voice was
drowned by November gusts and already he was so far away.
I spoke to him though, really, there was nothing I could say.