Rilke's words have helped me get through numerous tough times in my life, including the death of my father. Many days after the event were spent buried in Stephen Mitchell's book "Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke", in particular his translation of "Requiem For a Friend". I wrote the following poem for my father not long after reading it for the first time. It's definitely influenced by what I read, along with a conversation had between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell about Indra's net of gems. It's been many years since he died now, but sometimes it still feels as though it happened just yesterday.
After the Fall
The snow is falling father,
Outside your cold window,
It's a frigid and bitter weather,
Icy and white below,
Can you feel us father,
We're all here,
Your three sons; and mother,
All struggling with our fear,
You fell so fast,
One moment alert at the top of the stair,
The next curled at the foot aghast,
Broken and bleeding and scared,
Oh how I wish I'd returned that call,
Your message recorded without a reply,
And I've so many things I'd tell you now,
Now that you're about to die,
It's been so long since we really talked,
About home and the coulee and your trips with Marly,
The back roads you walked,
The ginseng gardens, or the Amish in the valley.
But that's not the stuff I'd speak of in the end,
Not stuff of the day or the hour,
But of things left unsaid that of the heart rend,
That I'd have you understand forever.
You grew old locked in a fence,
With one self beating another,
How could you know that it would take you so low, and break you of all confidence,
If I had my choice, if I could hear your dear voice, of this I'd now speak of together.
I know how it troubled you so
That bent and shamed you lost your health and employment,
But I'm older now with my own sorrow,
And know something of self made confinement.
Yes we three sons have done quite well,
At ease in worlds you never were, of books and complex computations,
But life is long, and time moves on, and rips us with revelation.
I've had my share, of divorce and decay, of grief and despair, of bitter self recrimination,
And of this I'm now sure, in the face of much pain,
Life is a game of eternal internal integrations.
You need not think that I loved you less, for those things you never achieved,
Or the boyhood wishes I once had of you, but in the end never received,
Conditional love has become a confusing thing, a thing from which divisiveness springs,
Take from me the unconditional sort, and the hope for what healing it may bring.
Mother has told me of the yawning ache in you,
Over long lost days, when tired and tried, you found so little time for play,
But I have done the same father, and feel that yawning ache too,
For long lost days, and the time I withheld, from a dear wife now far away,
Our suffering should count for something shouldn’t it? Something other than rue.
Mistakes are mistakes. I'd ask you to let them lay.
Strange to see you like this after that long agonizing ride,
Your heart unraveling inside.
I couldn't drive for all the sobbing and the need to lose myself in the night.
Thinking of death and the grave.
Not morbid thoughts, but thoughts to challenge my days.
For instance: where will you be after you're gone?
I once thought "nowhere" in the strictest sense of the word.
But now I'm no longer so sure.
I've walked in old grief an open question, from dusk to midnight to dawn.
Thinking muddy thoughts, big picture involutions,
Spending evenings in books, in silent conversations, with scientists, poets, and philosophers,
I know you've wondered at it all.
But I have found something father,
Something strange and troubling, and often fearful,
I've discovered the god inside,
The only word I can find to describe it though certain to strain belief.
The "is" made manifest in the whirl of an I,
Without expectation, as I found it tonight, lost in the black outside.
A sense of presence,
Of expansion about the sky.
It's an old old story isn't it?
I no longer know what you believe.
I'd ask you if I could.
But if I'm right, there's no need.
There's no me, no you, but only a single I,
Caught in a net of gems.
I see that your body has died.
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