Learning to Tell

His earliest childhood years were
in battles and refugee camps,
no rocking chairs or playgrounds.
Words from many languages whipped around him.
Learning silence without song,
he was a plain letter waiting to be written
with words waiting to burst forth.
Still, he could not tell his story.

Growing into a young man,
he found a stable home in another country.
Hope burst forth,
still the words would not come.
Slavic languages forbidden before
were the communication he knew,
but they remained foreign to all around him.

So he grew in loneliness
in a house where memories silenced the living.
Images he could not erase from
dreams he could not communicate
froze his speech.
His friends were books but only books.
His own pages were empty;
without the words, he still could not tell.

How he talked once the words came!
They burst forward
in scattered languages.
Neither eloquent speeches nor tender ballads
they were angry, bewildered, soft, uncertain,
stammered, deeply hurt wails of pain.
Words came in torrents
which he could not stop.
Still he could not learn to tell.

The first brain tumor came.
He began to tell.
He wrote letters to his daughters
on and on, slowly and slowly.
Each letter brought forward the words to phrases to sentences,
earnestly shared,
confused but trying.

He was making sense of what had been incomprehensible,
forgiving what had been hateful and cruel,
growing whole after being denied innocence and joy.

Another brain tumor came.
Each word in every letter to us
lighter under trembling fingers.
Still he could not stop
his letters of discovery.
Gentle memories of his family who died in Poland;
stories of those who survived and emerged from silence;
unending affection for our mother, extending after divorce;
protection, wisdom, and joy for us:
These were the stories he continued to tell.

Gratitude for what had been,
a piecing together of a life broken:
His letters became lyrics of the song
he had created of his life.

The final bout of cancer
left him unable to write,
unable to talk.
We brought forward the letters
and read
and read
and read them aloud to him.
They were love letters to us —
love letters to his life.
With the first of the tall stack, he’d laugh.
Towards the middle he’d sigh.
Murmurs came as the stack grew small.
Silent breathing came to a hush as we read towards the last lines of wisdom.
When he passed on,
we had read everything to him:
His pride
His letters had been the songs of his life.

It was then we could begin to learn to tell.



Author’s Note: Thank you for reading this poem about my father, John Rog, who came to the United States as a child with hope, just like so many who are here today. My own life is a result of the faith he, my grandmother, and my aunt had when they started life anew. I am ever grateful for their courage.