TRACKING THE RABBIT Poems and Other Musings by RD Armstrong
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Acknowledgments: The Talisman was first published in Fire and Rain Vol. 1 (Lummox Press, 2009); Blues for the Old Man was first published as a Blog on Dec. 16, 2014; The Dreaded Phone Call was first published as a Blog on Jan. 17, 2015; and Letting Go was published as a Blog on Jan. 28, 2015.
In Memoriam for my father,
Thomas K. Armstrong 1927 – 2015
Table of Contents
About the ‘Black Rabbit’ (introduction) …… 6 The Talisman …… 8 Tracking the Rabbit …… 10 Blues for the Old Man …… 12 Poem for My Father …… 14 You Me and the Dog …… 15 The Day Room …… 18 The Dreaded Phone Call …… 20 Letting Go …… 22 Afterword …… 23
About the ‘Black Rabbit’ In this collection, some of the poems refer to the “Black Rabbit”and I should try to offer some explanation for this image. It stems from a dream that I had about a week after my dad had passed. It was a vivid technicolor short! In the dream, I was standing in the backyard of my father’s house and there was a terrible storm underway…the lightning flashed and the thunder crashed and a great wind was thrashing the trees about! It was pitch black except for the lightning flashes, which gave everything a macabre look. It was very melodramatic! Suddenly, something was thrust into my arms: a medium sized furry thing as black as this night, unidentifiable except for its two white, buck teeth. Then I knew it was a black rabbit. I could feel its heart racing in fear (but also alive!) and pulled it closer. But just as suddenly as it had appeared it now leaped out of my arms and bolted into the dark! I was devastated, thinking that it had been a gift from my father, that I had not understood what it was until it was too late and now it was gone for good (like the old man)…but then, out of the darkness, the rabbit came bounding and leapt into my arms again! I awoke from this wondering what in the world this meant. I knew enough about Native-American lore to realize that the black rabbit was my father’s spirit animal and that it would guide him through the death process; and this little black bunny would serve as a talisman for me, as well. But first let me give you a little background. My dad suffered from Vascular Dementia (the other half of the senility tree…Alzheimer’s being the more well known part). It began in 2008. Once I learned about his condition, I tried to stay in touch with him via the phone, since popping over to visit —6—
wasn’t in the cards—he lived about 500 miles away, up in the hills of the Sierra Nevada above Sacramento. In the beginning it wasn’t obvious that there was a problem, but slowly, over time I begin to notice the changes. Soon after he retired, he began to ‘drift’…losing focus and having no interest in the life around him. I also felt helpless…helpless to do anything to help him. It was obvious to me that before he fell down the rabbit-hole, he was letting go. I spoke to my therapist and she suggested I try to get him involved with some sort of artistic expression. With that in mind, I sent him a set of watercolors, some paper and “how to” books about painting, hoping that he would get into some art ‘therapy’ instead of just vegging out (just letting go). But I realize now that it would have been better if he had had someone to guide him. Why watercolors you ask? My dad had been a fan of Sir Winston Churchill (who was an accomplished painter of watercolors…I had hoped that my dad would have liked to emulate him, but it was pretty far-fetched). It was just a silly idea I had. I could build a mountain to the moon with all my silly ideas! Besides, painting is a messy operation and my dad’s house was pretty meticulous. I doubt if a mess would be tolerated there for very long. So, one morning in mid-January in 2015, my brother called me to tell me, tearfully, that our dad was gone. This was a blessing (for him) and a curse for the rest of us. I kept thinking that I was being a bad son, my grief being slow to bubble to the surface (I’m still waiting for a sign). I wondered how I was going to deal with this. Then I had my “Rabbit” dream; thus began the journey that I’m about to share with you. —7—
The Talisman “This is a nice piece of rope” I was giving Dave a ride to pick up his truck “You don’t see rope like this much anymore” he says It’s just a piece of rope the ends all frayed and unraveling I tell him about another piece of rope I used to have “It came from a sloop my dad owned many years ago” I kept it and used it regularly it came in quite handy for lashing things down on my old pickup truck “Well what happened to it?” One day a guy came to buy an old armoire I had for sale He brought a van but it wasn’t big enough to fit inside He said he could strap it to the roof but he didn’t have any rope
“Oh no you didn’t” Dave said Yes I’m afraid I did however I made the guy promise he’d mail it back to me which of course he didn’t But I kept one end of the rope because it reminded me of the happy times I had on that boat with my dad so many years ago
Tracking the Rabbit At daybreak The air is cold And silent Only the crunch Of my boots Sinking into Fresh powder I am moving Slowly fearing The sound will Carry into the Woods and warn The Black Rabbit I can almost see Brother rabbit Bounding across White drifts or Pausing to sniff The air or raise An ear at the Barest twitch of Company The tracks tell this Story but nothing else Nothing about why This rabbit is still Here and not Burrowing deep into Its winter home
â€” 10 â€”
I want to catch him So I can ask what’s Up doc [chuckling Under my breath Which rises like A smoke signal] I hope Br’er Rabbit Isn’t part Piute Eventually the tracks Just disappear like Wind-born ash As if he has leapt into the air And disappeared without A trace No rabbit no sign Of predator or man I’m flummoxed What compelled him to Disappear like that Without explanation Or understanding No sad farewells Or long goodbyes Just now you see him And now you don’t
— 11 —
Blues for the Old Man Tonight there are two songs in my head, repeating themselves over and over: “I can’t stand the rain, against my window” and “my father always promised us that we would live in France, we’d go boating on the Seine and I would learn to dance…” Those of you who have followed my irregular blog attempts will know that the rain figures prominently in my writing, especially these days out here in California where it has been raining every other day, it seems like. But the other song, by Judy Collins, has a different meaning, at least to me; a meaning of sadness and longing for things that were promised but not delivered. I had this song in my head last week when I drove up to Grass Valley, a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, east of Sacramento, where my father and his third wife live. My dad has Vascular Dementia and he was put into some sort of a ‘board and care’ facility as a result of a Urinary Tract infection (I think his current situation was triggered by this infection—apparently it can cause hallucinations in dementia patients and, like my dad, these can lead to combative behavior). I guess I’m not being a very good son because I don’t know what his current condition is, his prognosis or even what kind of care he’s receiving…I mean, it looks like a nice enough place, probably a lot nicer than the place I’ll end my days in, but still, one wonders. I saw my dad in late February of this year, so it’s been 10 months since I saw him last and OH MY GOD has he changed! In Feb. my fellow traveler Murray Thomas and I had lunch with him and my step-mother on a quick whip up there and back. He greeted us at the door, we chatted about the — 12 —
weather and other things that I don’t remember and then we sat down to lunch. My dad was a little goofy but I didn’t think much about it. He ate his meal, unassisted and was generally congenial. My step-mother was pretty much her usual self so I didn’t really think much about our short visit. It was nice to see them and that was about it. But move the timeline forward 10 months…as we entered the facility I was greeted by that ‘sanitized for your comfort’ smell of disinfectant. It was faint, but having just spent time in a hospital recently, you don’t forget it (even if you don’t know that you remember it, either). It was a nice looking place with potted plants and nurses scurrying about looking efficient etc. And, of course there were the residents (the old people). Some were all smiles, greeting everyone that walked by, whether they knew them or not, just happy to be vertical I guess… plucky in spite of their situation. The others were quiet, staring blankly out at the world, perhaps dreaming of another time or just marking the days/daze; who really knows what goes on in there…makes me wonder what it is like, slipping away from this world as if one was sifting grains of sand through one’s fingers, each grain, a memory, lost, until the box (your brain) is empty and then…what? The cool embrace of the earth, or the whoosh of the crematorium? But I’m getting ahead of myself. I mentioned the disinfectant because that smell of questionable hygiene, what some people call the ‘old people’ smell, was missing. It was for me, one of those “where’s Waldo” moments. But we moved quickly through the lobby, turned right and entered the day/lunch room and there was this old man sitting amid a bunch of old ladies. He was sleeping in his rolling chair facing a TV set. “There he is” my step-mother said… — 13 —
Poem for My Father If he was a tree He’d be an oak With gnarled branches And many rings If he was mythic He’d be Odin An ancient god With many a tale to tell If he was a sea He’d be the Sargasso A kelp filled pocket Of unexplained Mysteries But he was a man Bent with age No longer plunging Headlong into the darkness Forging his own way And as such his last days Were spent lost in a Chaotic storm filled night Alone and frightened He was at last A black rabbit Trembling in my arms Waiting for Morpheus To gather him up And carry him from The battlefield — 14 —
You Me and the Dog You and I were gonna take a little trek Up in the hills behind Grass Valley Just you me and the dog Past the tweeker camps and Abandoned lives the sadness of it all That dirt track we ended up on Took us up and out and over and through Turned out to be an old logging road With no room to pass the ghost of Phantom 309 But we forged ahead regardless You trusting in some thing beyond my ken Me nervous but willing to chance it It was a wild ride down that mountain But we made it you me and the dog I’d never seen you in command before It wasn’t epic barely heroic But the memory of that gives me Goosebumps And how we meandered all over The back country like it was 1952 When you me and mom drove up The 395 to Devil’s Post Pile I was too young to remember but There are pictures of rocks and Our little family still happy You and mom were still in love Your dreams were still small I wonder what would have happened If your dreams had remained small — 15 —
Where would we have ended up But I know that you and me and the dog Wouldn’t have been on that road Drunk on our wanderlust Exploring like pioneers of old Crossing prairies and mountain ranges Searching for a fertile valley To set down roots Just past that dirt road we found a valley And at a crossroads we stopped for lunch Before heading east looking for The interstate that would take us home Or at least to your home You and me and the dog As we were heading south ish I marveled At how certain you had been that we Would make this work for us As if you had known all along That it would be fine But not I I had my doubts I hadn’t had that kind of certainty Since I was much younger Too young to know any better But you always seemed to believe That nothing could go wrong As if you had been blessed As if you were the chosen one Something I never had Even now when I try to face the Consequences of the roll of the dice I always have my doubts — 16 —
But not on that day when it was You me and the dog I wish we could have had one more hour Free from responsibilities From nagging worries This was our fishing trip This was our time alone Undocumented and unrecorded Every amazing vista Every scary rut and drop-off Truckee in snow The frozen landscape on either Side of the interstate Your unflinching profile Me transformed into a kid again Me and you and the dog Your SUV our magic carpet Winging us back to your Home in the blue sky country
â€” 17 â€”
The Day Room the soon to be black rabbit sits by himself surrounded yet alone frozen waiting for the lunch bell or possibly for the black robed faceless guide to lead him across the river to the sweet by and by he sits brooding his nose twitches slightly but his eyes his oh so sad eyes stare blankly across the room he could be a thousand miles away perhaps that is his wish but he can’t even get up and walk out of this place his final residence
— 18 —
when I touch his arm to say farewell he looks up suddenly no longer the hulking father captain of his own fate but instead a frightened little bunny trapped in this slumping body awaiting the shroud I can hardly hold back my tears
â€” 19 â€”
The Dreaded Phone-call It came early on Tuesday morning. I was walking to my car. The caller ID informed me that my brother was calling…Chris never calls me before 8 a.m. so I knew it was trouble. In a choked voice, through tears, he said; “Dad’s gone.” I vaguely heard the facts that followed, something about 3 a.m. and cremation and not to call my step-mother for a few days. It was as if my mind was shutting down so as not to hear this unwanted news. This in spite of the fact that when I had seen him less than a month ago, I wanted to smother him with a pillow, so desperate was his circumstance. Now, in the cold hard light of this January morning, knowing that his time of suffering was at an end I was steeling myself against the news of his passing. I told myself that this was a good thing; that his spirit was free to do whatever it was that spirits do. I didn’t really believe that, but I needed something “tangible” to believe in, to hang my heart/hat on while I came to terms with this fact… Dad’s gone. When I had seen him less than a month ago, it was one of those heart-wrenching moments when I realized that the man I had struggled so hard to see eye to eye with, to come to terms with, this man, my father was gone; hiding somewhere inside those dead eyes. Eyes in this
— 20 —
caricature of a face, once familiar, that now stared straight ahead, as if looking elsewhere would add to the terror that that seemed to lurk there. My step-mother kept encouraging me to ask him questions or tell him about what I had been up to but I had nothing. What could I say? Everything paled against the cold hard fact that his sun was setting. What could I say that would carry any weight? I just sat there, observing behind eyes that gave little away (two could play at this game). It was all too sadâ€Ś
â€” 21 â€”
Letting Go When my dad passed away, it wasn’t a terrible thing… the earth didn’t stop, life didn’t lose its meaning, I didn’t start dressing in all-black. In short, it was business as usual (well, except that it wasn’t). I received a lot of notes of concern about my outlook and condolences for my loss; these came on Facebook and in emails…I even got a few cards in the mail. Frankly, I was surprised by the turnout. People from all over the place, some of whom I knew, some I didn’t, were wishing me well in my time of mourning. I feel a little guilty about this because, when I saw him last, he was very much a vegetable, not my dad. It was heartbreaking to see him like that. So death, was a release from the suffering of this life. I wish he could have written a poem or even an observation about his final days, but that was not his style. We are very different, my dad and I. Many people told me that he was watching me (from some vantage point in the nether-world) and he must be so proud! I appreciated that for what it was worth…aside from the obvious projected imagery…the sentiment was nice. People were concerned about my mental state, but, really, I’m in relative good spirits these days. It’s just that every now and then for some reason, I’ll drift into a memory and depending on the significance of it, I’ll sadly remember something I was going to tell him or I’ll recall a moment in time that makes me chuckle to myself…but trust me, I believe that he’s no longer suffering, and THAT is what matters.
— 22 —
Afterword I haven’t mentioned whether I was as close to my dad as I would have wanted to be, because regretting is a part of being in this world, this life. And of course I have my regrets. I wish I could have given him the things that a father would like, a wife, a family, a career that he could be proud of…but life had a different plan for me, one that took me out on another track. I regret these things that I couldn’t offer up to him myself. But I ended up going it alone. While I can’t say if this way was better than some other, I only know that this is the way I have gone. History will judge me and hopefully it will wait until I’m gone. But until that day, I will continue to do what I believe is the right thing and I’ll hope that, in the end, I was right.
— 23 —
RD Armstrong aka Raindog has 18 chapbooks and 9 books to his name and has been published in over 300 poetry magazines, anthologies and e-zines. He also operates the Lummox Press which has published over 100 issues of the Lummox Journal; and 122 other titles including the chapbook series Little Red Books and the Respect perfect bound collections. RD sees himself as a modern day Alan Lomax*, offering poets from the world of small press poetry a chance to be published and be read by an international audience. The Lummox Poetry Anthology is one of his newest projects. Visit the website at www.lummoxpress.com/lc for more info and/or ordering.
* Alan Lomax traveled throughout the south and midwest recording the songs of share croppers, convicts and other working class folk for the Library of Congress, during the 1930s and 40s.
â€” 24 â€”
The LUMMOX Press publishes Chapbooks, the Little Red Book series, a perfect bound book series (the Respect series), a Poetry Anthology & Poetry Contest (annually), and “e-copies”. The stated goal of the press and its publisher is to elevate the bar for poetry, whilst bringing the “word” to an international audience. We are proud to offer this book as part of that effort. For more information and to see our growing catalog of choices, please go to www.lummoxpress.com/lc
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Families are not supposed to fall apart. But some do, their members drifting ever farther from one another, until one day illness and death bring them together. The death of an estranged parent is more conflicted than the death of a parent with whom one has always remained close. Empowered by a plain-spokenness inspired by Charles Bukowski, poet RD Armstrong investigates the feelings engendered by the death of his father: a heart-stopping journey of grief, guilt, and a qualified redemption. —James Deahl, most recently author of Unbroken Lines, Two Paths Through The Seasons and Rooms The Wind Makes RD Armstrong uses the power of poetry for his elegiac mythology of grief. Everyone who has ever been on earth has died, and we never get used to this. Poets especially have to speak/define/make sense of it. Armstrong’s natural strength as a writer uses an archetypal Rabbit as the central focus. This metaphor extends the glandular process of a body lost and born again. Armstrong commands the structure of prose narrative— as well as the economy of the poem— to memorialize his love for his father. In doing this, he brings everything to life again. —Grace Cavalieri, “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress”
This is a sample. To order the complete 40-page chapbook, please visit our website. www.lummoxpress.com
Tracking the Rabbit is my attempt to deal with the death of my father after I was informed that I was no longer "welcome" to access his esta...
Published on Mar 4, 2016
Tracking the Rabbit is my attempt to deal with the death of my father after I was informed that I was no longer "welcome" to access his esta...