Mixed Metaphors (prose poem)









©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart

For Dillon

They say being alive is a concatenation of scenes,
the sum of which equals a singular human performance.
So it is no surprise that since yours was cut short,
I find imperfect metaphors on every stage of life.
For your absence has defined me, has bequeathed
the part of a lifetime: I am the man who loses his son
and spends the rest of his life finding him.
Perfect casting, some might say, condign punishment
for lackluster paternal performance. And yet,
it is no easy sentence, no painless penance
chancing upon your likeness. For in a heart-throbbing instant,
you can suddenly reappear: your semblance in a child,
the living, breathing incarnation of perpetual motion
squirming delightedly in another man’s obliging arms;
something of your essence in every awkward juvenile
who trods the boards, thunderbolted youths yet out of sync
with the words and music of adolescent flesh.
Fitting I should glimpse you in the harried barista
whose bean-browned fingers do me service;
in the oleaginous youth sweltering fast-food heat on my behalf.
Rightful that the wearied waitperson standing witness to another’s appetite
should mime your resign-ed face. For you are serviceable
across every oeuvre, come comedy or high drama,
like a shooting star doomed by careless management
to overwork and early burnout, your billboarded similes are ubiquitous.
And yet, no comparison can do you justice. Even so, I find them out—
the mixed metaphors of your abbreviated life.
For such is the role of paternal grief—the daily re-discovery
that no likeness can enliven enduring loss.


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Last Words: A Marriage Memory (prose poem)








©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart

I’m through talking to you,
she said, in her best aggrieved
spousal tone—this before launching
a litany of worst-case marital woes.
Quite a list it was, and accurate;
something about ambivalent husbands
making emotionally fragile wives.
Meanwhile, outside the kitchen window,
a blizzard of plum blossoms settling
into pink petal snow drifts
on the Spring carpeted earth.
Which aroused precipitous notions
of marriage as a seasonal feast:
Spring’s timorous first candied kiss
flaring to Summer’s hot-chili heat,
a can’t-get-enough-of-you stew
that’s breathtakingly delicious—
until autumn’s befalling,
and the first wintering frost.
Just so my simple-minded epiphany
collided with my wife’s intermission.
I don’t know why I keep trying,
she said, lapsing toward lingering silence.
But that was but one of many bare-faced lies,
if surely the dearest ever told—
just enough for a few more seasons.
But all this was many moons ago;
and so, perhaps convenient fiction—
the last words between wishful
and thinking.
‘Though that surely belies
the simple truth.

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Reflections on Selling the Family Home: the Life-Changing Challenges of Decluttering House and Mind

Time to Let Go

© 2016 by Jack A. Urquhart 1500 words

Recently, in preparation for another major move, I have been reading Marie Kondo’s best-selling paean to the joys of decluttering, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Kondo’s book, the well-timed gift of a dear friend, has proven instructive as I sort and cull the material goods of our soon to be sold central Florida home. That would be the ranch-style house my parents built in 1960 and that has, in the nearly sixty years since, been home to various members of the Urquhart clan, immediate and extended.

For the last three years since my Mother’s death, the house has been home to spouse, Raymond, and to me. And I can testify that letting go of the place has not been easy. Nevertheless, I’ve found that there is much to be said for Marie Kondo’s approach to tidying. Put simply, Japan’s Mistress of all things neat and orderly holds that one must physically handle one’s personal possessions—each and every one of them—in order to determine if the item should stay or go. If the thing inspires hand-held ‘joy,’ it stays. Anything else and it’s going, going, gone.

If that sounds ‘New Agey’, then welcome to my club. But I can honestly say that I’ve experienced satisfaction in employing some of Kondo’s paring down techniques. The goal the author advocates, and that I’m shooting for, is, I believe, a worthy one—that the possessions going forward with one in life, to paraphrase Kondo, should only be things that evoke something akin to happiness.  Which means that one must learn the ‘art’ of decluttering.  And then practice it.  Assiduously.

No small order, but, it seems to me, do-able.

Alas, if only Kondo’s teachings were as easily applied to all kinds of ‘possessions’, all kinds of clutter! Namely, the mental variety. The kind I’ve encountered in moving room to room these past few weeks.

It’s an odd assemblage, this mental dis-order I’m discovering—a messy jumble of worry, regret, and nostalgia—almost all of it to do with my parents (big surprise). I’m finding it in every room—little bits and pieces of parental history begging to be tidied, lovingly folded and stored away like the shirts and camisoles featured in Kondo’s Zen-like YouTube Video.

The messiness awaits attention, to cite a few paternal examples, in the cheaply paneled room my father tacked onto the main house back in the late 60s. The room, a flat-roofed concoction, was Dad’s solution to the problem of where to put a pool table he’d brought home on what, if memory serves, was a Bourbon-fueled whim. The walls in his “billiards room” still bear the pockmarks of his cue racks, the scrapes and holes yet in need of putty and paint. Working on the other side of the house, I am reminded in emptying the linen closet of how the towels and bed sheets once concealed Dad’s ‘secret’ stash of Wild Turkey.

Workaholic and taciturn when sober, my father never talked about his drinking, just like he never talked about his World War II service in the Pacific—an experience that, I’ve been told, commenced almost immediately after his enlistment at the age of seventeen. Why, I kept wondering in packing up our linens, had it never occurred to me that Dad’s boozing might’ve been anesthesia against painful memory? Certainly a few shots of the hard stuff always seemed to unlock his vault-like heart, seemed to set loose something that was almost happy-go-lucky. Perhaps the remnants of the boy he’d once been? Barring the discovery of a long-lost diary, it’s unlikely I’ll ever have an answer. Just like I’ll never know what epiphany of consciousness led him late in life to Alcoholics Anonymous and the stoic sobriety of his retirement years. Dad passed much of that time in his private “billiards room” where, ensconced in his Lazy Boy, he spent his days watching televised sporting events. That is, until the cancer took hold. He never offered an explanation for the years that went before, and I never asked.

Conversely, my mother, always a font of ceaseless (sometimes charming, other times exasperating) chatter, favored the open gathering spaces of the house. Like the sewing corner she carved out of the “Florida Room.” For years Mom, a frugal child of the Great Depression, created her Sunday-school finery in that space relying for inspiration on the ever-changing stylistic guidebook of her Simplicity patterns.

Disposing of her ancient push-pedal sewing machine recently stirred up a whirlwind of dusty history. Like the memory of how in later life, her eyes grown weak, Mom abandoned seamtressing for quilting, laboriously hand-working in that same corner of the house intricate padded patterns—Cathedral Windows, Jacob’s Ladder, Windmills—into artful creations that would become part of the legacy she left her grandchildren. Until recently, her quilted samplers hung in several rooms. They’ve all been packed away now; but Mom’s energy lingers on.

I encounter odds and ends of it in the kitchen where the center isle is currently strewn with box tape and bubble wrap. Packing the flatware not long ago, I couldn’t help but reflect on the twice-weekly breakfasts Mom and I shared during the last years of her life. All those rambling gossipy sessions came back for close examination—like the way Mom invariably got ‘round to touting Baptist orthodoxy (as the only reliable path to eternal salvation), or the way she would laugh in recalling how in decades past, she’d always played parental enforcer—the one who made sure my brother and I, squirming on uncomfortable stools at the same kitchen isle, completed our homework before we were allowed escape into the neighborhood. A neighborhood, I should add, that in those days was a jungle garden of school-aged Baby-Boomers swinging (sometimes literally) from the trees.

Today the old neighborhood’s demographics swing more to a middle-aged jog, if not a downright geriatric shuffle. But all that is about to change, as it always does. And soon.

That is because, barring real-estate catastrophe, come June 30, a much younger mother and father, accompanied by their school-aged children, will bring new vitality to the ‘hood. Together they will take possession of these rooms, this house, and proceed to fill the spaces of their home with hopes, dreams, and yes, I expect, clutter. Of every kind.

Likewise, on that same day, Raymond and I will begin a cross-country trek toward the next chapter of our lives. Heading west (again), we’ll make our way toward the So-Cal coastal town that will become our new home, settling by mid-July into a condo close by where family and friends are already in residence.

But In the meantime, there are household possessions to be culled. Right here. Right now. There are goods to be packed, memories to be examined and neatened (as much as that is ever possible). There’s a lot of work to be done.

I expect this post is part of that work—part of the attempt to extract sense from disorder.

Even so, I know that I won’t complete the job here, that much of the clutter, mental and otherwise, will head west with me. Whole rooms of it.

Indeed, I expect I’ll be unpacking and sorting the stuff for the rest of my days. I expect to be revisiting these Florida rooms in my dreams, in my daytime reveries and in moments of random déjà vu. For that is how it has always been for me—the business of making sense of life: rarely in the short run, with the clutter quickly sorted and placed magically in its proper perspective. But rather, usually well after the fact, after having unpacked my baggage, handled it, and sorted it. Many, many times. Only then do the clues concealed in the mess begin to divulge their meaning, and their importance. Sometimes on no more than a moment’s notice.

Here in conclusion is one of those moments—the recent realization that I miss my parents more now than I ever did when they were alive and living half-a-continent away.

Which means that I must have loved them. Far more than I realized. And isn’t that sad, sad, sad. But then, I’ve always been a slow learner. And chronically myopic. Not one to take a good hard look at things—until they’re right in my face.

Which brings me back to this house, this brick and mortar parental metaphor for everything I’m struggling to assess. I suppose I should be encouraged that in some mysterious and surprising way, I find myself handling, quite literally if not particularly skillfully, a lifetime’s accrued baggage. And in very close quarters. It will take time to complete that appraisal. And there will be sadness. But also moments of gladness. The kind of ‘joy’ that Marie Kondo perhaps had in mind when she began espousing the ‘life-changing’ merits of tidying up. Like the thrilling exhilaration that comes in recognizing what to keep, and what to let go.

I’m beginning to think the lady is on to something.

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god fantasy (a prose poem) by Jack A. Urquhart











©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart  (500 words)

Call me crazy, but I like to fantasize about meeting god,
about hooking up with the über one for a face-to-face
encounter. Nowadays, that takes some real-time imagination,
what with virgin births and second comings scarce,
not to mention deity’s long holiday from humanity.
I mean, what’s up with that anyway—two thousand years,
practically incommunicado? Who gets that much time off,
I’d like to know? Luckily, I’m a creative type myself
(why should god have all the fun?), a natural at conjuring
divine stand-ins which, despite those old testament chestnuts,
[think Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”]
I believe totally justified given the big kahuna’s gone AWOL.

But whatever. Meantime, I’m finding icons of the digital age
make a godly substitute. Like one of those action genre divinities
all muscled up to the high heavens for the wide-screen,
or a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with a P.S.A. trending on YouTube®.
Could even be a teen queen streaming country hits on Spotify®.
You get the picture. There’s a million possibilities out there.
That said, I won’t go out of my way for any “B-list” imitators.
No proselytizing, baby-kissing politicians (god forbid!),
Nor minor T.V. luminaries either. No FOX News® anchors
umbilically attached to their teleprompters; nor manscaped
celebrity chefs sporting au courant hair. No sitcom bombshells
hawking Spanx® and wrinkle creams on QVC®, et cetera.
I’m talking strictly superstar material here, a genuine icon
who’d be worshipped anywhere on god’s green earth
and seven continents—six if you’re of European persuasion
where they combine the Americas, excepting the contrary French,
who ignore Antarctica and thus, have only five (lord knows,
we humans all want to re-create the world!). But I digress.

To continue, my fantasy god stands in plain sight streetside;
could be the Champs-Élysées or a squalorous alley in old Bombay.
Could be Bumfuck, Texas. Doesn’t matter. There she/he is,
waiting to be idolized. And man, do the pilgrims prostrate!
Everyone is agog at my god. Everyone but me, that is.
Since it’s my delusion, I can cut to the chase with the divine,
dispense with that holier-than-thou crap and get down to business.
“Pardon me, god-almighty,” I say, striking up conversation.
“Since we probably won’t meet again, I was wondering—
could we try something? Could we try to see each other,
really see each other for a change?” That’s how I put it to god.
And then, I just stand there waiting, holding god’s eye, so to speak.
The whole thing takes thirty secs, max. Not much to ask, IMHO.

I conclude the meeting with a single word: “Beautiful,” I say.
Very simple. Some might say elegant. Just ‘Beautiful’.
In my best imaginings, there’s always a sonorous heavenly coda:
“I was just about to say the same,” my god replies. Words to that effect.
And yet, I can’t help wondering—is this last pushing fantasy too far,
not to mention flouting precedent? After all, history is clear on one thing:
that the gods rarely recognize their creators.

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Say ‘Cheese’! A Birthday Letter to my Son

Say Cheese-Dillon

©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart

(Dillon Tyler Urquhart 03.08.1979—08.02.2013)

Dear Dillon,

Today, with your birthday coming on, I tried from old photographs to summon some smile-making memories, a few happy commemoratives from all those “say ‘cheese’!” moments. But it seems my recollections are like the Swiss variety—riddled with holes, the “eyes” never uniform or all-seeing. Entire decades of your life, Dill, have fallen into those voids. The leftovers come back to me in bite-size morsels, sometimes nostalgically sweet and buttery, other times flat-out nutty. It seems your very existence has been homogenized—the particulates broken smaller and smaller, aged and suspended in the milk of memory so smoothly that I have to concentrate in order to taste the cream.

There is a frosted birthday clown in there somewhere, nose Kodachrome-orange as a cheddar wedge, and a roomful of photogenic preschoolers mugging deliciously for the camera. A piñata gets batted around too, heavily stuffed with cheesy “made-in-China” tchotchkes, cellophaned pralines (courtesy of Maw-Maw and Paw-Paw) straight from the “Big Easy”. Also in the mix, a handful of Polaroid memories: a grownup party and you, a chocolate-mouthed thief, grinning, having purloined an unattended Chardonnay.

Strange, it must seem to you wherever you are: all this snapshot straining of the past for a soupçon of ‘happy’? But then, maybe that is the way we human beings experience our happiness—rarely in the present tense, its truest pleasures palatable only after the acidic effects of time? Rather like the aftertaste of a good Brie or Camembert. Or, more apropos of the day, the sugared memory of ice cream and cake that remains long after the birthday candles have all been extinguished. Who knows? Perhaps it’s our delayed experience of the sublime that makes life in the present tense bearable? That is what I’m inclined to think.

And it’s why I choose to remember you, this way, Dillon: as a beaming birthday boy.

Happy birthday, Dear Son.



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Afterwords: Reflections on losing a child to mental illness and drugs

PicMonkey Collage©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart   1600 words

I do not know if I should be attempting this again—don’t know if it’s wise or useful to attempt honesty, especially in prose, on a matter so profoundly life-altering as the death of a child. I have tried many times, sometimes in short memorial pieces, mostly in laboring poetry, to come to terms with my adult son’s death from mental illness and drug abuse in 2013. So why try again? After all, Dillon’s isn’t a new or even infrequently told story.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the U.S. is experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose deaths, a 137 percent increase since 2000—including a 200 percent increase in deaths involving opioids. Contributing to these sobering statistics is the fact that nearly 50 percent of those who suffer from mental illness also have substance abuse problems.

My son was one in tens-of-thousands. Maybe even millions.

Dillon was schizophrenic and a chronic self-medicator—his drugs of choice, alcohol and opioids. Often in combination. By the time of his death, Dillon had a long tally of counseling, rehab, recovery, and relapse on account. He had also in late adolescence paid dearly in psychological terms during the dissolution of his parents’ twenty-year marriage, a bond broken owing to his father’s inability—that would be my inability—to deny and suppress a long latent homosexuality.

The bill for all of these troubles came due for Dillon, as I’ve indicated, in 2013. In the early hours of July 28th, Dill overdosed.

Stripped clean of identification, money, and most of his personal possessions in a Seattle park frequented by drug dealers, the homeless, and the mentally ill, Dillon lay unconscious and unattended for nearly half an hour. By the time emergency crews arrived, most of Dillon’s brain activity had ceased. He was admitted to Harbor View Hospital under the alias, “Joe Garcia.” Two days passed before a staff member recognized Dillon from a previous stay (one of several) in the hospital’s psych ward.

His mother, my ex-wife, and I were subsequently notified; we flew in from out-of-state to join our daughter, with whom Dillon had been living, to sit vigil at Dill’s bedside. The end came a day later.

Removed from life support, Dillon passed in the early hours of August 2, 2013. He was thirty-four years old. It was the worst day of my life—or so I thought at the time.

What I’ve learned since is that there is no such thing as a single worst day. Not for a parent who has lost a child; and certainly not when the child’s mental illness has introduced a whole world of “if only’s” and “why didn’t I’s” into the grief-guilt-anger-personal-culpability aftermath. Indeed, what I’ve discovered is that the bad days just keep coming, cropping up on the slightest provocation: a dream, an old photograph, one of Dill’s favorite tunes on the radio; the sight of another man at lunch with his son. Any one of a thousand ordinary everyday events can overwhelm this benighted father in a tsunami-like wave of fresh grief. It is two and a half years since Dillon’s passing, and still the tidal waves of regret and guilt keep coming.

I use the word guilt on purpose, because that is what I feel—as if I could have and should have done more to save my son. Something more than arranging for therapy or supplying occasional supplementary funds; more meaningful than editing his resumé or helping him find affordable housing. Couldn’t I have undertaken something more hands-on than long-distance telephone pep-rallies, something more stabilizing and/or interventional than an Internet search for appropriate services? And most acutely: couldn’t I have denied myself, delayed my ‘coming out’ for my children’s sake, remained closeted and heterosexually coupled in the service of their emotional and psychological health at least a while longer?

Even barring that possibility, shouldn’t I have taken Dillon under my roof once I’d forged out on my own to build a new life? Perhaps even taken control of his mental health treatment by legal means?

Over and over, my daily reflections remind me that I chose not to do these things, chose not to pull my son closer.

So, why didn’t I? It’s not as if the options weren’t clear to me.

I remember, for example, a long distance telephone conversation with a representative at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Greater Seattle, shortly after Dillon moved there to join his sister in 2009. Already my daughter was reporting a resurgence of Dillon’s old patterns: the precipitous ups-and-downs, the recalcitrance about his meds, the bouts of paranoia accompanied by self-destructive behaviors with alcohol and drugs. I remember discussing with the NAMI representative the various services, treatments, and support systems available to Dill in Seattle if he could only be persuaded to access them. And I remember that we explored intervention options too—the various legal complications and difficulties associated with attempting to gain guardianship of my son and/or effect his involuntary commitment. I remember (tellingly?) experiencing a feeling close to relief when I learned that since Dillon had several times demonstrated enough self-awareness of his illness to pursue voluntary commitment programs, it might prove difficult to establish the preponderance of evidence necessary to gain control over my son’s mental health care via the courts. Even so, the NAMI representative provided me with information and legal contacts for exploring a court action. But as I’ve indicated, I didn’t pursue that route.

Instead, I convinced myself that the least traumatic, least shaming course of action for Dillon was to encourage him to be proactive in maintaining his mental health—i.e., staying on his meds, continuing regular sessions with his psychiatrist, and even pursuing voluntary commitment treatments when necessary.

For my part, I would provide advice and financial assistance to supplement Dill’s disability income; I would do my best to smooth over his legal and housing difficulties via long distance. And I would keep reminding him that the voices that sometimes commandeered his consciousness weren’t real, weren’t the result of a sinister N.S.A. experiment designed to beam self-destructive commands at him via microwave.

It was easier to pursue this route—easier because Dill sometimes experienced several weeks of normalcy at a stretch—no dramas, nothing more bothersome than the housekeeping challenges his messy ways occasioned for his fastidious sister and housemate.

But the rationale for my choices was not entirely rooted in parental altruism or even the belief that a milder form of tough love might do Dillon good—not that those didn’t factor into my actions. Rather, the naked Full Monte of my reasoning included much that was not admirable.

Seventeen years of running damage control in close quarters during Dillon’s youth, I thought, was enough. I wanted my own new life as a homosexual man to be as uncluttered as possible. And besides, Dillon had repeatedly proven himself a bridge burner, disappointing us all—his mother, sister, myself—multiple times. How much dishonesty, verbal abuse, and even theft was one expected to endure? Hadn’t I put in my time? So when my adult son forged out into his own space, I was determined to keep him there—at a distance. I was able to pull this off by compartmentalizing in a backroom of consciousness (well away from the shaming light of day) the less commendable reasons for my actions.

But as the saying goes, you can be sure the truth will out. And in the aftermath of Dill’s passing, with all my emotional doors flung wide open, the truth has been stepping into the klieg lights, strutting its ugly self in a manner guaranteed to commandeer my attention, my regret. And my guilt.

There are reasons, I know, that should mitigate these feelings, this shame. After all, one of the tenets of supporting a family member who suffers from mental illness and/or substance abuse is not to do for them what they can do for themselves. And certainly not to intervene in their lives in a manner that keeps them from the consequences of their actions.

These are pretty words, and not untrue. But they are afterwords now, and their comfort has been icy cold in the aftermath of Dillon’s death.

More helpful has been support from my spouse, my loved ones.

As a dear friend recently counseled,  I must discover how to forgive myself, forgive Dillon, and forgive the universe for casting us both in this drama. And then maybe make something good happen in my son’s memory. Which is, I suppose what I’m attempting here—the ostensible purpose of this post.

That I’m finding it beyond difficult, is, I expect patently obvious.

But I am trying.

One of the things that makes the process so difficult is that while there’s no denying my parental shortcomings and insensitivities, I really do love my children; I have always loved them. That was the one thing I wanted them never to doubt. So I told them so at every opportunity: “I love you bushels and pecks,” I told them when they were children. And then later on, “Whatever happens, wherever you go and whatever you do, I love you today, tomorrow, and for always.”

I thought that knowing how deeply and unconditionally they were loved would help my children weather any challenge. How naïve of me not to have foreseen that discovering otherwise would break all our hearts. Especially Dillon’s, whose wounded psyche was so fragile.

“I love you both to death,” I told my children repeatedly.

But I always meant my death.

Atoning for that failure with Dillon will be, I suspect, a lifelong challenge.


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Hindsight, a prose poem

Dream Thelma
©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart

“I can see you,” she says
sweeping airily by,
flash of Sunday-school dotted swiss,
patent leather rat-a-tat heels,
whiff of Skin So Soft.
“Time to rise and shine!”
Her voice is soprano sharp
and bellwether clear,
the vibrato not yet crackled with age.
“Mama seeees you very well.”
And how eagerly, happily you rouse,
clutch at the bed sheets,
a child again to your mother’s skirts.
“And I can see you,” you answer back.
But, that truth is fading fast,
like the epiphanies of slumber,
another vision glimpsed much too late.
And come the hindsight of day,
subject to wavering revision.

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