hearts clothes-pinned to the back tire.
Round and round and round
the black wheels spin. A desert wind
blows my black hair back.
From the handlebars, canary-yellow
tassels flutter. “Fly, Nan, fly,”
my father, jogging beside me,
laughs as he pushes the bike, sending
me off on my own. July 4th, his
holiday, and he is teaching me
how to ride the new blue Schwinn.
Harder and harder my second-grade
feet pedal down the dirt road.
With each push, the bike lurches
left then right. Pebbles and potholes.
Sun floods my eyes. Finally I fall,
the skin on my chin scraped raw.
Lying on the ground, I see
my father. He is so far away,
pale and blue, standing motionless
in the middle of a road
It was late afternoon on a mild, mid-autumn day when my father first told me that he wanted his ashes to be buried beneath a tree when he died. The light outside was grand—the sky, pale and blue with a few reluctant clouds—perfect for a picnic. My father was sipping a mocha shake as he tended to the hot dogs that sizzled on the portable grill. The previous week, he had watched a film called Helium, and throughout the afternoon, he kept dropping tidbits about helium and light. Orbitals. Nuclear fusion. Photons. Lying under a sweet gum tree next to the picnic basket—a wicker one—I was reading Journey of a Solitude by May Sarton. A soft breeze periodically rustled the book’s pages as I read aloud. “Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees.” It was one of my father’s favorite passages in the book. Sunlight broke through the tree’s star-shaped leaves, a thousand green stars drinking up all that sun. In a movie, Helium is an alternative place to Heaven. “Where is Helium? Helium is right on the other side of those clouds there,” a man tells a dying boy. I remember when I was a little girl my father told me “When the sun makes helium, you get sunlight, and the trees—they eat sunlight.” After we ate, it was still light, and we strolled down a cobbled path to the river. “A tree like one of these,” my father said nodding to a patch of quaking aspen, their golden leaves dancing in the helium-born sunlight.
Some say the whole universe, born
spinning, spins still, everything
in it revolving as well. “Time itself
is a circle,” my father quotes to me.
All of us hurling through space
toward a mysterious vanishing,
at the same time circling back
to ourselves, each circle another
chance to patch what we had
originally torn asunder.
Looking back, it was on July 3rd of last year when I knew for certain that my father was dying. I made the three-hour trip to visit him, not to celebrate his favorite holiday, but because he hadn’t answered his phone, which alarmed me because, until then, we talked every day. I ended up leaving a message for the night nurse at the assisted living center where he lived. She called back to explain that he had destroyed his phone, disassembled it bit by bit. “Why?” I asked. “He’s declared a war on technology,” she replied, which was unusual for a man who owned two tablets, a cell phone, and a laptop, a man who had once built his own desktop computer. When I arrived that Wednesday afternoon, he wasn’t in his room, which was also unusual. I eventually found him zipping around the corner of the nurse’s station in his red electric chair. Upon seeing me, his face lit up, eyes vibrant and twinkling, hands animated as if speaking their own urgent language. “Nan!” he finally gasped, his voice a gravelly whisper-shout. “Nan! I’ve got to tell you something.”
We are still in Okinawa,
living on U.S.-base housing.
Next door, the five-year-old
who has been blackmailing me
into giving her all
of my lifesavers is throwing
a birthday party. Everywhere
there is yellow—her hair,
the melmac plates, the balloons
being blown up by the clown.
There is even yellow
on the bumblebee in the palm
of my hand. “Don’t get stung!”
the clown chirps in his helium-
squeaked voice. My father,
who hates clowns, stands
on the sidewalk, his back to
along with a dark-haired man
whom I don’t know.
Sandwiched between them
is my mother, her hands yelling
in their own urgent language.
Later, her voice becomes
the only thing I hear.
The three turn to look
at me. The clown lets loose
a bouquet of yellow. The
yellow vanishes into the pale
The strange man waves.
I wave back.
If you look at the waves and widths of a tree’s annual rings, you would see in the wood, if you knew what to look for, signs of injury, seasons of lack, missing branches. When I was a child, I would often, on Saturdays when others were playing kickball, sit cross-legged in the dirt and draw trees, eyes upward, trying to render each individual leaf. Back then, I believed that exactness was a virtue. Back then, I thought that a tree grew from its center, from its heartwood. And who wouldn’t think such a thing, given the name heartwood. But a tree’s heartwood is dead. A tree grows and records its experiences, not in its innermost part, but near its outermost part, near its bark, its rugged skin. Similar to trees, human bodies also record and remember. Our tender skin, designed to slough off as if wanting to refuse any memory of injury or lack, cannot help but be a palimpsest, each scar giving testimony. And in some corner of our innermost part, rings of cells remain in fight or flight or freeze, until that one day when a friend, who, excited to see you standing at the bar ordering a Tanqueray and tonic, comes up from behind, laughing, and grabs the underside of your upper arm, which causes a sudden ache-punch in your solar plexus, followed by grief, wave upon wave, that would have knocked you to your knees had the bar not been there to save you.
I w a n t e d t o h e a l m y
parents. In a child’s mind,
what better way to do that
than through a gas clowns use
to make people laugh.
In first grade, I wrote a fable—
a young girl was the one
who discovered helium.
She saved everyone she met.
On her chest, a blazing
yellow heart, so much better
than Superman’s imprisoned S.
And everywhere she went,
During the last two months of my father’s life in the nursing home, the stories started off small, as if he were casually reminiscing. At first, each time he told a story, he would say his brain was wobbling on its axis due to the Parkinson’s medication, and the look on his face was one that I imagined a penitent would have during absolution. He began by telling me he was trapped, spinning and spinning—every year, in summer, his mother dies when his little sister is born; every autumn, his father—and I imagined him stuck in the middle rings of a tree. Even now, round and round and round, I see him spinning in the earlywood. He insisted he was not a melancholy child. He had his two sisters and his grandmother, who raised the three of them after his father died until they were carted off to the orphanage because the neighbor turned his Nana in to officials for being too old. And he had Mr. Long—my father always called him Mr. Long—the man who adopted him when he was thirteen. My father told me how happy he was, at first, to have a new father and mother. It was a story I’d heard before, but now with a new revelation: Mr. Long wanted to adopt only him, but took his two sisters after pressure to keep the three children together. Mr. Long’s interest in him escalated until my father ran away at seventeen, first joining the Navy, then the Air Force. “All my life,” he would often repeat during these dying months, “all I ever wanted was a family.”
I was supposed to go to kindergarten,
but didn’t. The tuition was too high.
Every morning at the kitchen window,
I would watch the other children
chatter and laugh as they carted off
to school. To compensate for the loss,
my father spent hours teaching me
everything he believed children
in kindergarten: To read and write,
tie my shoes, add and subtract,
tell time. Later, he taught me
to love science. I was fascinated
by orbital things: The socket that held
the eye, cyclones, galaxies and atoms,
the periodic table. Helium was an early
lesson. I learned much from that first
noble gas: How important it is
to be able to dissipate, how to perform
appropriately when reactions are
unwelcome, to love the color of
and sunshine, that at times it pays to be
aloof, that I can move in any direction
as. long as I stay in my lane, that
can suffocate while still breathing
even if you can make them laugh.
Helium is one of the more stable elements. It follows the duet rule, which says that helium’s outermost level of energy can contain, at most, only two electrons. This rule, though, speaks only to the stability of its two electron children in their electron shell, and not of the stability of the parental nucleus. The human family unit can be like helium. In America, the optimum family unit is considered by some to be nuclear, and this nuclear family is considered by some to be the basic building block of American society. Helium, too, is a building block, being the second most common element in the current knowable universe. Helium, though, is rare on Earth, probably not unlike the elusive nuclear American family. Helium rarely reacts with any other element, given its two protons and neutrons and electrons that form a stable unit, although in America, the number of persons to form a stable nuclear unit is 3.14. With a number such as 3.14, one can’t help but think of pi. One can’t help but wonder if hoping for an ideal family is, like pi, irrational.
My sister is spoon-feeding a milkshake
to my father, who is now bed-ridden,
her voice lilting, as if soothing a child.
His face oscillates between beaming
an impish grin and grimacing
in confusion. I picture his brain
spinning round and round
and round, an ellipsoidal nucleus.
Lying there, he seems so far away, pale
and blue. My father, the alpha
particle, center of a tiny universe.
Orbiting in the cloud
around him—my sister and me,
his two electrons.