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Haiku for an ailing father

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Sick on a journey--

in my dream staggering

over withered fields.

This is the last haiku ever written by the 17th century Japanese poet Basho Matsuo. He dictated it from his deathbed in a rented room over a florist's shop in the city of Osaka, in the autumn of 1694, too weak to use the writing brush himself. A few days later he was dead.

I stumbled across the poem for the first time soon after my father died, and it has fascinated me ever since. Just 17 syllables in the original Japanese, it somehow manages to talk about the loneliness of individuality, the sorrow of ending, the yearning to travel onward -- even if that journey can only continue in the imagination.

Does it seem as if I'm reading too much into a poem that is, after all, just a sentence long? It helps to know a bit about Basho himself.

Basho had spent the 10 years before his death as a kind of wandering poet-priest, crisscrossing Japan on foot at a time when travel was dangerous -- the roads little more than mud tracks through lonely countryside and wild mountains full of brigands. Dressed in the robes of a Buddhist monk, he had walked hundreds of miles with a pack on his back to visit Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, ruined castles, famous battlefields and places of unusual natural beauty, all of which became the subjects of his poetry. He did this to sharpen his sense of both the wonder and the brevity of all things, and to remind himself that life itself is nothing but a journey, a pilgrimage in which everything is always in flux. To experience the world in this way was a religious act for him, and the poetry he wrote a form of religious devotion.

He barely gave himself time to recover from his longest journey ever -- a 500-mile trip through rugged northern Japan -- when he set out for Osaka in 1694. He probably knew it would kill him. Osaka was just 40 miles from his home outside of Edo, and he was only 50, but he was so physically broken from his years of wandering that he could walk only a few miles at a stretch and finally had to be carried. Once in Osaka, he came down with a fever, which he ignored until it worsened and he couldn't get up. Shivering in his quilts, he dictated the poem I translated above: Tabi ni yande yume wa kareno o kakemeguru.

The first time I read the poem, something in me resisted. The word "dream" felt unusually abstract, especially for Basho, the most physical and specific of poets; it seemed to make the poem into a rather simplistic metaphor, in which life is a dream and the world a barren field. Sure, I get it, but so what? Tell me something I don't already know.

Then something happened, a kind of imaginative grace. I remembered that this was not simply a poem, a made-up thing, but the actual words of a dying man. I pictured Basho lying in his quilts, too weak to sit up, gripped by a feverish hallucination in which, from a great height, he watched his dream-self doing what he could not do: stagger homeward.

Suddenly I had trouble holding back the sorrow he too must have felt, the sorrow he had, in fact, hidden inside the poem, a relic to outlive him. In the days that followed, I would be in the midst of my ordinary domestic life -- making a peanut butter sandwich for my son Jonah or pushing my daughter Maia on the swing in the backyard -- when out of nowhere I would think of the poem. Then my face would go numb, my eyes start to ache, and I would feel as if something were reaching up through my throat, trying to be born.

Of course, I knew this had to do with my father. The onset of his Alzheimer's had been so gradual that nobody had noticed a problem -- till one day, out of nowhere, he began having trouble walking. Suddenly, getting to the newsstand on the corner to buy the morning paper became a major undertaking for him: one slow, wobbly step after another, separated by long pauses, as if he were trying to remember what came next. We were all baffled and frightened by the change -- he more than anyone -- and yet he refused to let anyone go for him. He wanted so desperately to keep to his usual routine, to keep living, to keep death away.

Lately, when I recall Basho's poem, I tend not to think about it so much as simply live inside of it, watching the scene from a great height, as if I were a bird. I see bare trees and empty fields, without a trace of human presence, except for a single lone figure, staggering over the furrows. The figure drifts to the right and then the left, falls to its knees, and then gets up again. It is the wandering poet-priest Basho, so feverish he can barely walk and yet determined to keep going, to get home, even if that can happen only in the imaginative space of his poem, beyond the confines of his body and the limits of time.

And then I dip down for a closer look and see that the figure is not Basho but my father, and that the dream, the wish for the safety of home, is my own.

Siegel is the author, most recently, of the novel "All Will Be Revealed."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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