Smith, Whitney. 'Bridge, Hill, Tree.' 2006.
The flame flickers
of the candle I lit a short while ago
My father is dying and so I lit a small candle
I sit down to be silent for a little while
To reflect on a life lived for ninety-five years
to feel the emotion wash over
He is now so old
Though it makes death less of a shock
death seems no less a thief
A hard-scrabble youth, post-Depression
Navy combat during WWII, back home to marry the girl next door
Literally, the girl next door, who would become our mother
They hit Route 66 leaving the Midwest far behind
young, full of a brighter future
their car loaded up with a toaster and their few belongings
Not stopping till they reach the Golden Gate Bridge
Dad once told me that he turned to Mom as they stood looking out
on that grand bridge a world apart from the cornfields of Iowa
He asked her, “How’d you like to live here?”
Without hesitation she said, “Yes,” and they never looked back
Des Moines became their history, the Golden State their future
for the rest of both their long lives
Now he is dying, this hardworking man
who overcame hardship and the bottle
and their sad divorce many years in the future
Lucky enough to find love a second time, then widowed when she died
He is so ready now
Ready, he says, for God to take him
His body is tired, worn, used up
No more work to be done, nothing left to do before sunset
I sit quietly and the flame flickers
Time seems to stretch as I watch the candle, now burned down so low
Time feels different, death has no sense of time
No need for our linear calendar, arranged for our own convenience
and of our own design
Death, for me, changes time altogether, shifting it into a dimension of eternity
of spaciousness, something I cannot understand and am not meant to understand
And this person I love and who has loved me so devotedly
so fiercely, so unconditionally
becomes part of something else, something so vast that I cannot go there
The flame glows, orange and yellow and blue
right close to the wick
just above a growing melted pool of wax
Swaying slowly to its own rhythm
His breathing slows, his chest barely moving
A long, long life of hard work
of deep sadness and joy
Then the frailty, frustration, and vulnerability of old age
I stroke my father’s hands, now withered and bruised
his sunken face, his head with white wisps of hair soft as downy feathers
I whisper to him and imagine that he knows that it is me
by a slight turn of his face in my direction
though his eyes remain closed and he can no longer speak
I talk softly of family vacations of long ago in the mountains
memories now as real as this present moment with him
of fishing in wild and rushing streams, white clouds overhead in bright blue Sierra Nevada skies
Of Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer, which I have trouble recalling word for word
I feel an almost imperceptible draft of wind in the room
The window and door are closed
I look up, the candle flickers
and then dies
Why does it feel so sudden?
The chest now still
And all that remains is a wisp of smoke
Smith, Whitney. Fire and Smoke. 2021.
SUSANNE SEVEREID is an author and actor/presenter working in journalism, television and radio. Her books include When Someone You Love Is Dying: Some Thoughts to Help You Through and Mocha Musings: Reflections on Life, Love, and Chance Encounters. Susanne lives in Ashland, Oregon. View Susanne's site.
A great friend, we have both been through the death cycle a few times and it never changes. I love this poem of hers, meant for her father (and it could also have been mine, back in the 80's). But it also speaks to me of two Vietnam Vet husbands who watch over me and mine — how hard death is for each of us. However, in death we also see great love in life. Thank you.
Arthur Mills writes . . . You have captured the heart of the man, as well as your deep love for one another. How good that you were there with him. What a gift for the man who knew you were there. What a treasure for you to be present.
I have read so much about dying and being there. Never have I heard it put so beautifully and so directly. One of my new friends talks constantly about being at the heart of the matter. That is the place you have inhabited.
A blessing for your dad,
A blessing for yourself, and
A blessing for each one who reads it.
Grace and peace to you on your journey.