Dear L,

The morning paper opens to a story about a body found in the bay. Snow in moonlight in May, blue as a hospital gown. I take care of a man who seems to forget what he is going to say almost as soon as he is going to say it. What if this is what our lives are, the one before this one receding as soon as this one began?

For decades I have been able to fly in my dreams. What are dreams if not the body’s desires? Or are they the desires beyond the body’s reach? There is a lamplight I follow down a curved road as if in an old movie, fog-shrouded alleyways and street signs in a language I do not speak but that uses an alphabet I can pronounce. There are certain narratives I refuse to tell. Not everything in your life I have a right to.

There is more to being human than what we weep, but what we weep cannot be swept away. Our daughters hover at the edges, apprehensive to interrupt their mother’s reading, afraid they might hurt you, and yet their eyes widen, dark and feral, as if they want to climb back inside you. You with your blue hospital pants you cannot change out of because your legs are too swollen. Home after a week in the hospital. The weeks away add up. A few days home, and then you leave. We rest in each other’s presence, coffee, and a plate of blood oranges. I ask for little more these days than to sit beside you as you read. I never thought to ask if you ever wanted a sister. Does time change anything, or it is us who change time? Wait, didn’t David Bowie sing that?

A ravishment of sudden rain. The names of things alive. Joy: the smell of broth filling a house after a long absence.

When you speak, I hear the names of tall grass swaying in the wind, Little Bluestem blessing the Prairie plains, the purple hue of switchgrass, golden Indian grass: Sorghastrum nutans. Marram grass in the sand where we used to nap as our children gathered stones, bouquets of primrose, and wild rye. You are the baker’s granddaughter.

When I called you at the hospital, you spoke slow, high on oxy and Dilaudid. I saw the obscured face of a woman passing on a train. When you speak, I hear cakes rising, I smell the loaves of bread. Your father says, “She seems so angry at me all the time but then I think she is always in pain.” What is a father if not the one who can take away a daughter’s pain?

Warblers, starlings, finches, and thrush. The birds choral above our daughters running with sticks from last night’s storm.

Lately, I try to slow down time, the way a photographer slow motions every wing of a hummingbird. I become an alchemist of minutes.

What if we lived on Venus? Each day is 243 earth days long. I would burn in such a blaze for you if it meant: stay.

For too long I was indentured to my grief and didn’t see the passing years we have been given. Decalogues of light along the nape of your neck, city streets swept with children, a girl running for the school bus who was once ours, turning to look back.

This week another suicide was found floating along the pier. So instead I will tell you of the White-throated Sparrow’s trill. I will tell you of the estuary, the terns, and gulls. I will tell you of the rusty freighters hauling ore and coal to Michigan, docked in the bay. A cormorant draws a line like a pencil across the eyebrow of the air.

I will tell of how dusk drapes the willow trees. Or of a rusty Ford fender we found washed up on the shore. Your daughter sat behind it honking like a truck.

Today, you pruned our youngest daughter’s natty hair and bobby-pinned her tresses. You helped her with her schoolwork. I write to tell the world, survival is more than love, it is labor: on your worst days home, bone thin, brittle in pain, you pushed my arm away. You still stood up.

Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author or editor of twenty books including Death Prefers the Minor Keys (forthcoming 2023 BOA Editions) and The Dead Are Everywhere Telling Us Things, winner of the 2021 Jacar Press Full Length book contest, selected by Nickole Brown and Jessica Jacobs. His website is

Art by Sheila Squillante