Answers for the Hard Questions

After Patricia Smith's "Because"


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‘Cause he knew ninety-five would be his last year

‘Cause ghosts live in his backyard

‘Cause he doesn’t know why the Lord has kept him 

‘Cause he is sixteen years past his wife, three years past his son, and the last of eleven children

‘Cause it wasn’t that one oil can, it was all the years of oil cans,

kerosene lamps, hog slaughters, fence mendings that wrenched his back and laid him low

‘Cause he’s never lived off his father’s land

‘cept for the war, which was a different time

‘Cause as soon as we took him off the land, the mumbles set in

‘Cause he’s dying inch-by-inch and we have to watch

‘Cause we’re in the awful position of believing we can help

‘Cause if one more nurse—always young, always white, always too eager to be in my face—

tells me that he’s so cute, he, who five months ago lived on his own 

and today can’t wipe his own ass, if one more nurse...

‘Cause Becky with the cold hands doesn’t understand that he’s telling her that her hands are cold. 

She just keeps saying, “Mine, too! Mine, too!”

‘Cause the older black nurses know when to laugh, even through the mumbles, 

a code I have yet to decipher

‘Cause the tape on his arms and neck, that keep tubes and needles in place, tears his skin

‘Cause his skin itself is too weak to resist a tug

‘Cause no one but family sees the bruises on his arms

‘Cause my mom has to teach the phlebotomist how to draw blood without making not-another hole

‘Cause his BBQ recipe isn’t secret, it’s just uncopiable, measurements in bits and lil’ bits

‘Cause mixed couples walking unbothered still surprise him

‘Cause he’s high-yella himself and knows who and how

‘Cause he was born either October 21 or 24, 1921

‘Cause the doctor who processed the midwife’s birth certificates didn’t cleave to negrometiculosity—

the act or process of giving a fuck about whether you do your job right for people of color

‘Cause he went to war to escape the farm

‘Cause the unknown flesh-eating bacteria in the Philippines may have saved his life

‘Cause the black smudges smoking up his yellow calves are his only scars of war

Because Jesus saved me and then I met your grandmother

‘Cause bootlegging was going to be a come-up

‘Cause he was making better money than farming

‘Cause he chased a man with a gun

‘Cause that man stole something

‘Cause he rounded the corner real fast and

Because Jesus saved me and then I met your grandmother

‘Cause Colored Army men could clean planes at Cherry Point

‘Cause he and Grandma still had to farm to make ends meet

‘Cause they saved foil, glass, bottles, fabric, egg shells

‘Cause the rows of mason jars tagged peaches 1992, string beans 1995, okra 2000 line sentinel 

dust coated, in Grandpa’s smokehouse turned pantry, waiting for the one who canned them

‘Cause they were ecological scientists, studying green living and ways to reduce waste

‘Cause they’d lived through The Depression

‘Cause when Grandma ran on, he pulled out mason jars stuffed with money lining the backs of closets

‘Cause it turns out that bills can rot, and so they had

‘Cause bills also don’t cleave to negrometiculosity

‘Cause the daughter he tried to adopt won’t call 

‘Cause the only son ran on, too

‘Cause the two youngest daughters each grab a spoon and shovel to his closed lips

‘Cause they’ll soon be adult orphans and be told to be grateful

‘Cause it took near a decade and a wrenched back for heart failure to take his breath

‘Cause the clicking and hissing lungs of the oxygen machine drown out his mumbles

‘Cause he says Jim Crow convalesces in his nursing home

‘Cause no Bible holds the holy way my grandpa used to tell a story

‘Cause he still doesn’t smell sick or old

‘Cause he still wants to go fishing with Grandma even though the waterways went bad in the ‘90s

even though Grandma ran on in 2002

‘Cause he doesn’t know why the Lord is keeping him 

‘Cause dying away from the land and the ghosts who live in his dreams is not in our tradition

‘Cause he knew ninety-five would be his last year

‘Cause waiting to die is inconvenient


For William Roundtree, October 24, 1921 - April 24, 2017

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