Dinner and a Poem

It was a custom of ours for some time in our home, after we were through with our dinner, for one of us to grab Bartlett’s Poems for Occasions off the shelf and partnering with someone else at the table fan the pages until they would holler, Stop. Whichever poem the one fanning the pages landed on was theirs to read aloud. Then it moved on to the next person and so on and so forth until we’d all taken a turn. Outside the obvious pleasures and enlightenments of reading wonderful poetry, this practice for our family was akin to using a divining rod to find water. There was always the fated chance the someone would stop on a poem that revealed some precise and meaningful thing about ourselves.

It was a silly little game, but we all liked it, even when the supernatural was not tempted and the poems made little personal sense to the reader or anyone else, which was often. Lia, for instance, seemed to have the knack for always stopping on Robert Frost’s, Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know, (which may have made perfect sense looking back). She liked the poem so much, she had the page dog-eared and went ahead and read it anyway, whether she was commanded to stop or not. To her, life can be both mythical and in our power to control it, such was her dinner and a poem.

Often, people took more than one turn in the hopes of fate giving them a better verse, something lovelier or simply more direct. Disappointment, even in something as fickle as chance, is a difficult thing to accept. More than once, we had to just close the book, leave serendipity for another day, and get on with cleaning up the table. But, as I said, we all liked the game and out of it grew some appreciation in all of us for poetry, family, and tradition.

I don’t write poetry — well, I don’t write poetry well, that is. I don’t think so anyway. Other than one recent occasion (in case you missed it, here is the link to the very special, Six Until Me), I haven’t tried my hand at it in many, many years. But I love poetry and when I write prose I write with the same love and gratitude for the way words can be carved and shaped into an evocative, aesthetic rhythm. Poetry is to storytelling, what music is to sound.

Unfortunately, we haven’t been cracking Bartlett’s or any other poetry book after dinner lately. There is no good reason why. Energy. Focus. Desire. So much has been on our minds. What time has there been for daydreaming poets, for lyrics, or irony, when there are boluses and blood checks and other worries on which to attend?

The truth is there is no excuse. This occasion means too much to us as a family. So in honor of returning this tradition to our table, I offer this, the very first poem I turned to this morning (honestly). It’s by Henry David Thoreau. The title is My life has been the poem I would have writ:

My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.

Now just to show how well this “diving rod” doesn’t work, the second one fate picked for me was To My Dear and Loving Husband, by Anne Bradstreet.

Good thing we aren’t relying on this to find water.

When We Grow Up

Once, last week, on a day I had work that would take me away from the house, I drove Lia to the school where Franca teaches so that she could stay with her mother. It was summer vacation still and Lia was happy to be going to the school because only the teachers would be there and she would pretty much have the run of the place. She carried with her her diabetes supplies as well as a backpack of artsy activities suited to occupy her, though most of her time would be spent either playing on the computer or drawing on the white board at the head of the class.

I think there is something strangely alluring to a child and an empty school building. It reminds me of when I was her age and visiting my father’s uncle who drove a school bus in some far out country school district in northern Ohio. I can still remember the thrill of him taking us for a Sunday afternoon joy ride in the enormously long (back then) yellow bus.

For the drive over we took what we call The Big White Truck, which for Lia is always a treat, but not because it is big, it isn’t, but because she gets to sit in the front seat. This puts us on even par, at least conversationally speaking. Just two dudes — a new favored term she has recently picked up — ridin’ in a truck, yappin ‘bout the day.

I was feeling nostalgic for other reasons as well. This year Lia will be in the fourth grade and as such will be moving to another building. This is good news for us as a family because that means that Franca and the girls will all be at the same campus, which brings us both great assurance from a diabetes care standpoint — this school has no nurses, mom and dad are the nurses — as well solves for us a number of logistical problems, primarily, for me anyway, avoidance of cutting my workday short to attend the dreaded carpool.

But a new campus also implies something lost: The early mornings of waiting with Lia in the car at the library, talking and listening to music until the school doors opened, then holding hands as we walked down the street and past the flag pole and up to the school’s front steps; later in the day, sunny afternoons waiting outside on the sidewalk to pick her up, sharing a wave as she found me in the crowd of other parents, listening as she told me about her day as we walked back to the car; the occasional side-trek to the park or the library, which, sadly in hindsight, never happened often enough. To make matters worse, in the fourth grade building there are fifth graders to serve as reminder that just around the bend are the sixth and seventh and eighth graders, who are just a short skip and a jump from the high school, of which I can’t possibly consider for fear of discovering that a blink is truly all that it takes and then you are there, years ahead of this one certain moment.

Lia is old enough to know this too but to a child time passing is different. It is something of which to look forward to, to dream upon and make wishes — who you might become, where you might live, what work you might do — and yet…

As we head to the school that day in The Big White Truck, her mood suggests also a special sadness. Whether she is old enough to appreciate it or not is another matter, but I sense this tinge of regret in her that all children eventually come to discover, that life does indeed hurry by.

I will miss our walks, she says, but her grin betrays her. She has said this for my benefit and I love her even more for it. It is one of those cherished moments you’d like to freeze in time, the beloved gift of a glimpse into someone’s true heart.

Our wistful moment is short lived, as most are, and we have moved on further down the road. Our discussion has moved on too and we are talking about barns and how it would be nice to have one on a farm, with cows and chickens and tractors. Lia turns to me and says, Daddy?

Yes, sweetheart.

When we grow up, she begins.

I look at her suddenly with puzzled amusement, and she stops. I regret my intrusion at once, the suggestion is just too farfetched, though also extremely appealing. But I am too late with remorse. Lia has already realized her verbal mistake. It shows on her face in embarrassment and I feel for her disenchantment. It is one of adulthood we all share eventually, there is no turning back.

And so she starts over with the proper beginning, and we continue down this path, where my daughter, and all of my children, in fact, keep proving to be miles ahead of me.


In some parts they call it catting. In others, it’s hogging or stumping or dogging. If it is trout, not catfish, you are after, it is considered art, not a sport, and known to practitioners as tickling. However, those of, shall we say, a bit more extreme-minded personality, prefer something a bit ornerier as their prey. Plus, if you are of the necessary mindset and in the mood for entertainment, there is even a DVD series called Girls Gone Grabblin’ for your catfistin’ viewing pleasure. Universally though the term for it is noodling. It involves wading into shallow water and shoving your hand beneath the surface and plunging it into a dark underwater hole where if you’re lucky and all goes well it will be swallowed by some giant catfish. Irregardless, the name you give it, it is by the very unambiguous definition of the act, hands on, and as such a fitting analogy to other such menacing matters.

We returned to the lake over the Fourth of July weekend to share in a longer visit with our friends from Connecticut and though none of us noodled or grabbled or otherwise did anything risk-worthy of a video, we did come across two young men hand-fishing for catfish along the shoreline. My good friend, Mike, and I were standing on his dock fishing when they asked did we mind if they noodled past.

At the time I had no idea what they were even talking about and went on fishing, but watched after the two boys with interest as they went about probing beneath the surface with their hands and a stick searching for probable nests. The way they felt unseen before them reminded me of searching the nightstand for my glasses in the dark, minus of course the caution (read: fear) of being latched on to by something fierce and toothy. I found also a poetic semblance in their ambitious blind hunt to the treatment of Lia’s diabetes.

Such cause for waxing lyrically may have been due to my state of mind, which after the unceremonious case of forgetting the dog, was convinced that the rest of the summer would be going much in the way of her blood sugars: A plethora of mind-numbing highs, mixed with a few startling lows, some brief, unpredictable moments of rest and contentment. For both Franca and I it had begun to feel as if much of our days and nights would be spent on the periphery of living, bound down by the sole occupation of chasing phantoms. It was a sentiment we felt sure would be backed up with scientific proof during Lia’s next endocrinologist visit, which occurred the week following our lake trip.

Fortunately our fears, like the worry of those catfish hunters who sometimes poke something they wished they had not, were not realized. The two boys got their fish, a thirty-five pound channel cat, lurking beneath a boat ramp a few houses down from our friend’s. And despite the struggles we’ve had with adapting to pump therapy, Lia’s A1c came down to 7.8.

Our relief, of course, was immense, as was that of those two fishermen when the great water cat came clean of its guarded obscurity with no injury to either of them. And after the elation settled and those wonders we’d brought to the surface and spoke of and then turned loose and after the doorway in which we’d come to know them had gently closed and we were left standing alone untroubled by the effort of our accomplishment, at peace even perhaps, we thanked ourselves for the warriors in all of us who never stop searching, probing, and reaching into the next hole.

It is the experience of our hands that we learn from, which fingers to prick, which dark holes to avoid. We are being taught to take it one day at a time, one shoreline after another, celebrating the rewards of everyone’s hard work and  mulling over the things that went wrong. But such discovery has a hard-edged strangeness about it, an awareness that leaves us weary. Yes, with it comes empowerment, but there is always the troubling forethought of what might linger in the unknown. For tomorrow is another day and fear too can be motivating. Parents of children with chronic sickness know this maybe better than most. As Franca put it to me as we were driving away from the doctor’s office with our good news: Every time I leave there, I can’t help but feel like crying.