"My father, and many fathers and their fathers before them in the last century, especially those working in the American West, were forced to travel away from home to provide for their families," writes poet Mark Gibbons. "They were sometimes gone for days, weeks at a time. My dad worked as a trainman for the Milwaukee Railroad, available to hop a freight around the clock every day of the year.
"At least half of his nights were spent elsewhere, so when he was “out” either east in Deer Lodge, Montana, or west in Avery, Idaho, I was always asking my mother when he was “getting in.” If I knew he would arrive in the middle of the night, that next morning I'd run to their bedroom upon waking to snuggle into them, feel his arm drape over me and pull me close.
I often slept with my mother when my dad was “out,” and as comforting as that was, he was still missing. I'd crawl in the bed with her where I guess we missed him together. I don't think I really realized that she missed him as much as I did, but maybe I sensed her sadness and embodied it. A child, I had no idea what it was like for her without him or on those mornings when she woke with him in her bed, but I ran to it as soon as my eyes opened to light or dark. It was my best dream come true, to lie between them. And I'll replay those mornings till my eyes close."
Gibbons pairs his reflection with a poem by Galway Kinnell, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for his Selected Poems. In a poem titled “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” Kinnell speaks for those generations of fathers, offering the other side of the story.
“After Making Love, We Hear Footsteps”
For I can snore like a bullhorn
or play loud music
or sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishman
and Fergus will only sink deeper
into his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash,
but let there be that heavy breathing
or a stifled come-cry anywhere in the house
and he will wrench himself awake
and make for it on the run—as now, we lie together,
after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies,
familiar touch of the long-married,
and he appears—in his baseball pajamas, it happens,
the neck opening so small
he has to screw them on, which one day may make him wonder
about the mental capacity of baseball players—
and flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep,
his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.
In the half darkness we look at each other
and touch arms across his little, startlingly muscled body—
this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,
sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again into our arms.
(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 4/27/16 and 11/2/16. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)