Thinking about the sources of my poem, “Tilt,” what comes to mind is phantom limb pain. I wrote the poem when my father-in-law was in a nursing home and my mother-in-law was living alone in the home they had shared for many years. After I wrote the poem my father-in-law passed away. This has only deepened my mother-in-law’s keen sense of absence described in the poem.
The poem ends with an image of two flowering crab trees: one cut off at ground level, the other with its trunk and limbs tilted away from the first to make way for the space the absent tree took when it was living. The cut-down tree is a phantom tree, its presence registered in the twist and angle its limbs etched into the shape of its neighbor.
When my father-in-law was in the nursing home, as in the poem, he was a diminished man, with little short-term memory. Even there, his worries as caretaker of his house remained in exaggerated form: concern about the garage door, an outdoor light, a touchy furnace, the door locks. He couldn’t follow the evening news or read a newspaper story. He was too weak to work a trowel, grub out a weed, or pick a flower: activities that once filled his days. Now, he is gone completely.
And yet, that is a lie. He left a real though unoccupied space, a deep and complex impression, especially on his wife. My mother-in-law spends much of her day going through his papers, his records, his pictures, his souvenirs of a long life as a married man, a family man, a Lutheran pastor. Though in her eighties she has a memory that puts mine to shame. All those pieces of her dead husband’s life are keen, colorful, and evocative of feeling in her mind. Though she has taken his name off the address on the gas bill, her heart is filled with the man whose life intertwined with hers for sixty years.
Although phantom limb sensations can register as freedom of movement and activity, doctors say these feelings are dominated by pain. That may not be true for the living memories of the dead whose lives have grown lovingly intertwined with your own, but from my experience those memories carry a shadow of pain.