Intentionally Past Tense

Content Warning: This poem references loss of parents, grief, mourning, and also non-specific references to childhood trauma.

I speak about my parents in the past tense.
It is an old habit,
Hard-won as the only measure
I could take to build the distance
I needed to feel alright,
But this years-long practice
Of linguistic intentionality
Has served me well
In more ways than this.

Every so often,
When I speak to someone who doesn’t know
About the history behind my words
And they notice my particular phrasing,
They offer me their sympathies.
“I’m sorry for your loss”
Or “oh, I didn’t realize…”
Sometimes even followed by
“How long has it been since they passed?”
At which point I simply explain
That they’re still alive and well,
They’re just not a part of my life anymore.

From there, the roads diverge.
Some towards silence,
Uncertain or awkward or sympathetic,
Some towards fumbling words
That all echo each other
Despite some intending empathy
And some intending gentle reproach.
I do not take it personally, though,
Since it is clear they all mean well.
My view took me decades to understand,
So what hope did they have in five minutes?

Now it only hurts on the rare occasion
When I see someone openly mourning
Or dedicating some great endeavor
In memory of a past-tense parent
And I find myself wishing
I could have grieved like this as well.
When I realized I had lost something,
It was not the people who had made me
That I found myself missing,
But the family I imagined I had,
What my life would have been
If everything had been different.

I speak to them now and again,
As a part of another’s journey,
And I feel grateful for the hours
I spent practicing intentionality
In every word that leaves my lips
Because all I really want to say is
“I have finished mourning you
And there’s nothing left in the well
That once held the childish love you twisted
Into servitude and self-sacrifice.”

I will grieve again when they pass,
But it will not be for them.
It will be for the final disappearance
Of everything I thought I wanted
Before I learned just how well
People will treat someone
That they properly care about.