I wrote this poem very soon after the death of my father, and it's not really about very much more than that - the death of my father - and the feelings of shock and grief that of course accompany such an event, and in this case, guilt as well.

Passing On

By noon your breathing had changed from normal

to shallow and panicky. That’s when the nurse said

Nearly there now, in the gentle voice of a parent

comforting a child used to failure, slipping her arms

beneath your shoulders to hoist your up the pillows,

then pressing a startling gauze pad under your jaw.


Nearly there now. The whole world seemed to agree –

as the late April sky deepened through the afternoon

into high August blue, the vapour trails of two planes

converged to sketch a cross on the brow of heaven.

My brother Kit and I kept our backs turned to that

except now and again. It was the room I wanted to see,


because it contained your last example of everything:

the broken metal window-catch that meant no fresh air;

your toothbrush standing to attentiopn in its plastic mug;

the neutral pink walls flushed into definite pale red

by sunlight rejoicing in the flowering cherry outside;

your dressing gown like a stranger within the wardrobe


eavesdropping. That should have been a sign to warn us,

but unhappiness made us brave, or do I mean cowardly,

and Kit and I talked as if we were already quite certain

you could no longer hear us, saying how easy you were

to love, but how difficult always to satisfy and relax –

how impossible to talk to, in fact, how expert with silence.


You breathed more easily but the time we were done,

although the thought you might have heard us after all,

and our words be settling into your soft brain like stones

onto the bed of a stream – that made our own breathing

tighter. Then the nurse looked in: Nothing will change

here for a while boys, and we ducked out like criminals.


I was ordering two large gins in the pub half a mile off

when my mobile rang. It was the hospital. You had died.

I put my drink down, then thought again and finished it.

Five minutes later we were back at the door of your room

wondering whether to knock. Would everything we said

be written on your face, like the white cross on the heavens?


Of course not. It was written in us, where no one could find it

except ourselves. Your own face was wiped entirely clean –

and so, with your particular worried solved, and your sadness,

I could see more clearly than ever how like mine it was,

and therefore how my head will eventually look on the pillow

when the wall opens behind me, and I depart with my failings.

from The Cinder Path (Faber, 2009), © Andrew Motion 2009, used by permission of the author c/o The Wylie Agency (UK) Ltd.

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