I Was Just Thinking…Making Us Better

When I was a kid, my mom would walk me from our flat on Bradford Street down to Dr. Jack’s brownstone office on the border of Albany’s Washington Park. Even now I can recall the giant yellow pine blocks, smoothed to a semi-gloss sheen over the years by innumerable toddlers’ hands. I’d pull them from the corner toy box to build grand castles and forts there in his rubbing alcohol-redolent waiting room.

But beyond those tactile and olfactory memories, I remember the vaccination shots he’d give me for any number of kids’ diseases, most especially that polio shot. But I don’t remember Mom paying anyone any money, which in our house was usually as scarce as enough real beds for everyone to have his own. But Dr. Jack must have gotten paid his couple of bucks because he didn’t hesitate to drive to our house and give me another shot when I got really sick one snowy Saturday.

When I got older, I had to visit the County Health Building in the big parking lot on Pearl Street, at the bottom of Morton Avenue, in the down-sliding neighborhood that once served as the pastures for Albany’s buckle-shoed, ruminant-owning swells and a chicken sufficed as a co-pay. I remember seeing all the little brown and black kids sitting with their moms and grandmas, waiting to get their shots. It never occurred to me if they had to pay for their pointed opportunities to avoid the kind of childhood diseases I did.

It wasn’t until I had to dig into my own pocket for a visit to the doctor, ponying up some cash for necessary medication, paying the hospital for sewing up another of my skull’s collisions with reality or saving my life when an asthma attack almost removed me from it, that I realized what a blessing and burden is the quid pro quo for some sawbones to exercise their Hippocratic Oaths.

These memories of those long-past times don’t surface very often. In fact, I’d forgotten them, even when, check in hand, I brought our girls to their pediatrician for all their shots. Even when my own health speed bumps brought me enough pause for thought. Even as I bumped up against mortality and Medicare.

That was, until this week, as I watched the proceedings of the United States Senate in attempting to dump and probably not even replace the law established to help people get healthy without having to give up not only a chicken, but the whole damn farm. It forced me to scour my recollection-seeping mind to recall the history I share with America’s post-World War Two healthcare system.

In my life, I’ve seen kids in leg braces and iron lungs, draped in pox scars and being born without limbs because their pregnant mom took a medication to help her get over morning sickness. I’ve known kids with cancer who now are grandparents like me. I’ve seen the advent of machines that will keep you alive until modern science, magic and prayer can get you better. And I’ve given the nod to turn them off.

These days, I see how much of my meager assets I spend on keeping a pretty healthy family pretty healthy and wonder how those little girls in the County Health Office and the little boys up in the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation waiting on their free vaccinations managed to do that in their lives. And, yeah, I know I’m paying for some of that, but I know that now they can have the health insurance they never could before if they ever need it. It’s not their fault it costs so damn much. It’s the system’s.

It’s a system that’s grown as creaky, expensive and imperfect as I have in sixty-odd years and I’d like to see both of us healthier before I have to bid you all goodbye. But I’d never ask my family to kill me first in order to cure me. And that’s not me talking the dreaded P word—Politics. Just some old guy’s sore back, shaking hands, stiff-walled heart still pushing what few undiluted drops remain of his human decency and common sense.

I ramble, therefore I am. A true change of pace. But I’ve paid my dues for this pulpit and sickbed. Thank God I’m an American who’s free to express myself here and who’s lived long enough to see how we as a nation can make bad things get better. But I also know that’s if we all get pointed in roughly the same direction, and to accomplish that we’ll have to accept the individual and communal guidance of “the better angels of our nature.” 

The Climb Left Me Breathless

Now I know. But I wish
I didn’t have to.
Then I’d be able to look down
that deep well of recollection
and enjoy seeing the reflection
of the guy I used to be.
Instead, I focus on the skin
of memories I scraped onto its walls
in my halting climb to today.
And as fallible, forlorn and
sore as that climb has made me,
seeing that hopeful face
staring back, framed by all those
slime-coated scars, breaks
what’s left of my heart.
Funny, even though I’m standing
here on the ground, peering into
this well feels like I’m looking
down from some mountain top.

That view of my yesterdays
often hits me like a gut-punch, 
taking my breath away.

I quickly wrote this poem in response to the prompt set in that photo at the top of the piece. It’s from my friend Sharyl Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines Challenge.

The Deal

Life has loveliness to sell. ~ Sara Teasdale

If I had the strength, I’d
steal some, because I don’t think
I’ll ever trade for it once more.
I recall it felt like holding you,
your eyes piercing mine, inspecting
the inventory left upon
the shelves of my soul.
That’s what loveliness feels
like, like holding you in my
ever-weakening arms once more —
priceless, though it’s cost me
so very much of my life.
Would that I had more days
I could barter for that loveliness,
but my stock has grown scant.
I exchanged them for moments
of the loveliness I felt you share
in my daydreaming yesterdays.

I’m not feeling too well these days and mortality has suddenly become my wingman. And, like a lot of people who feel thus, I go back and audit the balance sheet of my life’s black-ink experience versus the red of its too many hopes and dreams, and I’ve found how much I’m in arrears. Don’t waste your life’s assets, children. Splash that ebon ink all over your ledger’s pages until it’s full of nothing but black and the balance reads zero. It’s like they say, “You can’t take it with you.” This poem is in response to my friend Annie Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines prompt up there of a quote from the prolific early 20th Century American poet Sara Teasdale’s poem “Barter.” Hence, my title.

So Easy, So Easy

The first time I heard you
in ‘68, I stopped as if
a rider pulled my reins and
I heard a someone shout, “Whoa!”
It was my own voice.
When I finally saw your face,
those big hot chocolate eyes,
the Cheshire cat lips from which
came an angel chorus that could
coo babies to sleep or roar
the rust off a battleship,
a lifelong crush began.
Now your gift is silenced.
But older me maintains your
image and voice inside,
where that boy keeps burning his
torch to the nail-hard, yet
cloud-soft spirit carrying you
through your days and mine.
The youngsters can’t yet know
what it means to fall in love daily
for half a century with the
unattainable nonpareil. I do,
each time I spin “Heart Like a Wheel.”
Then, it’s so easy to fall in love…

Every now and then, though I try not to think about it, I realize what we lost when Parkinson’s Disease  silenced the brilliant gift of singer Linda Ronstadt, the artist I’ve crushed on since 1968. This poem reads like teen-aged fanboy blathering because one wrote it. It just took about fifty years in the writing.

Burning Through the Haze

The gull gray clouds
atop this Spring day match
the gray atop me.
Both the sky and I hide
our sunny selves behind
our silver shields.
Yes, I possess
the light and heat
to illuminate and warm you,
just not as certain as
we know the sun eventually
will break through.

In my Armageddon-black-hair
past, the times when light
escaped from within
were more likely
bolts of angry lightning
triggered by the merest shift
in my storm-swept mind.
But as you and age burned more
of my clouds away,
the more my light shines
like this Springtime day.

By Heartwood Still Beating

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Heartwood, © Joseph Hesch 2013

I found a picture today
of when we were young,
a crystallization of time
that blossoms into recollections
bittersweet.
The expression you’re wearing
beams with a joy I’d forgotten
we could share, for we share
so much with one another,
yet seemingly shared so little.
That’s how we are, though;
that’s part of our commonality.
Always the brave face expected,
required, our shield.
But I felt your hurt and
I hope you sensed mine,
because even though we’re
from the opposite poles,
we’ll always be tied together
by  heartwood others never see.
It beats between us today,
and will forever.

A Smile for the Last Roundup

You asked me to smile and
the twisted expression with which
I answered disappointed all concerned.
The failing smily guy within this
punkin head then boards up these
windows to my soul like a derelict house.
Photographic proof exists that smiles,
like bison, once roamed my stubbled planes.
But most look faded and could portray
any ticklish dark-haired kid who
thought life was worth at least a grin.

That was before the years marked their
passage through this troubled territory,
slashing wrinkles from my scorched-earth
hairline to these gravity-submissive chins.
Occasionally, though, when no one’s watching,
miracles happen where the nerves align
with the stars and muscles fire in a
memory of when we’d make hobby-horse rockers
of our lips and ride them, like children,
toward one another in a roundup of joy.