by Evelyn I. Challis

I wrote the following as I was holding a bed-side vigil for my father during his three week hospital stay before he died. Once he passed, I found myself needing to honor his life with more than just this poem and I contacted my local Rabbi so that I might be instructed in the appropriate manner and style for sitting Shiva, the Jewish ritual for honoring the dead. This led me to pick up the strands of a search begun 25 years before when I took Yiddish lessons from a Rabbi at Brooklyn College and asked him to prepare me for conversion to what, even then, felt like my true faith, Judaism. Somehow I allowed myself to put off the formalities over the years and so the time became now, 25 years later, in honoring my father, that I completed the conversion begun so long ago. But that's another story. . . . .for another time.

Here's the poem:

My father is dying at a most inconvenient time for me,
This is very unlike my father...he never was one to impose.
He lies in a West Hills hospital while I go speeding off to Santa Barbara
Interrupting my deathwatch to serve the living: a Headstart Program for the children.

My father had always wanted (grand)children, in this he was disappointed by my brother and me:
We produced lots of dogs and cats and I had two foster-children as well.
He never fully accepted these very poor substitutes, but only rarely did he reveal
how much his heart was hurt by this palpable lack.
He began his life in a London slum, kicked out at thirteen when he committed the unpardonable:
He went out and got a job.
His mother, a pub-goer, preferred that he baby-sit his four younger siblings---
Minnie, Charlie, Rene and Dora...all dead now.

To Detroit he came as a youth of 20, after a stint in the Merchant Marines where he
distinguished himself as the most sea-sick sailor on route to Australia.
He sent for Mom a year later (she, who had begun her life in a Glasgow slum) proudly
sending her the money he had saved (as a tool & die maker's apprentice) for her crossing.
Married in his 20's, father of two in his 30's; by the time I was ten, he had moved us all
into the house he had built from blue-prints of his own design.
From the time of his marriage to the time of his building: twenty happy years.
He was proud of all that he, by the sweat of his brow, had accomplished.

From a London slum to a Detroit suburb's self-made home, "A boy for you, a girl for me.";
It was more than enough for him; he, who tried so hard to be Mom's 'Prince.'
Just not to be asked to leave would've satisfied him, imagine what a word of praise might have done!
His speech, hands and working-class style never quite fit her 'Princely' picture.
I remember those years of his 40's vividly now: After school, I'd change into my blue-jeans
and race outdoors to play baseball for a few hours until I'd see him
Driving down our street in his green Hudson. I'd jump onto the running-board for my ride
up, up, up into our driveway. How I loved our daily, happy, routine greeting!

Years later, visiting from Ann Arbor, I saw in his eyes that his life had diminished;
Mother's increasing illnesses had made her even more clinging and dependent.
His 50's were very tense years; they moved to California in his 60's where he got his best job ever.
He'd probably describe those Azusa years as reasonably happy.
I don't remember them that way. I remember flying in from New York and finding
A sad, retired man who said to me: "It doesn't matter how my cancer test comes back."
He was in his 70's when he said that, not caring whether he lived or died even then.
Mom died as he entered his 80's, and I thought he wouldn't last out the year.

He lasted out almost ten years, visiting me in Toronto for five of them. And he made one more move
from Azusa to Woodland Hills five years ago.
And I moved from Toronto to Santa Monica four years ago to begin my weekly visitations:
A small return for all that his life had given me.
Cribbage, concerts in the park, eating out, Pub-night at the British Club, swimming, television
and a little talking is how we spent our time together.
He was always glad to see me and he accepted whatever time I spent with him.
I know he would've liked me to stay longer. He never made an issue of it.

My father is dying at a most inconvenient time for me,
This is very unlike my father...he never was one to impose.

Reprinted from:
Outposts, Volume I, #4. Fall, 1993. David Schenck & Elizabeth Sewell, Co-Editors. Spartanburg, South Carolina.