There’s A Last Time for Everything

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I went to visit my father in the hospital. He is in late-stage Parkinson’s and, within a few weeks, he declined from being able to walk up the steps to my beach house, to not being able to walk or stand at all.

When I got there, my step-mother was sitting by his bedside, making her usual effort to get him to communicate.

“Look, Ralph! Your daughter’s here! Open your eyes and say ‘hello’!”

My father lay stoically inert.

“That’s okay,” I said. “Dad, I was thinking I’d read you some poetry. Would you like that?”

He smiled.

“How about Walt Whitman?”

He smiled bigger.

Leaves of Grass?”

Affirmative.

My father was my first teacher of writing, literature, and music. He taught me how to play a Beatles song on the piano. He taught me how to appreciate the imagery and to listen to the cadence and rhythms of words and how to hear the music that emanates from a page of well-written poetry.

He pointed me towards some of the greats…  T.S. Eliot, Anton Chekhov, Henry David Thoreau, and too many others to list here. He regaled me with lengthy, memorized verse from Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and, of course, Shakespeare.

And he critiqued my writing and performances. Always supportive. Always helpful. Always accurate.

I began…

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…

 Seeing that he and I were settled, my stepmother said her good-byes and made her exit.

I continued to read to him.

… Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,

I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,

The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it…

When I got to the end of stanza 14, he opened his eyes and held up his hand to stop me.

I was surprised to see him so alert.

“What is it, Dad?”

He gestured with his finger, “Go back to the beginning.”

So, I did.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…

I got a few verses down into the first stanza, and once again, the hand went up. And with his gestures and whispers of broken phrases, he managed to communicate, “More emotion. Put more feeling into it.”

So, I did.

…Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?

Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?…

“Stop,” Dad gestured. “Back to the beginning.”

And with the virtuoso of a master conductor, connecting gestures with words, he communicated to me, “Don’t stop at the end of a line. Keep the words flowing through the verse.”

So, I did.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…

 “Better?”

He nodded.

I was glad.

After years of watching his decline, and having fewer and fewer conversations about literature, music, philosophy, until they just stopped, I am so grateful to have had this moment with him.

It is a memory I will cherish forever.

The Bottom Line is This: I had a business coach who once told me, “There’s a last time for everything, and we usually don’t know which time will be it.” I am grateful that, on this occasion, I was fortunate to know and wise enough to savor the moment.

 

 

 

 

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