Earliest Photograph

Debra Nystrom

— Robert L. Nystrom, December 10, 1929 – April 9, 2020

I read once that the Greeks thought no man’s story could be told until his death. Maybe it was hero’s

story, I forget. I wasn’t witness at your last breath, Dad– no one was. No one can know if you would’ve spoken

any last words. No other voice was near you but TV, the news you’d been watching day and night, fixed on

the virus that sealed you off in that blank, closed room. The nurse was down the hall for another half hour — said

later, over the line, she figured it must have been about that long, and apologized, but there’d been so many

in her care, so many cut off from anyone who knew them. When a forwarded refund check from your local paper

arrived, I learned you’d called a week before to cancel your subscription; you knew you weren’t going home.

Pallbearers named, you’d taken care to tell me Under the circumstances a funeral can be delayed, then went

ahead and agreed to a lease, through oxygen mask and phone, with the rancher renting pasture below the farmhouse.

You explained details, for as long as you could talk– had me repeat what I’d need to know before taking over,

from a distance, the farm I wouldn’t have inherited, except my brother died before you. For a long time I’d thought

silence might’ve been how we expressed love, but that wasn’t right. Yet I couldn’t touch your hand or forehead,

couldn’t listen when, in the stark room I never saw, your lungs began pausing longer, letting you go as if slipping

from a chrysalis, breath ebbing as you grew light, last changes before release from what never got said, out to the wide

sky over fields your neighbors will plant this spring– fields you first walked when the land yielded nothing but

the dust swirling around you and your skinny brothers, boys whose mother no longer spoke. Three kids lined up

unflinching, unsmiling in baggy, government-issue overalls, so tightly squeezed inside yourselves, squeezed together

inside the photo from 1933, shadowy cell you’re the last brother to leave– the middle one, shock of bang fallen

over your forehead, dark-eyed gaze so like your mother’s, who’s not there. I try to meet the boy’s eyes, tilting

the picture in different ways, but I can’t, not even now.

Debra Nystrom has published four books of poems, A Quarter Turn, Torn Sky, Bad River Road, and most recently Night Sky Frequencies: New and Selected Poems. Her poetry, fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, Slate, The American Poetry Review, Narrative, Conjunctions, and Yale Review, among others. She teaches in the M.F.A. Program at the University of Virginia.