Okay, I admit it. This one got me teary when I heard Garrison Keillor read it on this morning’s edition of The Writer’s Almanac. And it’s a little dangerous to be driving on a dark and rainy morning, even without a tear in your eye. But a good deal of it came on when I was sitting at a red light, so all is good. I’m not sure if it will have the same effect on you when you read it, but I encourage you to read it at a pace where you feel every word as you read.
The Sum of Man
facing the end of his life,
he moved in with me.
We piled his belongings—
his army-issue boots, knife magazines,
Steely Dan tapes, his grinder, drill press,
sanders, belts and hacksaws—
in a heap all over the living room floor.
For two weeks he walked around the mess.
One night he stood looking down at it all
and said: “The sum total of my existence.”
Emptiness in his voice.
Soon after, as if the sum total
needed to be expanded, he began to place
things around in the closets and spaces I’d
cleared for him, and when he’d finished
setting up his workshop in the cellar, he said,
“I should make as many knives as I can,”
and he began to work.
The months plowed on through a cold winter.
In the evenings, we’d share supper, some tale
of family, some laughs, perhaps a walk in the snow.
Then he’d nip back down into the cellar’s keep
To saw and grind and polish,
creating his beautiful knives
until he grew too weak to work.
But still he’d slip down to stand at his workbench
and touch his woods
and run his hand over his lathe.
One night he came up from the cellar
and stood in the kitchen’s warmth
and, shifting his weight
from one foot to the other, said,
“I love my workshop.”
Then he went up to bed.
He’s gone now.
It’s spring. It’s been raining for weeks.
I go down to his shop and stand in the dust
of ground steel and shavings of wood.
I think on how he’d speak of his dying, so
easily, offhandedly, as if it were
a coming anniversary or
an appointment with the moon.
I touch his leather apron, folded for all time,
and his glasses set upon his work gloves.
I take up an unfinished knife and test its heft,
and feel as well the heft of my grief for
this man, this brother I loved,
the whole of him so much greater
than the sum of his existence.
— Norah Pollard