The Great Cargo by Jamie Kirkpatrick


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I’ve been reading Richard Wilbur’s poem “The Writer.” On one level, it’s about a writer’s lonely struggle, in this case, Wilbur’s young daughter who is banging out a story on her typewriter up in her locked room. On another level, it’s about a father standing watch over his daughter who is growing up too fast. But at the metaphorical heart of the poem, a bird—a “dazed starling”—becomes trapped in the daughter’s room and only after many failed attempts finds the “right window” and clears the “sill of the world.”

My daughter is a painter and some years ago, she moved away to Los Angeles to practice her art. By all accounts, she has done quite well; her paintings now sell for five figures and recently she was chosen to do all the artwork for a line of cosmetics sold by a large national chain store. She has become successful and like the starling in Wilbur’s poem, she has cleared the sill of her world.

“Young as she is,” Wilbur’s poem continues, “the stuff/Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:/I wish her a lucky passage.” I know that feeling well. I haven’t seen or heard from my daughter in over three years. It is a great sadness to me, all the more because her leaving—literally and figuratively—was sudden and unexplained. At first, I thought it was only a temporary parting and that she would return to me and to her brother to resume her light-hearted place in our lives. But that hasn’t happened and with each passing day/week/year, I grow more uncertain about a reunion. I have given up wondering why: it’s too painful a question and I have tried to become resolved to the notion that I will never really know why she so abruptly abandoned ship. I haven’t been very successful at that.

Khalil Gibran, the mystic Lebanese-American writer, reminds us, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they do not belong to you.” I guess that makes parenting a great cargo, too, and some of it heavy. There is a universal investment of hope and love in our children, but there is never a promise of return. A parent’s love and support must be gifts freely given, not gifts given to get. I understand that, but that doesn’t mean that my own daughter’s silence and absence don’t hurt to the quick.

This is the last stanza of Wilbur’s poem:

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life and death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

I know it is important, even essential, to let go of our children. They have their own lives to live, but I guess I assumed the circles of my daughter’s life and my life would always somewhat intersect, not drift apart. For today, I will wish my daughter what I have always wished her: love, health, happiness, and success, however she chooses to define those ephemeral concepts.

But harder.

After careers in both international development (Special Olympics) and secondary education (Landon School), Jamie Kirkpatrick bought a home on the Eastern Shore in 2011. Now he’s a happily married freelance writer and photographer who plays golf and the bagpipes with equal facility. Jamie’s writing and photography have appeared in The Baltimore Sun and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He is currently at work on a new book called “Musing Right Along.

Letters to Editor

  1. Kathryn Day says:

    Many a daughter would be glad to have a Dad who could write these words.

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