by Robert Wrigley
Never especially inclined mathematically, my father,
days past his eightieth birthday, calculated the following:
if the names of all the dead, military and civilian alike,
of every nationality, from his war--the good one--
were blasted into granite, as were those of only
the American soldiers who had perished in the bad one, mine,
the resulting monument would be almost a mile long
and a hundred feet deep. Setting aside the engineering challenges,
he believed the greater problem was the names. Sixty million,
he ciphered, though I don't know how. His imagined monument,
a project no greater than the interstate highway system
or the dams across the nation's rivers, could take decades
to erect. No more than Rushmore or Crazy Horse.
And yet who would have envisioned such a task?
I remember how, the night of the first moon landing,
he stood in his backyard in the heart of the heart of the country,
straining through binoculars to see what could not be seen
but was. Now ten years past his monumental calculations,
the only numeral that matters to him is 2. We are not sure why.
Perhaps because my sister and I are two. As are he
and our mother, her failing eyes and gentle hands. And therefore
"two" is the answer to every problem the young neurologist poses,
a physician not much older than my own children,
none of whom ever lived through something called the draft.
My father does not know what year we are in or the name
of our current president. Even the names of his grandchildren
are lost to him sometimes, and if we were to ask
that name by which he calls himself, we fear that, too,
may be gone. He does not know, and probably never did,
the word cenotaph, though the memorial he once imagined
would have been just that, an empty tomb.
Father, let me estimate the dead for you:
it has been and will be everyone. Let us understand
that mountains are--like plains and swamps,
like rivers and oceans--death and life factories, forges from which
come numberless souls, residents on a spinning blue cenotaph
that without us has no name nor need of one.
These were the dead of a single war, these the dead
of the others. And here are those who died, as we say, in peace,
some whose lives have faded within them until they are
only the names and numbers they had been known by.
And here is where they were, beneath a cyclical moon,
which bears through the universe some footprints and a flag.