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Life Story

March 1, 2013

[From “Sour Grapes”. Perhaps I was too young and ignorant to write on such a subject. I hope the language of this piece isn’t too prosaic for it to be considered a poem. Some attitudes should seem old fashioned here, and I’m particularly concerned that this piece is not taken as offering support for euthanasia in any form. It does reflect things that happened back when it was written, and which still happens, notably in the form of what’s called “the Liverpool pathway”. My intention was to show how even the shortest life has meaning and is precious.]

Life Story

As quietly as he could
He crept into the hospital room
Where his new boy was.
His wife was sleeping in another room.
The baby lay in a little glass box,
Lying on his face
As he couldn’t lie on his back,
Which was twisted
And which had a little red hole
At the base of his spine.
Probably he wouldn’t last the night.
It would be better if he didn’t.

They’d decided to ask the doctors
To make the baby comfortable
But not to give him “any help”.
They felt he was as strong and intelligent now
As he would ever be.
His father would sit with him for a while,
That was all he could do.

In the excitement of the birth
He hadn’t really seen his son
So he got a proper look at him now.
The child was red skinned
Like a boiled lobster,
He seemed to give off heat.
He was naked and very quiet,
Concentrating entirely on his breathing.
The sound of it was strained but soothing.
His head was much too big
For his scraggy little body
“Like a toad”
His father thought bitterly
Hating him.
Why had he bothered to come in?

He wondered if his boy could think.
What would he think about?
Was he too hot?
He leaned over the cot
And, as gently as he could,
Blew on the boy’s skin –
He could not bear to touch it.
He moved round to see the child’s face;
It didn’t seem unintelligent,
Not the face of a human vegetable
As the doctors had said he must be.
The more he looked, in fact,
The harder it was to avoid
Seeing his own and his wife’s features
Melted into the baby’s face.
It made him more certain
That a part of himself was dying.

But this established a link
Which helped him to feel
The part of the child inside himself,
Which would continue through his own life
However soon the child itself died.

He felt a silly desire to talk to the child.
After all, it was his son,
Perhaps it would help –
He had heard that even flowers
Respond to kind words.
He listened for a while
To make sure no one but his son
Could hear him speak.
And then, in a rambling sort of voice,
Told the baby about himself
And all the things he’d dreamed
Of telling his child,
But he was disappointed –
The child could not respond,
Just kept breathing in his unsteady way.
The sound of his breathing was becoming irritating

He laughed out loud at himself.
What did he expect?
Even a normal child,
Even when it grew up
Could hardly be expected to understand,
Certainly not to sympathize.
They were hardly ready for children.

It was at this point he felt
The first sob of the night
Rising uncomfortably in his throat.
It was getting harder to be objective
About this appalling situation.
He was intimately connected to this child;
He could imagine himself in that incubator
Unable even to control his saliva.

Without thinking he laid an index finger
On one tiny shoulder.
The skin was dry now, too dry
But very soft.
He exerted a tiny pressure
And felt a shoulder as brittle as a bird’s.
The boy’s breathing changed its rhythm slightly
And he withdrew his finger in alarm.
But at the same time he was glad
To have made that bare communication.

He wasn’t even sure the boy knew
That he existed.
He hadn’t really thought
About the infancy of his child.
All through the pregnancy
He’d anticipated the times he’d have
Together with his grown son,
Going fishing, or to football.
He’d even prepared little speeches
To be delivered to his son
At important stages of his life.
He’d had a vague idea
His wife would take care of the baby stage.

All the time he’d been thinking
He’d been talking as well.
Now the sound of his own voice disturbed him,
So he stopped
And realised the sound of breathing had stopped.
He remembered picking up a dead fly.
As soon as he touched it
The legs and wings came off.
He felt that if he picked up his child now
Something similar would happen.
For the first time he laid a hand
On the little baby’s head.
Obviously the boy was dead.

In just one day
Butterflies and other insects
Live their whole life.
He supposed it was better
That this small person’s life
Should last just a short time
Instead of being thinly spread
Over ever more painful years.
He felt tired himself.

He rang the bell for the nurse
And went to see his wife.

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From → Poet, Writer

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