With Bated Breath (In Memory of Greg)


Grief materialized in April, 

Its billowing, black smoke engulfed me. 

I stood helplessly as the smoke roamed around me. 

Grief intercepted Success’s glittering glow. 

Success presented a seven-course dinner with wealthy benefactors. 

I ate salmon and fried rice and savored creamy chocolate mousse. 

I toasted my achievements with Catholic priests and nervous scholars. 

All the while, Grief was concocting his emergence. 


I thought we had more time together. 

Grief emerged during a phone call. 

When the smoke cleared,  

Grief possessed my father’s voice. 

My father’s voice was soft and soothing. 

Sickness mutated my father’s soothing voice into a weak, worried whisper. 

My father’s voice is terror-stricken. 

He tells me he has liver cancer; it’s terminal. 

I look up at the night sky, 

My dark-brown eyes lock onto a distant star. 

I blink back the tears that are yearning to fall.  

He murmurs, “Please tell your mother and sisters.” 


My father’s nickname is Cowboy. 

His childhood friends christened him Cowboy after his love of Westerns and John Wayne. 

His favorite film is Rio Bravo

Westerns offered young Gregory an escape. 

My father spent his childhood lost in Westerns and comic books. 

John Wayne transported Cowboy from the congested streets of the Chicago south-side to rural Texas. 

My father never rode a horse, but I envision him as a Black gunslinger, the fastest shooter in the West. 

“The doctors aren’t always right,” He attests. 

He’s a determined fighter, a trait he inherited as a sharpshooter in the Vietnam era. 


December is somber. 
No Christmas tree or lights are in sight, and gifts are scarce. 

The Christmas spirit is missing from our home. 

My father lies in hospice. 

My mother asked my father what Santa had brought him. 

“Another day,” he testifies. 


I think of trivia, family history questions, and jokes to share between our phone calls. 

My mother tells me I’ve inherited my father’s humor and anger. 

I use our last moments to get to know Cowboy more. 

I play his favorite songs and discover new ways to make him laugh. 

I cherish the time I have with my supportive parents. 

I inform him of my academic accomplishments. 

He smiles wide at the prospect of a doctor in the family. 

He instructs my mother to write that he’s proud of me on his hospital dry-erase board in bold black ink. 

My mother plays Heatwave’s “Always and Forever” in his ear. 

“Every day, love me your own special way.” 

The lyrics transport my parents back to the nineties when their love started. 

“And we’ll share tomorrow together.” 

I break their love trance; I demand that my parents must live longer. 

I announce, “I can’t be a thirty-year-old orphan!”  

We laugh. 

Our laughter hides our tears. 


Grief’s black smoke has changed me. 

Twelve months have passed since that April evening. 

I have lost friendships and sisterhood. 

I have felt Betrayal’s sting. 

I am emotionally mature, though my bones are tired. 

I have inherited my father’s willpower and my mother’s empathy. 

I acknowledge life and death. 

I promised my Cowboy, my father, that I would become Dr. Burgess. 

I will achieve my dreams and make my parents proud. 

I will no longer elevate those unworthy of my time and money. 

I am Cowboy’s daughter, a title I proudly wear. 

I wait with bated breath as each new conversation with my father is a blessing. 


My father passed on March 11th.  

I am learning to live life without a parent. 

I think of him when I channel surf the Western station or when soul music plays on the radio. 

A cardinal visited my mother and me; she believes it was Cowboy’s last visit.  

Holly E. Burgess is an English PhD candidate. Holly wrote the poem during her father’s hospice stay. He loved poetry, and Holly wanted to write a poem honoring him. She read it to him during one of his final days; he loved it and approved of it being published.