More Than We Deserve

by Ruth Foley

At one point, my father turns to me
and says, You won’t write about this,
will you? Of course I won’t.

And I’ll claim I’ve filled in
the sort of invented detail poets use
to make our solitary truths more universal.

Of course my uncle didn’t toss
bag after bag from sandwich shops
onto the floor. Of course they didn’t

land among dead batteries, tortilla chips,
flattened tubes of lubricant for men and machines,
old magazines and newspapers,

three five-gallon buckets full of ash
from the coal stove. We didn’t find
bottle after bottle of unopened

anti-psychotic meds, enough for a year or more
or for a faster suicide than this.
Or seven different get-rich-quick schemes

ordered from the late night TV desperation wasteland.
Not those, either. The house we loved,
my grandmother’s house, was never sunk

knee-deep in his detritus or our shame.
It never held the kind of blame we didn’t
place upon ourselves. The books

weren’t piled in rotting boxes, we didn’t
find empty cans of chili and soup
crusted on the floor. We didn’t stop to think

of how he ate them cold, didn’t find the spoons.
The shelves weren’t full of cat hair
and destination DVDs. The worst of these

are things we cannot speak of,
so it’s a blessing that they don’t really exist—
the foot-high pile of shredded paper

his cats didn’t use as litter in the middle
of the living room, the stench that didn’t
rise to the skylights. Worse still,

the tiny scraps of the man who wasn’t there:
a fractured list of things to do (milk,
storage unit, job, nap, pills), a tiny pile

of photographs of his dead son and living daughter,
a book on staying sober in disaster. Of all the things
we do not find, these are the things that break us.

The truth is that we didn’t try
to find him again in those brief moments
when he fought to be the man he knew he was

somewhere. The truth is that we thought
he’d given up. The truth is that he thought
the same of us, and maybe we did too.

And if this house is full of all the things
that failed to give him purchase,
we know our job of clearing away

this stranger’s life—all its overt messiness,
all its honesty and naked human suffering—
is more than we deserve.

*

Ruth Foley lives in Massachusetts, where she teaches English for Wheaton College. Her recent work is appearing or forthcoming inRiver Styx, Measure, The Ghazal Page, and Umbrella, which just nominated one of her poems for a Pushcart Prize. She also serves as Associate Poetry Editor for Cider Press Review.