Understanding my Dad through poetry

A cartoon created as part of a book given by Dad's colleagues at Canadian Armed Forces Staff College in 1957

Communication has become very difficult for my Dad: bad hearing, slowed comprehension, harder articulation. But my Dad has something most people do not: a bottled up store of memorized passages that seem to uncork of their own accord.

As my Dad lay on a gurney in an Emergency Department exam room last Sunday, he suddenly exclaimed:

I am Ozymandius, King of Kings. Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!”

I don’t think the ER staff was impressed. In fact, if I hadn’t been there, they might have though he’d jumped the track. But I knew exactly what was going on. My Dad’s unconscious mind summoned up a passage that he felt was germane to the situation.

Though I wasn’t familiar with it, I quickly googled the phrase on my iPhone and found it in a poem written by Shelley in the 19th century.

The poem describes an old statue with a powerful visage that survives despite being shattered and sunk in desert sands. Dad’s exclamation was the inscription on its pedestal.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt it was the perfect passage for a unplanned visit to the hospital. It was Dad’s way of saying, “I may be diminished by age and illness, but I am still here.”

Then, later in the week, another fragmentary bit of poetry served as Dad’s way of saluting his nurse, Dawn. He offered, “And the dawn came up like thunder, outer China ‘crost the Bay.” Kipling’s poem “Mandalay” celebrates his love of the Orient. While Dad’s memory was jogged by his nurse’s name, I’m not at all surprised that he came up with a poem that celebrates a “neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land.”

And then today, after Dad was complimented for his meticulous oral hygiene during his six-month check up at the dentist, out came this one: “My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure.”

I’m sure my Dad meant it a little self-mockingly. But while he may not be everyone’s idea of Sir Galahad as described by Tennyson, I think the phrase somehow fits him. He’s always been a straight-up-no-bullshit kind of guy; in fact, that trait almost got him court martialed during the war when he disregarded an order that he knew would have been a mistake.

He may not be everybody’s idea of Sir Galahad, but he is my Sir Galahad.


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4 responses to “Understanding my Dad through poetry

  1. Beautiful, Lovely Guinevere.. His Soul sings!! and claps its hands and louder sings!! For you..

    “An aged man is but a paltry thing,
    A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
    Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
    For every tatter in its mortal dress…”
    (Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium)

    “But he heard high up in the air
    A piper piping away,
    And never was piping so sad,
    And never was piping so gay…”
    (Yeats, The Host of the Air)

  2. Deb Vosburgh

    Betsy, I so love and appreciate your writings about your time with your dad. Looking back, I wish I would have done something like that while I helped take care of Mom. You are doing some of God’s most difficult work in these days; I honor and admire your commitment and courage. You won’t regret a moment of it, no matter how hard it is now. I’m keeping you and your amazing dad in my thoughts and prayers. XOXO

  3. Made me chuckle! Sounds like quite a character!

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