An Accordion for Your Eightieth Birthday

                                    For my father

Now that I think of it, I should send you 

Eighty songs, and eighty flowers, just one candle

Because we have one life only

To make up for that accordion you so much

Wished to have all of your life

First from your father, and then secretly

Probably from anyone who would have given it

To you. I only learned about this wish of yours

This year and you know, I dreamed

That perfect, shiny, echoing instrument.

But it turns out it would be too dangerous to ship

From Ireland, or France, let’s say

All the way to Grand Rapids, Michigan

Where you now have difficulties breathing

Just a day before your birthday—but nothing serious—

Only a passing clogged up nose. The accordion 

Is like an egg, you see, you cannot really ship it

You bump it a bit and the sound cracks.

But I have been researching and even dreamed 

To take a journey to those places in the country

Where artisans make them from special wood,

Turn that tree into a lung, a back and a chest

That sing when you coax them with your touch.

I can see you, a little boy sitting next to the village

Accordion player, tapping your foot, wanting

That box for yourself, wanting the music inside

And God, what life has given you instead.

But here we are on your eightieth birthday, Dad,

I am so proud you made it through famine, prison

Labour camps, exile, cancer, and lately isolation.

I am so proud I am saying, and I am so poor

(a poor poet, you can laugh, yes, dreaming dreams

Like warm loaves of bread, that accordion for you)

Oh, God, I am proud you are turning eighty 

Tomorrow, please accept this accordion

This year, as generously as you accepted

Everything else life has given you 

Instead of what you wished for—some times

(Like you) I think dreams might count for more.

Solstitium

          For Pramila

It wasn’t just a feeling:

The sun stood still,

The light in the hours was weak

And the ravens came out,

Curious about us being there.

They were black like ink.

Perched on the high branches,

They surveilled us.

As if from the longest night

The ravens came out on top of trees

And looked us in the eye.

You turned away from them

Sensing how I was drawn

By their powerful wings

That flopped above us.

The sun stood still,

The light in the hours was weak,

So much like this time of my life,

When luck stands still.

The ravens were feasting in the fields

I loved their powerful beaks

They took my soul under their wings,

It wasn’t just a feeling.

We counted the ravens—two

And then three, five, more—

They flew so low in the fields

As I walked after them.

Death is a sacred time,

I walked with the ravens in the fields.

*

I had forgotten that it was the shortest day,

When I asked you to join me.

All I wanted was a walk in the fields,

We always see hawks and herons there,

We look for omens about going away

From here. My luck stands still.

Death is a sacred time.

The ravens did not speak to me

From the tops of trees. They looked

At us as fellow travelers and left.

The water in the sea was clear.

I’ve come through the longest night,

You see, my dear. The Earth continues

To tilt: it’s not just a feeling.

December 21-22, 2022

Memento Mori

Memento Mori

          For my father

The mortician gave you a smile you never had

Your folded hands upon the cross felt like wax

The grandchildren kept exchanging the tiny icons

We placed upon on your chest, nothing felt right.

*

The father who used to annoy me rose

From the death bed as an angel, who circled

The roof of my house in the guise of a white crane,

To undo the knot of my soul tied in the letting go.

I’d like to believe that in the first morning

When your soul left your old, tired body

You sent the gift of secret strength

To all of us, according to our want and need.

*

To whom do I owe these glorious mornings,

When the sun makes the sky manifest as a soul?

I owe these mornings of hope to the kind

And merciful God, who made you and made me.

Inside the grave of yellow clayish soil

At the Vatra Monastery in Michigan

Your body does its own journey of returning

To the dust of this earth. It’s peaceful there.

*

In the end you agreed with me about us

Becoming nothing but stories, sharing

Not much more than memories half-remembered

When the body grows tired of itself.

“Hai, stati sa ne mai amintim” Come, stay a bit,

Let us remember for a little while. But this morning

My words feel as rigid as the sick and dying body,

Weak in recalling the last moments when we spoke.

My poem fails to give you the presence you had.

Your folded words upon the final prayers feel like wax.

The grandchildren keep listening to your final voicemails

That sing you alive in our ears. Nothing feels right.

29 December 2022

Burying Dreams at Sunrise

A couple of months ago, on November 9, 2022, my father died. I keep thinking of the custom and ceremony that were such a big part of his dying and burial: the priest, the prayers, the family gathering. I believe my mother, my sister, my brother, my children, and I could not have made it through the initial grief if we did not perform all the rites and rituals as we did. 

The one person I did not want to be at my father’s funeral, yet agreed to join us anyway, was my husband. We are in the middle of an extremely difficult divorce, which is not appropriate to portray in print. However, his presence was in a lot of ways inevitable to the process of letting go of my father, and I am realizing this now, as we are returning to Court for the third time, in the ritual of letting go of our own marriage and our own family.

I am coming to think of the divorce as a form of burial. All these arguments, failed settlements, and Family Court presentations with their attendant anxieties are part of the process of coming to terms with a harsh reality. The security and trust we once experienced as a family are gone for good. The experts of all kinds help minister the burial of a dream, and hopefully will help clean the slate for each of us, and especially the children, for a life ahead. I know that the future will resemble nothing of what we built over years and years with different hopes and dreams. 

My son and I took some time to talk today after school. As I was explaining to him that he cannot avoid the grief over our situation, that it is perfectly normal to feel torn and frustrated, the perception of divorce as burial seemed compelling. My father died and his body had to be returned to the earth—disposed of—safely and properly. The rituals helped us deal with grief and look ahead at life without him. My marriage, the body that housed the dream of a safe and happy family, has died. The divorce is a long and painful ritual meant to bury the marriage and create the possibility of a life ahead without carrying the disintegrating corpse around. At my father’s funeral, somebody had to carry the cross during the procession, the closest family had to carry the coffin to its vault, everyone present had to throw earth on the coffin, someone had to lead the prayers, someone had to speak about my father and his legacy. Everything had to be balanced, there was a reason for all the gestures we made. In a sense, everyone had to agree to let go. After the burial, we accepted to return to our lives—without my father—each of us carrying a different burden of grief.

I tried to explain to my son that hopefully soon we will all be ready to let go of our little family too. We are becoming accustomed to new words in our lives—legal words that are cold and artificial, that carry the legacy of loss. But the longer we lug the dead body of the marriage about because we can’t figure out how to bury it, the more likely we will become irreversibly sick from its toxic fumes, as it decomposes in our arms. The sooner we end the divorce—carry through with the burial of our family dream—the sooner we can draw our lives ahead.

The mechanics of the divorce itself remap our lives but unfortunately not many practical decisions are in my control. During the past year I was able to win a fabulous job across the world. The dream of returning to my academic career with this job could have come through easily a few years ago. But I am warned that my hopes for the job—and financial independence—will be shattered soon. What the judge will do in Court, as he will minister over the burial of my marriage, will re-draw the future of each of us: I could be opening a new part of the map for my children and help them embrace the larger human family. Or I could be kept here, dependent on my husband’s child support and alimony, struggling. It’s terrifying. 

I looked into my son’s eyes which were full of pain. I wonder what he saw when he looked into mine. Every day I look into his sister’s eyes too. Their eyes are full of questions about what will happen to us, about how and where the Court will say that we must live. Unlike a burial, which is usually peaceful and swift, the divorce is not. Those who help in the disposal of the marriage have a lot of power over how, where, and when our future will begin. The children and I are deeply exhausted. I can only hope for the best.

I wake up without fail before the sunrise just so I can see the sky fill with light, hoping to see a new path ahead. I pray continually as I bury dreams. Freedom, that old word that cost my father and my childhood so much, has returned to me with a new sense of urgency. It seems as elusive as a fish from the sea I once rescued and held in my hands, before I put it back into the water and coaxed into the depths. 

The Bells are Tolling

The bells are tolling

 ION BUGAN, 4 May 1935 — 9 November 2022

For three days now the bells of our village church in Romania have been tolling for Ion Bugan. Our house, the one my parents built, stands right behind the church. The kitchen window faces the inner part of the altar where wine is turned into communion. Our first house, and the air above our village, are filled with the sound of bells, their peals scattering like the autumn leaves. 

For the past three days the priest of the church that my parents helped build on the other side of the world, in America, has been draping the patrahir over my father’s body. This is a sacred time of gathering and farewells. 

“What are you thinking?” Mom asked Dad a few days ago when he was lost in thought. “I am waiting for the gate of Heaven to open,” he said. He had been dreaming of dead friends and family for days. She lit the candle for him, to help him see the way. Mom, Loredana, Elvira, Catalin, and I were with him, making a bridge of encouraging words, as his breath became more labored. 

We stopped to greet family memories as we journeyed the final hours with him. We remembered when we climbed on his back in the Black Sea: “My turn, Taticu, throw me in! Let me dive from your shoulders, Taticu! My turn!” He always pulled us from the water, we were never scared with him. Mom remembered digging the family well with him. When he was wheeled out of the house, his burial suit at his side, the house emptied. Our grief is so deep that it is possible to say that our hearts are empty and filled at the same time.

The story goes that for 40 days after dying, the soul hovers around the house to say the long goodbye. This is the time when the angels are taking Dad on a journey through the whole of his life, to remind him of everything he has done, good and bad, so that he prepares himself for the Final Judgment. 

The angels will take him back to Tecuci after the war, when he was so poor, he wore shoes with broken soles, the top part tied around his foot. He’ll see his first job as an electrician, when he was so proud to wear the work name tag. He’ll see his beloved Carpathian Mountains and the sea, his trips around the country, his motorcycle, the friends. 

Then he will stop again in the many prisons where he was tortured because he opposed oppression. I am sorry he will have to see those prisons rooms again: some of them have now become museums, and he took us to see them for ourselves when he was alive. They are terrible rooms, where the human spirit was destroyed for generations. 

But not Dad’s spirit, for I am sure the angels will take him back to America, where we danced in the kitchen for every birthday and shared Mom’s wonderful meals. I hope the angels won’t forget to take him to the kitchen table, where we played chess and argued about politics. I know he will see again his precious grandchildren: Stefano, Sorina, Mirela, and Alisa. He had the biggest smiles around them and had so much advice for them. They remember him in his state-of-the art garage, where hundreds of tools are labeled and placed in perfect rows, ready to fix intricate car engines. The last time he could walk, he asked to climb in his car and turn the engine on once more. 

Today is burial time. In these final hours, before we consecrate his body to the earth, we honor Ion Bugan, for he was a man who lived a life of sacrifice and heroism, a sacrifice which will always be remembered in our native country. The bells toll for Ion Bugan on two continents today. May he  receive a warm welcome in Heaven, for he has done good work here, among us.

Holy Communion

Holy Communion

                   For my parents

The priest gathered us under the cross

In our living room, parents seated,

Children kneeling. The book opened,

The words of old prayers flew about

Like freed doves, trained to return home.

*

We don’t know if my brother opened

The last bottle of wine, or if I protested

Dad’s dying one last time, when I offered

The glass of red instead of the morphine,

Because, for God’s sake, we’ll do this right.

Mom and my sister nursed dad through

The small hours, talking softly about

What will happen to all of us scattered

Too far from home. Dad told us to plant

A row of fruit trees, fix the writers’ shed.

*

It’s Sunday morning. The sun rises

In the autumn-burned trees, above our church.

The priest alone waits for us with holy oil,

Holy wine, incense, prayers, and songs.

My brother, my sister and I walk through

The door. We light three candles. Our faces

Are reflected in the face of Christ glowing

In the icon lit by stained-glass-windows-sunrise.

The priest calls us to the altar, where we

Drink the tiny spoon of wine. Peace.

*

I walk alone to the room I filled with flowers

Nearly seventeen years ago, preparing

For my wedding. The mind has a way

Of layering parts of our lives, so that dying

Father, lost marriage, and those August roses

Reflect each other in the memory of icons

I kiss this morning. My father’s cold hands

Are in mine: “Bravo” he says

When I kiss him all over his face, “Bravo”.

“I’ll stay a little longer,” he says, “you fly home”.

Grand River is covered in a fog that glows

In the growing morning. Maples emerge

Candle-like orange through dewy ribbons

Above the fogged-over water. And I take flight

Through the thick cloud, up towards the sun.

Sunday, 16 October 2022