We viewed the frail old man
laid out in his casket;
how little there is to the dead.
I expressed my condolences,
and the widow gave me a smile:
“It’s all right, he no longer suffers.”
I glanced at the rosary
strung between his bony fingers.
I said words that sounded shallow,
even as I spoke them:
“Now you will have another angel
to watch over you.”
She wiped tears from her eyes;
I wished I had come up
with meaningful words.
Today we bury him.
“That’s how it goes,”
Taps, little flags, then somber-looking,
creaky-jointed fliers walk away
from one more of their ever-dwindling few.
“A P-38 Lightning he flew . . . .
Bagged an unarmed scout plane at the end war;
was an easy score . . . .”
“Too easy,” agreed a mourner.
“Always bothered him.”
“He overshot the slower aircraft,
then, once again he had the hapless scout
in his gun sight. Down she spiraled like
the Ancient Mariner’s Albatross.”
He had grown old, but as of late
he talked more often of his war,
and I sensed remorse.
At Luke Air Force Base’s post exchange
he met a son of former foes,
here in training.
They talked about flying. Then they shook hands,
and the old man said, “Son, you’re okay,”
and he felt atoned.
Now we bury him. In the treetops
is a rush of wind; I glance up,
nearly expecting to see the albatross
he had carried all these years
rising into the wild blue yonder.
Another vet says, “That’s how it goes.”
All agree; “That’s how it goes.”
Then they look at one another and wonder—
for whom the bell shall toll next.
© 2014 Jerry Kemp
Writing about death and related themes can bring out the best in a poet, at least I like to think so. It brings a stark context to everything written, to every word. A life lost seems to become more vivid just after death; tales emerge, people gather, and one senses the real gravitas of life and death. Every age of that person’s life seems to suddenly come to the fore again, no one standing taller than the other. We remember they were a child once, a young man and that the old age they attained was but only one stage in their life. Yes indeed, there is no room for filler or for Hallmark shmultz or whatever it is they call it when you write of such things. I think you’ve paid a wonderful tribute to this man and it was a privilege to read. You really took me to the place; a very poignant and thought provoking place and wonderfully written.