I start with my father’s feet.
I must have put his body there,
on the dining room table, in my sleep.
Used spit and ash and every remembered
story to sculpt him.
Hot water and lavender. Washrag dragged
from heel to toe and back again,
across the high arch I inherited from him.
I put him here so he’s mine
to deal with. I wash his ankles.
Then shins and calves. I note
each scar. I made him out of what I could find
or remember. I don’t know the stories behind
the scars, just that he was a clumsy man
who collected them. Now, his daughter’s
clumsy hands build and rebuild him in the rooms
of her home. I’ve done this before, I think,
but I can’t remember when or how so
I am doing it again. My clumsy hands
wash his knees knobbed from the years of gardening
and weekend garaging. Thighs, muscular and thick.
The table is soaked now, body
half-cleaned, my feet in the pooling water.
The room smells of flowers. All my rooms smell
of flowers. I forget why whenever he’s not on the table.
Then his stomach. The soft brown hair climbing
up to his chest. Then the collar bones. The neck. Then
my father’s face. Inch by inch the washrag soft
against the coarse of his five o’clock shadow.
A thick blanket of shaving cream
before the razor. It does not matter if I am clumsy now
but I still try to hold the blade steady against him.
Then, the coconut oil softening instantly
in my palm. I work it into his hair
down to his widow’s peak.
I rub small shea butter circles
with my fingertips: his closed eyelids,
his jaw, his crooked once-broken nose
until he looks almost alive, his unused mouth pliable
as if he might he might finally answer. My unused mouth
closed tight in concentration as if I might finally stop
asking permission to live. Then his neck.
And collar bones. And before
his chest, I lean down and listen: nothing.
Same as before. As yesterday. As last year.
And the years before them. I pull his heavy
arm around me. The weight
of it across my back as though he loves me
or is breathing or knows who I am or might pull me into
the ash. I stand up; I have to finish
what I’ve started. His chest,
Then his arms down to each finger. His belly.
His thighs and calves and feet. His lavender and coconut
and shea-scented daughter next to his body
on the table. Bible in my hand,
My father is not dead but asleep, I say.
And he sits up as if struck by lightning.
It is always like this when he comes home to me
I’m so glad you’re here, I say even though I don’t want him
in the living room. Even though I brought him here.
My hands are as clean as the body I have just washed;
my hands have been clean for years.
I already know he can’t stay. I don’t have a spare
bedroom. I don’t have a room at all for him.
He says nothing. He never does. Just smiles like
in a photograph of us in the church parking lot:
I am 4, a purple and white dress in his arms,
and he is so big in the picture: crooked nose and smile
and gray Sunday suit. There are other pictures in the house
but this is how I make him smile when I make him.
I dig the suit out of my closet.
Put this on, I say. We have to go soon.
We dress in our Sunday best: lavender
and mothballs. We have to
go, I say. I do not say: ghost or haunting or
good bye. The church is quiet; the service small: just
a gray suit and a purple dress walking towards the empty
casket I picked out for him.
I hold his hand while he gets into it.
He smiles the familiar smile as I close
the lid. I need to buy more lavender;
I need to set the table.
Cover Art by Jeong Hwa Min