Poetry

Happy Birthday, Dad

Photo of a sky, lake, silhouetted trees, and a boathouse. The sky takes up most of the photo and is full of dark, tumultuous-looking clouds. The trees, water, and boathouse are shrouded in shadow.

Content note: this piece deals with addiction, abuse, and intergenerational trauma.


I wish my father a happy birthday.
He tells me he’s drinking again,
And that he hardly heard from anyone.
I can only ever write poems about him.

Write back, he always says.
His emails come quickly, contain hardly anything.
Write back, he always says.
Write back.

I have to come up with more to say, more that I can share.
There are so few safe topics to choose from.
He wants to see me. I don’t know if I can let him.
Just a few years ago, seeing him on the street would send me reeling—
Running, hiding, heart pounding, panic swelling.
I don’t know if he ever saw me run away.

I don’t know how to write that fear into a poem,
And perhaps this is where I fail as a poet.

I never thought I would speak to him again,
Never expected to write to him.
Five years of estrangement passed,
And then I did.
Something within me shifted.
Words like abuser, monster, Jekyll, and Hyde
Moved over to the side—
Making room for
Illness, sickness, and intergenerational trauma.
It took five years for my fear to begin melting,
For my anger to start eroding,
Revealing layers and layers of fresh-cut
Pain,
Confusion,
Compassion.

Write back, he always says.
Get your brother to write to me,
And write back.
Write back.
Write back.

What more can I say, Dad?

Snippets

Red Mug

Photo of a wide red mug held by the handle against 70s-style wallpaper with a yellow flower pattern.

Content note: this piece contains references to death and the COVID-19 pandemic.


I pour myself a cup of coffee in a red mug from the place they started taking me when I was a baby. I pour myself a cup of coffee from the place with the hill where I ran, tumbled, and lost my ice-cream cone. I pour myself a cup of coffee from the place where I sobbed hysterically and they gave me a new one. I pour myself a cup of coffee in a red mug with a white outline of an opened-mouthed fish jumping out of the water. This is my mother’s mug. She hates fish, but she loves where it’s from.

My grandparents loved it too, and now they’re gone. It’s just my mother, my brother, and me. We also lost my dad, but I don’t know how to talk about that succinctly. Sometimes, I feel like he was never really with us. His body came to that place, but I’m not sure if he ever did. Except, perhaps, for that time when I fell, but the memory is foggy. I think he helped me up and took me back for more ice-cream, so maybe he was there after all.

I’m not here to write about my dad. I’ve done enough of that.

The coffee is hot, so I have to keep my sips small. It’s rain-snowing outside, and there’s a pandemic, so that place is currently closed. I think it will survive though. The owner has money to burn. I trust they’ll keep it running and warm.

It was near there that I found a purple book in an outdoor lending library, part four of a mystery series that got me reading again. I left my mother and grandmother early that evening to read a hundred pages while rocking gently on a patio swing. I didn’t stop until I lost the light. The next morning, I told my grandmother about the story because she always liked to share what she was reading. She used to give us stories of faraway places and times and people in rich detail.

I haven’t seen my extended family since she died. That was the last time she brought us all together. That was the last time we were allowed to be together.

I was given a tarot reading over a year ago that told me I will find what I’m looking for eventually, but it will take a long time. I’m on the right path, but it twists and winds. I accept this. I have to. My grandmother was interested in my path. Her life was coming to an end, she said, but mine was just beginning, and she was curious about where it would lead. What will I make of this life? Where will it take me?

I can’t answer that yet, but I’ll share the story with her one day.

For now, I sit typing at my computer with a red mug half-full of cooling coffee. I write about the past and the future. I write about my family. I watch the rain fall, and I let the music play. It’s February. It’s been a hard year. I have a little hope growing inside of me, but I can’t place where it’s coming from. Maybe the coffee.