Poem about My Father and Me


by Pamela Spiro Wagner

Tyrant, they called you, emperor, bully,

the first time I was in the psychiatric wing.

You finger-painted, yes, getting down on your knees

to smear pigment with stiff abandon

but afterward, in the hall, when I froze, contorting,

you let the whole world of the ward know

your scorn, imitating me, calling me “crazy.”

I seemed finally better. I came home.

But when I failed you, leaving med school,

an embarrassment and a humiliation

who couldn’t even keep work as a clerk or waitress,

you claimed suddenly “three children” not four.

Between us interposed silence for thirty years

as I learned to live on $3 a day, to write my life

into poems when I had words to share.

Years passed in “the bin” and out “on the farm,”

as I called the hospital and those programs by day

that structured my life. But hospitals shape-shift

after a dozen or more and there are decades

of my life that are lost even to memory,

each melding into another like shadows

on night-lit walls in carbon paper alleys.

One keyhole through which I see the past:

Shock treatment with its drowning anesthetic drops

and stunned awakenings. Then there you are,

standing in the seclusion room door

resuming conversation as if begun just yesterday

not thirty years before, no older, or at least

no grayer than “Daddy” again, shorter, yes,

but kinder. What could I do but respond?

I never dreamed that at eighty-three

you’d lose your fire, habanero, old Nero,

or that I, Rome, would ever stop burning.


The above poem tells a long story in a few words, though necessarily only part of it. I have to leave it there for now, as I lack the energy to flesh the story out further. But in later days, after the memorial service and as the spirit moves me, I will try to write more. Thanks for your patience. As a good friend said, It — grief, tears, feeling alone or lost– comes in waves, but when it hits, it hits hard…

9 thoughts on “Poem about My Father and Me”

  1. Hi Sally,

    This was not the poem I read at the service, just so you know. Though of course my father did get to read this poem. The poem I read at the service was another one that he never read, but was not quite so…I dunno. I felt that this one was not perhaps appropriate at the service. I didn’t need to let every one of the 400+ people there know my business or his with me at that time. that was between us. THe poem I read was much less personal, but apparently touching enough since people still wanted copies. I may post it eventually,…

    Thanks for writing. I just wanted to clarify the matter. BTW I thought I emailed you a copy of the poem that I read. THe one about the “dead crossing the river, swimming”?

    Pam W


  2. Hi Pam,
    As you know, when I sought out your father in 2009 to thank him for his care of my dying mother 30 years previously, with great pride and as a prompt for my writing he gave me a copy of We Mad Climb Shaky Ladders. I’m writing you now so your blog community will know that your reading of Poem Abut My Father and Me was a moving contribution to his memorial service. I’m so glad he got to read the poem.


  3. Dear Pamela,

    I’m so sorry to hear about the death of your father, but I am glad that you got to reunite with him in the last 7 years. It may sound corny, but a part of him will continue to live in you. I have not yet lost either of my parents. They are in their mid 80s and I know that they cannot live indefinitely. When the time comes it will break my heart, but I am comforted knowing that they have lived a good, long life. Your father accomplished a lot in his life. I’m sure he will be remembered and missed. Please take good care of yourself and continue with your writing and painting. Love, Kate.


  4. Dear Pam,
    I was so deeply moved and comforted by your powerfully wise and compassionate poem about yourself and your Dad.
    He was always prodding me to get my writing in print (medical history, not poetry),
    He talked to me about the years of silence and said that whatever the person factors were in your long separation, it was also integral to the Yale style of psychiatry…
    to separate the pt from the family.
    Since I did some time in the psych ward at Yale, I could understand what he meant.
    It was a pretty lousy dept. of psychiatry, deeply mired in Freudian bullshit.
    When I met Lewis Thomas, famous essayist and former Dean at Yale, he said his proudest
    achievement as dean was shutting down the longterm care hospital there.
    Please accept my warm sympathy; your Dad would have been so proud of your
    courageous response to his death.
    Marion Hunt


  5. Pam,
    I’m delighted to hear that your book of poetry is being considered by a publisher. It’s a huge step to just get that far these days in the publishing world. I’m glad to hear that you made peace with your father and that he liked your poem.


  6. Hi Pam,
    How beautifully you write. In these few words you have helped me gain some more insight into what my son Ben’s hospital stays may have seemed like from his point of view. Your images are indeed moving and powerful. Although Ben, too, is a poet, and allowed me to use some of his work in our book, he has never shown me anything about this subject. I’m sorry to hear your father is no longer here, but it sounds as thought you still hear his gentle “prodding” – and he’s right! I hope your work finds its way to publication.


  7. Thank you, Rossa and Ing. This is not a brand new poem, but one that is in my second book of poems, LEARNING TO SEE IN THREE DIMENSIONS, which is under consideration at a publisher at present. However, it is relatively new, written within the last year or two. My father saw it, and the whole book before he died, liked it as well. It’s not that I needed approval, his or anyone’s, but in fact he was all for it. I’m already missing the way he would gently prod me to get my “stuff” out for publication…


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