poetry: “Who was and is and is to come” by Sam Ambler


I had flown in from halfway across the country
for a family Labor Day reunion.
I was tired and hungry.
I stood in your open doorway.
The sun, setting behind the Great Rocky Mountains,
shed globules of light
through the shimmering bay window
surrounding your bed.
I looked at you, and at first, all I could see
was the image of our father in your face.
You looked like he looked
when I flew in from Germany
and walked into his hospital room.
He was emaciated, tubes running into his veins,
and a light shining around his head.
He was dying.
But this time it was thirty-four years later
and it was you, definitely you, my brother,
two and a half years my elder.
My voice stopped full glottal stop in my throat.
I almost blurted out, “Daddy, I’m home”
instead of “Burt, I’m here.”But I said nothing.
I was not sure what I should do.
I sat in the chair next to your bed
and took hold of your hand.
I began to talk about when we were boys
in the hills of Southern California:
about the softball games we played
in the field below our house
with all the neighborhood kids,
the same field where we built
our own miniature golf course;
about the citrus war we had
with the Daniel kids and the Dishman kids
and our parents had to pay Dr. Julian
for the damage we did to his lemon grove;
about how you would drop me off
a block from the high school
when you were a senior and I was a freshman
so your friends wouldn’t see you with me.
When I ran out of stories, I sang to you,
just snippets of songs I could remember,
or chants I learned at church.
And then we were silent together
for a long, long time, until I heard you whisper,
“Just kill me.”
I pressed on the button to give you more morphine,
I tried to bring you comfort.
But I couldn’t do what you asked.
For the next three days your friends and family
came and sat in that bedside chair, one by one.
Who knows what secrets were spoken,
what hurts uncovered and healed,
what love exchanged at the very end.
On the third day, your hospice nurse
quietly crept into the living room and told us,
“His breathing has changed,
you’d better come upstairs. It won’t be long now.”
And slowly, we found ourselves in a circle
around your bed—your three brothers and their spouses,
your three wives, your three daughters, your three nurses.
And downstairs, asleep, were your three grandsons.
We lit candles to sanctify the light.
We were all touching you.
The weather had changed, too.
It began to rain, sleet, hail,
and then thunder and lightning.
Oh the omens were thick, the symbols deep,
the shadows huge and wavering.
Your oldest daughter, Carol, became your spirit guide.
She told you God was waiting,
Jesus was holding out his hand.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said, “we are all here for you,
to help you make the journey from this side to the other.”
And we all mumbled something to agree,
just as the sky rumbled,
and a flash of lightning overtook the candlelight,
signaling the end of the storm, the rain stopped.
I was watching your eyes,
and in that moment, I saw you leave,
actually move through your eyes, out and up.
You lingered a little while, perhaps pondering
whether to come back and say one more goodbye,
but the memory of the pain, so close then,
was too much, and you were gone.
I looked into your eyes, I could see no light;
I held onto your body, I could not feel your presence.
Life changed in that instant of transition:
where I had been touching you with my hands,
now I held you in my heart.
Then I sang a simple song, low and soft,
a song of love, there in the quiet and the dark.

Mr. Ambler’s writing has been published in Christopher Street, The James White Review, City Lights Review Number 2, Nixes Mate Review, and Visitant, among others. Most recently, he was featured in the anthology VOICES OF THE GRIEVING HEART. He won the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s 6th Annual Poetry Contest. He earned a BA in English, specializing in creative writing of poetry, from Stanford University. He delivered singing telegrams and sang with the Temescal Gay Men’s Chorus in Berkeley and the Pacific Chamber Singers in San Francisco. He has worked in nonprofit theater at Berkeley Rep, Geffen Playhouse, Actors’ Equity, and The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Now retired, he lives in California with his husband, visual artist Edward L. Rubin.