the whistling of my father

my father has begun to whistle
when he breathes

not the asthmatic wheeze
I grew up with
that constricted my air
in an audible reminder
of weakness
but a genuine
half note
on each exhalation

it seems a way for him to remind himself
that he is still capable
even through the self-inflicted struggle
with emphysema
that prematurely steals vitality

it is a sound of defiance
and a harbinger
of ultimate defeat
despite any effort of will
and the deep sense
of matters yet to be put to rights
or otherwise repaired


this morning we are atop ladders
boring holes though timber
with a cordless drill
that seems to be struggling
from an inexplicable loss of power
or may simply be responding to physical weakness
on the part of the wielder

gazing out across Archer Street
to the trees and parkland along Broken River
and the inviting blue
that lies behind it
above it

all around us

I’m aware
this may be the last such occasion
that I’ve grown too old to fill the demands
of child-apprentice to my artisan father
and he
is on the verge
of his own bitter helplessness
and loss of strength

there is no capacity for pleasure
in this shared task
and continued subordination


even in autumn
on a day of superficial brightness
and dark reflection
such as this
there is warmth from a persistent sun
that allows an illusion of ease
and dulls the edges
of my instinctive defensiveness

the drill completes creation
of a circular thoroughfare
through the heart of an old upright

and my limited role as clumsy bolt-tightener
comes briefly into play
before we move on
to the next wooden pillar
my father whistling his feeble air
with each measured movement


when I was truly a child
no goal was more desirable
than to win the respect of this man
so adept at the manly crafts
but that’s gone now

is a wonderful teacher
and emulation
is ultimately a doom
without realistic prospect

as a way to survival
without total loss of heart
becomes the instinctive practice
of a lifetime

and standing here
on top of this perch
I lose the sense of myself
until I again fill the small child’s part
no more than a helper to pass the tools
and perform only the most basic of tasks

but I’m conscious now
that my own breath
flows cleanly
there’s no longer a wheeze
when I release air

when I wake in the morning
I’ll regain my own adult pursuits
and excel at them
as is my habit

there’ll be a day
perhaps soon
when my father’s portion
of my personal journey
will be resolved
and the child role for me
gone forever

but for now I won’t forget
that from the top of the ladder
I could see the Broken River
and the blue beyond

or that my wheezing stopped
when my father began to whistle

© Frank Prem, 2000



21 thoughts on “the whistling of my father

  1. Wonderfully truthfully said. Unfortunately, we can go into the almost-useless, somewhat-tolerated role, even when we become the eldest person in a room.. until we remember the sky. (Or our not-universally loved ocean.) The 15th paragraph .. whew! For so long, yes. You’re amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Author Interview – Vijaya Gowrisankar – “Explore”, “Inspire” & Reflect (Poetry Author) | toofulltowrite (I've started so I'll finish)

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