My Father’s Scars

My father’s scars were carved
so deeply in his back and arms
they formed
an unforgiving landscape
of pitted valleys
and dried up river beds.

I gazed in fascination
as he shaved
wondering if they still hurt.
When he wasn’t home,
I removed the purple heart
from its velvet-lined box
and pinning it on my chest.
tried to imagine the war.

He was the sole survivor
of his whole platoon.
A German officer at Monte Cassino
had kicked him in the head
and left him there for dead.
He had begged a passing convoy
to finish him off,
but they had carried him
to hospital instead
and one year later
I was born.

His shattered nerves
never quite recovered.
When he ordered from a menu
his upper lip began to quiver.
He foresaw a fatal injury
in every cut and scrape
we suffered.
A phone call in the night
presaged almost certain death.

Still, he managed to survive.
His left hand wasn’t any good
but with his right he drew for us
fabulous winged horses
with pipes in their mouths.
He played the violin so badly,
it became a form of punishment.
We spent Sundays at the beach,
eating sandy tuna sandwiches
and riding on his stomach
in the surf.

It was my mother’s illness
which sucked all joy
out of his life
and left him gasping
like a fish on the dock.
By the time they carried
her jaundiced body
down the stairs and out the door,
you could say the cancer
had consumed him too.
He forbade us to whistle,
he forbade us to laugh,
and though he always
blamed the onions
or a cinder in his eye,
for forty years
his eyes teared up
at the mention of her name.

The war and mother’s death.
Those were the twin disasters
of my father’s life.
the ones which left the scars
that never really healed

(Originally published in Out of the Depths)

 

monte

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