2013 Issue: Peter Schmitt: My Father on the Tennis Court (poem)

My Father on the Tennis Court
by Peter Schmitt

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly.
—T.S. Eliot

A basket of balls, a net
between us—like twenty-eight

years ago. Only it’s me
pitching underhand, slowly,

as near to him as I can.
Him standing uncertain, lock-

kneed, but eager. Sixteen months,
we’ve waited for just this day:

to tell ourselves, This is it,
or There still might be a chance,

the tumor partly shrunken,
his feet enough unswollen

to squeeze into stiff Nike’s.
Now his first strokes, thick with rust.

The old form’s gone. What I thought
would come back quickly, doesn’t,

as if he’s forgotten all
he taught me. He looks, of course,

pretty damned good: the new shirt
my mother bought, plucky grin—

good as since the MRI,
the smudge like a mark on clay.

He’s even had me stop at
Mike’s, to swing the latest frames

in the magazines. Always
embracing the new: the first

at the courts to trade his wood
for steel (getting me one too).

Three times he’s let his doctors
drill screws through his skull, to fix

tight a gleaming helmet, a
Virtual Reality/

Star Wars contraption firing
cobalt two hundred angles

at the cancer. And more balls
now are coming back, faster,

and just weeks ago I knifed
a smile in two tennis balls

to make wheels for his walker,
so now I toss one wider,

stretching him—only to watch,
surreal slo-mo, bloated feet

crossing him up, my father
going down: Duchamp’s Nude, piece

by broken piece, or softshoe
vaudevillian as the big cane

yanks him offstage. Before I
can reach him, his head hangs there,

a moment, suspended—then
smacks the cement. Toweling

the blood and we could be kids,
conspiring from Mom: if I

can get him to the shower . . .
But that night, the purple bruise

on his forehead (precisely
where the tumor is staging

its latest rally), and hand,
fractured, swelling, give us up.

Two months he’ll wear a cast; three,
he’ll be dead. And did my fear

put him on that court? Did he
consent for my sake? When you

were a boy, he says, you asked
to play; I never forced you.

Well, it’s just like then. Next time,
I think I’ll try that graphite . . .

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