Poem: Wolf Howl (and the back story)

A wolf in sepia tones staring face on

This is a poem about loss. I wrote it a few years ago as a Creative Writing assignment, and it’s now included in my writing club’s 2022 poetry anthology, Crossroads.

Wolf Howl

His wolf howl startled me
as I lay on the tangerine floor
covered in scrapes and stones
while my mother dabbed my wounds.

He swore he’d sell that damn truck,
the one with the gelatin seats and shoestring locks,
and the lack of seatbelts that allowed a little girl
to soar through the air,
then watch from the gravel
as her dad drove away.

I didn’t understand his tears
as my little body quivered
on the sterile hospital table,
shaking from the Popsicle metal
and the drumbeat of my skin
as they picked rocks from my face and knees
and offered ocean wave whispers among my jellyfish cries.

I was confused by his promise
that he’d never drive that truck again,
and figured it was hard to give the buyer the keys,
saying goodbye to the classic white trophy
he’d cherished forever,
or at least since before I was born.

But the day my womb emptied,
my aching arms never filled,
a wolf cry in my lungs,
and my glass heart shattered,
I knew he’d give away the moon
if it meant
his little girl would be safe

forever.

****

Back story:

Does it take away the magic of a poem to explain it? If you think yes, stop reading now. Otherwise, here’s what it’s about.

When I was young, my dad took my sister and me to a swimming hole in Glen Ellen, CA while my mom stayed home with our toddler sister. Once we’d had our fill, my sister and I stayed in just our swimming suits as we traveled the windy road back home in my dad’s 1950 GMC pickup, the kind with a slippery bench seat and no seatbelts. As my dad drove, we sat next to him and played a game that involved tickling. But when my sister went to tickle me, I jerked away, hitting the passenger door hard enough that it sprang open.

Watch any movie about an accident, and good cinematography will play the scene in slow motion. This is what it felt like as I sailed through air. I was aware of everything – the feeling of weightlessness before I landed, watching my dad drive away, believing he’d never know I was gone and I’d be lost forever. The whole event probably took place over a few seconds. But to me, minutes passed between the time I was launched from the truck to the moment I lay scraped up in the gravel as my dad continued down the road.

My dad rushed me home. I’d never ever seen him as emotional as he was, crying to my mom about the suddenness of it all. I was also amazed at how much I was shaking without even trying. “You’re in shock,” my mom explained.

Then it was off to the hospital where they picked tiny rocks out of my skin, one by one. They had been embedded in my face, my knees, my hands. I don’t remember that part. I do remember sitting in the room, naked and shivering, and that was what I was most concerned about. My front tooth was half gone, and my face remained scabbed for weeks. I was embarrassed to go anywhere, for anyone to see me. My dad still made me go to church, even though I wanted to hide until I healed.

He also never drove the truck again. It sat in our yard for years, a shiny white trophy that symbolized that fateful day. Eventually he sold it to two guys who came to our door and asked about it.

Fast forward a few decades.

I was pregnant with my third child, an unplanned pregnancy while my youngest was still in diapers and my oldest only in preschool. I was juggling work and caring for the kids, most of the parenting left to me since their dad worked longer hours. And I was burnt out. When I found out I was pregnant, I cried. He celebrated.

It took a few months, and I came around. We set up the baby’s room, thought up names, and wondered what he or she would be like. We found out he was a boy, and it all became even more real.

At 32 weeks, I went to a concert in San Francisco. I was amazed at how easy it was for me to move around, almost like I wasn’t 7 months pregnant. That night, I rested on the couch, my hand on my belly, and I realized I hadn’t felt the baby move all day. I drank some juice, which is what they tell you to do to stimulate movement in the baby, but it didn’t work.

The Friday before, I’d been working at my daughter’s preschool, and there was a moment when I felt a rapid succession of kicks, and then nothing. I’d been concerned in the moment, but dismissed it as being an overly nervous expectant mom.

In the hospital, as the nurse told me my baby had died, I realized those rapid kicks were the last time I’d felt him move. Hours later, I held his lifeless body in my arms. I was 24 years old, the same age my oldest daughter is now, and my life was forever changed in the matter of a weekend. Deepening my grief was the guilt over not wanting another child in the first place. Did I wish him away? Was it my fault he was gone?

I now know that’s not true. But back then, my grief and guilt sent me into a really dark place that stayed with me as I navigated the quick demise of our marriage, our eventual divorce, debilitating depression, and eventually, healing.

Back to the poem.

I was thinking about what my dad went through when I was 8 years old, lying on our kitchen floor full of scrapes and rocks. As a mom, I’ve been in and out of emergency rooms more times than I’d have liked, thanks to two adventurous, accident-prone kids. But when I thought about my dad’s anguish in that moment and how he must have felt, I couldn’t help tying it to the loss of my baby and the guilt that followed. I never really understood my dad’s anguish, not until I had to face the mortality of my own child. In my mind, the day I fell out of the truck was just an accident I got to walk away from. But now I know, my dad could only think about how close he came to losing me.

1 thought on “Poem: Wolf Howl (and the back story)”

  1. shawnlangwellwriter

    I’ve heard this story a few times but the poem and explanation are so beautiful and gut wrenching I actually got choked up, again. Marvelous piece, my sweet wife.

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