Most parents do the best they can. There are always things they do that we, their children, are not happy about.
This is a book about a loved one’s declining memory, death, handling grief, and dealing with the death of a parent, but it’s also about life. It’s about the cycle of life—of being a child; then being a parent, and seeing that same cycle continue in your children, and in theirs.
It’s about loving that cycle. And also, loving the people who are your family. You only get one of them, and you don’t get a lot of choice in the matter. What you can choose is how to deal with things not fully to your liking. Being loving and positive always seems like a good way, even throughout the mourning process.
An Amazon customer review actually said that, “Gillman’s poems show us that, if we can manage to stay emotionally present, the demise of a loved one paradoxically offers a unique and gratifying opportunity for intimacy and connection. Loving kindness and compassion are always great guides when we have no map or compass for the rocky roads of life.”
In regards to the poems that make up My Father, Humming, people say, “It must have been difficult to write these poems about Alzheimer’s disease,” and they comment that they are so candid and honest.
Actually, writing the poetry was “easy.” What was hard was doing all the work so I could write the poems: being honest with myself. Thinking about my father—what it was like growing up with him—what I was like as a father, things like that. But also accepting: this is where he is now, with dementia. Nothing about him is going to change. And no one can ever change the past.
I didn’t think it at first, but when you’re dealing with a past you don’t like, you have two choices: to stay angry about it; or do what you can—which, in this case, meant accepting it.
That’s who he was, with or without Alzheimer’s.
Lots of people have talked about how hopeful and positive My Father, Humming, is—its poems about dealing with death, individually and, especially, overall, provide the kind of healing one might hope to hear during a funeral reading or memorial service.
The book deals with maybe the hardest thing there is, the slow decline and death of someone very close from something inevitable and unchangeable. There are grieving poems and bereavement poems, and they are about losing a loved one. But the book deals with this sometimes with humor, and always with love.
My relationship with my father before Alzheimer’s had not always been good—in fact, just before his death, it was awful, and I went months without speaking to him. There was his need to be right, and to make everyone else do what he knew was right. And there were lots of places where who I was collided with that. I was pretty angry at him—for seeing himself, but not seeing, or (I felt) respecting, me.
In the process of writing this book, I let go of that anger. I was able to accept my father—what he had been, and what he was becoming. To learn how to cope with both his Alzheimer’s disease and death, I began writing.
One woman after a reading said, “That is so hopeful and positive. If you can do that, all of us can. Maybe we don’t—we don’t make the effort—but you are showing us it is possible.” I don’t think dealing with loss or the passing of a loved one can ever be easy, nor do I think people grieve in the same ways; but I do think that My Father, Humming is a record of how to cope with the loss of a loved one. Writing these poems has made dealing with death feel a little less impossible for me.
I started writing the pieces of what turned into My Father, Humming, not as poems about Alzheimer’s, but as journal entries. I was trying to understand: “What is going on here?” This is a person who once was brilliant. Is that still there, inside, and we just don’t know how to get access to it? Or is it gone, now that dementia has set in?
My father humming along with me showed that, no matter how much he seemed to have declined with Alzheimer’s disease, he was still there, and that gave me new respect and appreciation: the person who had been my father was still there. He wasn’t the same, but he had not disappeared.
Even with Alzheimer’s disease, my father was hamstrung by the need to be right, to do whatever it was the right way. That’s how you win approval, that’s how you gain status—these were ideas fully engrained in him by his mother, who pushed her children to get the things she wanted desperately and didn’t feel she had gotten. There was that constant need to please—whether his mother or others—by doing things the right way—that drove him, and sometimes paralyzed him.
Once, when I was playing on his piano, and he could hear me—I was playing a piece he had played when he was 19—there was a program of it on the wall between us—he knew it in his bones; I was playing it wrong. This was not how Beethoven intended. When my father played it the right way, it took four and a half minutes. When I played it in my long, slow way, finding, like Miles Davis, the music between the notes, it took 22 minutes—playing the same notes.
When I began playing the piece, it only took a few notes before my father knew I was doing it wrong. Before Alzheimer’s, he would have booed, or yowled, “Stop! You’re trying to kill me!” But he wasn’t speaking anymore. To let me know how wrong it was, he started choking—anything to get me to stop. And it wasn’t a child’s fake choking, it was the real thing—it sounded like he was going to die. In the stubbornness of our family, he would rather die than have me play it the wrong way. But I wasn’t going to stop just because he didn’t like it—I’d spent too much of my childhood doing things because that’s how he wanted them, without considering myself. Besides, the nurse was there, she had raised the bed, to stop his choking; we were not supposed to do anything else.
I kept playing. He kept choking. I heard the rattle in his throat. This was the end. I wasn’t concentrating much on the music, but still, I kept playing.
After a while, his choking let up. It changed, gradually, to a cough—and then it stopped. He was still.
I kept playing. I relaxed a little. And then I heard a strange noise; at first I didn’t know what it was. He was humming—the way he used to, before Alzheimer’s, when he was playing along with me.
It gets stronger, surer;
there’s no mistaking it—
and we go on like this,
the two of us,
until the piece is done.
It took him to the point of death to let go of doing it the one right way, and to accept that there might be other ways that were good, too.
A person looking at him—he was bed ridden, slept 20 hours a day, never opened his eyes, had Alzheimer’s disease, didn’t talk, couldn’t stand, eat, go to the bathroom on his own, or do anything for himself—might think, “With Alzheimer’s, there’s not much left to him, so unlike what he used to be.” Someone might hardly consider him “human.”
But even with this dementia, he could still “make music”—a sign of being very human—and, for the first time, make it with me. And we could connect, though the music, in a way we never had before.
I wrote poetry in college, and then stopped for years. A few years ago something made me go back to it. 3 months later, I started writing about my father, with dementia and Alzheimer’s. He had already declined a huge amount and was—we didn’t know this then—in his last six months.
A few months after that, some artists from our school were doing an exchange with other artists from South Africa. I wanted to go, and applied; I thought it was a no brainer—I do social issue theater with teens, it seemed completely relevant.
But they didn’t select me. They chose my wife—herself a poet—and a few others. I put her on the limo to JFK to fly to South Africa—and I flew to my parents’ house in Austin, Texas. I spent a week there. It was the longest I had been “home” since I graduated from college—and the last time I saw my father alive.
In that time, thoughts & writing about Alzheimer’s came pouring out of me, sometimes 6 or more a day—and, that’s when the incident happened of my father humming while I played—and, without that, there is no book.
Something wanted My Father, Humming to be written. I seemed to be its instrument.
I windsurf. Learning to windsurf is very humbling. For every one thing you learn, there are three more you have to learn. You spend a lot of time in the water.
It took me a long time, but what I learned, very gradually, is that it’s not about you. It’s about the wind, which is more powerful than you, much more. Stop fighting it, thinking you are in control—you definitely are not—and try to get aligned with it—with you as the fulcrum through which it goes—and you move. Keep fighting it, and you fall in the water.
The wind is the spirit, the chi. Out there, by yourself, on the water, with only you, the board, the water, the sky, and the wind—if you let go of everything else, and enter into that, you go, the board moves, at whatever speed, and you understand: it’s the wind that’s doing this; you’re standing in the right place, holding the sail the right way, to align with it. And connecting to something with so much power than you is very exciting.
That’s what happened with the writing of My Father, Humming. I was out on board, the wind came up, and I aligned with it. It is not about me. These poems are about the living becoming the deceased, dealing with loss, and about remembering. More than anything, My Father, Humming is about the process of grieving for the larger spirit of a father, a child—of being a human being.
The Paterson Poetry Prize of $1,000 is given annually by the Poetry Center at Passaic County
Community College to a book of poetry (48 pages or more) published in the previous year,
with a minimum press run of 500 copies.
I was one of six finalists; Billy Collins was the winner.
The finalists and winner read at the Awards Ceremony, on May 2, 2015 in Paterson, New Jersey.