. . . after my dad took his last breath,
and his heart stopped sending
his head turned ashen
and became cold to the touch.
I know this because I kissed his forehead.
I couldn’t believe
that the light filled universe,
so miraculously grown
inside his skull,
was falling dark so quickly
as I sat and quietly watched.
Across the park from the nursing home
are the sacred burial mounds of the Dakota Tribe.
They are on the edge of high bluffs
that look out over the Mississippi River
and the buildings of downtown St. Paul.
The mounds have been there for thousands of years
and the bluffs themselves are 450 million years old.
When my dad was born
the rural electrification project
had not yet strung electricity
out to the farms on the Irish ridge.
In the winter, if there was a heavy snow,
they would take the children
to the one room schoolhouse
in a horse drawn sleigh.
The day before he died,
while my sister sat with him,
I walked to the bluff and watched
the dark snow fill the river valley
and overtake the city.
I will not forget this vision
until my memories go dark.
In his last days my dad
folded his hands, as in prayer,
and waited patiently
as his breathing became labored.
While I sat by his side
I caressed his arm and held his hand.
Things we never did in life.
I gave him cold compresses
and wet his mouth with a small sponge
on the end of a short stick.
Once he could no longer articulate words
he stayed mostly at rest,
only shifting against the harsh discomforts
of lying in bed for so many days,
but at several points on his last day
he spun his forefingers
in a circle by his chest
and then extended one arm up
and pointed to the ceiling.
This, to my understanding,
was his way of saying that he was waiting
for his soul to get free of his failing body.
My parents had purchased burial plots
on a bluff across the river.
When they went bankrupt,
years ago, they had to sell them.
Now their bodies are one on top of the other
in the Fort Snelling National Cemetery
where they were given a plot for free
because of my father’s military service.
The bluffs are made of limestone and sandstone.
When I was a small boy my father
took me down to the river
early one Saturday morning
and we collected the soft
white sand at the base of the cliffs
and brought it home to fill
a sandbox that he had built.
In my childhood I would sit
there for hours and play,
making up worlds.
In the last few years
my dad asked me to keep writing.
Over and and over he would ask,
every time that we spoke.
So this is what I am writing today.
My grief is slow moving
like the river.
Sometimes it feels like
it's taking something away and
other times bringing something new.
I miss him.
I miss his quiet presence
in this ceaseless world.