Sweet Girl,

i will never meet you
and you are so lovely
and so brave.

i will be honest,
i don’t understand.

i’ve known your parents
a very long time.
i was their friend
when they realized
they loved and love
each other.

one time they hugged
each other for something like
thirty seconds when i was
with them in the kitchen
just the three of us and
it was beyond awkward
but that’s how they
have always loved each other.

and, i can only assume,
it’s how they will love you,


i love you, Sweet Girl.

i’m sorry you never got
to go home
but from what little i do
understand, you are Home.

we are very sad here
and i am so very sad
for my friends and


it’s just very sad.
sometimes that’s the
most honest thing to say.

we are happy you are Home
and sad you are not home.

we love you, and goodnight.

my pepaw

my pepaw suffered a stroke during one of my sophomore years in college.

i went to school a little over an hour away from home. i was playing a video game when my dad called and told me. he said something like ‘hey, buddy, pepaw had a stroke. he’s probably not going to make it. you should come home as soon as you can.’

i don’t remember how i actually responded. maybe i tried to play it cool and say ‘ok, i’ll be home as soon as i can.’ or maybe i just said ‘ok’ and hung up, shocked. one of my many struggles with add as an adolescent (trust me – i was an adolescent at 19) was an inability to show vulnerability. i always kept up a persona because, i guess honestly, i had no idea who i was.

i had no fucking idea who i was.

so, anyway, i finished playing that video game. it was a college football game on a sega dreamcast (heavily underrated system). and i remember thinking, as i played, ‘i am a monster. i can’t ever tell anyone i finished this game instead of going home.’

i drove to the hospital – wake med? – no . . . whatever the hospital on wake forest near 440 is. that one.

. . . right? how are these the things i can’t remember, but i can recall where i was standing in the room, the round fat buttons on my cheap green plastic phone (not a cell phone. a phone phone, goodness), the weather, where the tv was positioned in the room, i can remember those things,


i drove to the hospital. i don’t remember the drive. i don’t remember finding the room.

i do remember walking in.

the lights were off, pepaw’s bed was in the middle of the room (well, no shit, that’s how hospital rooms work) . . . i realize i visualize this scene in greyscale. black and white. it’s because the overhead lights weren’t on (right?) and it was sunny and fall, so the thin slant of natural light through the curtains left colors muted, and pepaw had white hair and was dying and i’m crying right now,

so anyway,

there was silence in the room. and also my family, but mostly silence. she was definitely hogging up the airspace.

i don’t think i made eye contact with anyone. i did not say a word. i’m still crying, present tense, and i walked up to his bed, kissed him on the forehead, and left. i might have started sobbing before i hit the door, i can’t remember.

i loved that man so much.

i love you, pepaw,

goodness, i miss you

and wonder how different my life

would be if i’d known then how much

i love you and that you

were mortal.

if i’d let myself know

my time with you was limited.

i’m sorry, i miss you.

he was perfect.
he was so good to me.
i don’t really care if i idealize him
or created a version of him
who is more than he was, because
he is, to me, he is.

i stayed at school an extra hour, because i was avoiding having to see my greatest love lie dying in cheap sheets. i wasn’t a monster, i was a boy. i was filled with regret because i’d done what boys do, which is outgrow their grandfathers, especially boys who don’t like themselves and don’t know how to say what i know how to say now which is i love you, i miss you, i’ll never forget you, i’m proud to be yours.

i wasn’t a monster for leaving the hospital room without making eye contact or even hugging my mom, i was a human. and i had never faced grief that cut through my persona of pretending i don’t care (because i had no idea how to show that i cared about anything, because i was so damn scared all the time).

and so, now, i cry every time i think of my pepaw. every time. and i think of people who remind me of him, and i realize that’s why i am drawn to them, and it’s why i value who i am becoming – hah, no, who i’ve always been and now will allow myself to see.

about myself.

my first true love was lloyd houston neil. he will never have to abdicate that title to anyone else, living or dead. if i ever tell you, reader, friend, anyone, i love you like i love my pepaw, as awkward as it might sound said aloud, i could not possibly give you higher praise.

he was and is a miracle.

i miss him all the damn time.

i almost said ‘i hope he comes back’ but that’s the whole thing about mortality,

so i’m glad he’s still here.

ok, thanks everyone, goodnight,


‘i wonder if Love wears bedroom slippers in the evening’

one of the many things
difficult about writing a poem
about love is how alike
love poems look.

2nd person pronoun verb
article superlative
noun first person pronoun
adverb verb
, most likely.

i guess part of the problem
is that words on a ‘page’

be it in a book or browser tab

always look like words on a page.

and love, well
she’s a mover and a shaker.
not only does she rarely ‘look’
like love, it can often be difficult
to identify her at all.

i am changing a dirty diaper – chore
i am changing you, sweet girl,
so you don’t get a rash and because
you cannot yet do this for yourself – love

a miracle, i would say, that two things can be
but anyway, i’m digressing.

i want to write a poem
that shows the love i see
in you
and it is impossible.

maybe, darling, that’s because
how you love is impossible
beyond what should and should not be
as if mountains could also be
the roaring sea at the same time.

your love is a miracle
because it is who you are
it is your breath it is your skin
it is how you move, and so
you do not even realize,
i think
how powerfully you love.


your love matters.

it matters to me,
it makes me better,
it is the kind of thing,
your love
that makes the world
it is the kind of love that makes the world.

it gives me hope
everywhere else
that a love like yours
exists at all.

your love shakes the earth
with quiet steps.

i hear them
i feel them
thank you for being,

– yours.

an open letter to people about tomorrow

memaw’s service/funeral/whatever is tomorrow.

currently, memaw’s in an urn or something of the sort at my mother’s house.

i don’t want to go to the service.

now, before you get all judgy, lemme explain;

then it’s over.

for my entire life,

i have known my memaw and pepaw neil.  they have loved me and always existed and been real.

and then pepaw died, and it was brutal hard, and i still cry every time i think of him,

but there was still memaw.

and i got to visit her on fridays.

i got to be a tall handsome man who spent time with her and i got to feel a little like pepaw.

truly, there is no higher honor

than to do or be anything like

lloyd houston neil

as the son of a mother who lost her mother,

i have been on the periphery of death.

i still got to go home and have my parents

and know i can still hear my mom accidentally use an overly-assertive tone before self-correcting

and my father’s snapping, breathy laugh when he talks about my daughter.

i cried the hardest

during all of this

flipping through a southern living in

the sun room of hospice care

when i realized one day

i will lose my mother, too.

i favor muted pastels (is that redundant?)

and lots of natural lighting

i hated the color palettes of the rooms

that issue of southern living labeled as


* * *

so, tomorrow,

i will wake, eat enough food to function

no easy task with my metabolism

get the haircut i promised my mother i would get

at thirty three, we know by now to follow through on those promises

and pick out the shirt and tie i will wear as i read aloud a poem i wrote

and say goodbye (again) to memaw.

i guess that’s all.


joel houston

for my mother

curled up in a chair and facing away from me

today my mother said

i’m paraphrasing, i hope that’s ok

‘i always thought i would outshine my mother.’

to be fair, my mother, the speaking mother in this piece

has a hell of a competitive streak

if you know her you’re nodding


and she said, then, my mother,

‘and i realized it doesn’t matter.’

i was looking at wrens and a bluejay through the living room window

standing at my mother’s shoulder

and i did not say this but i thought it,

‘i am glad to know this now,

that it does not matter to outshine

my mother, because

it will be impossible.’

to my mother,

i love you, i am sorry for our loss,

memaw is a present tense, just as lloyd never left me.

i will grieve more privately

and then write about it for all the world

but i assure you, i am sad

and i am glad that your mother was yours

and that you are mine.


to my pepaw

memaw’s having a hard time.

i went to visit her tonight in the rehab center,

and i took three things with me.

1)  a picture of you and her that usually sits on my piano (once your piano, once my mother’s piano)

2)  a copy of the bible – a king james version also translated into yoruba.

3)  one of your handkerchiefs.

i still miss you.

i miss you all the time,

every day, i miss you.

and i get sad,

because if i miss you so much that

i cannot speak of you without ending up a sobbing man,

i cannot imagine how memaw must miss you,


i showed her the picture of you two, and she said

‘that was so long ago.’

and she’s right, it was.

i read to her some psalms.

i cried a lot, but it was dark and i’m not sure she could tell.

i was wearing a superman shirt because i do that kind of thing, and i still cried.

i gave her your handkerchief,

and she held it tightly as i read to her.

and, i admit, i’m not quite sure she understood it was yours,

that when i would hold that handkerchief, it was like i was holding you,

and i hope she feels the same way,


i hope you are with her, now.

i hope she feels your presence.

i hate that i wasn’t nearby when you had your stroke, and i’m so sorry.

i’m also sorry for almost burning down your house, if we’re just getting things in the open.

i really miss you, lloyd houston.

my, what a name, lloyd houston.

you would have loved scarlett.  she’s definitely a neil.  she’s beautiful and has your name which means you have hers, too.

anyway, i’m rambling in a semi-public setting, because i’m gonna post this on the internet (don’t worry – it’s a generational thing.  you had baseball and a world war, i get websites and pop-up ads trying to get me to lose weight when i actually fill out this superman shirt so well that the nurses had me pose for pictures with them before i went to see memaw).

i love you, please take care of memaw tonight and forever, goodnight,

i miss you,

joel houston neil orr

ps:  i have a fox tattooed on my right arm, to symbolize scarlett, and i’ve convinced myself you would have pretended not to be sold on the idea while secretly loving it.  and now that i think about it, you remind me of a fox, too, clever, so quiet and confident.

pps:  you were my first best friend and my first true Love.  you taught me how to Love, first.

ppps:  i still miss you.

personally, i think thomas is a hero

i believe in 





i believe i am nothing without them.

i believe they make me a better me.

i believe one of the greatest miracles of life and us, dear,

is a predisposition in *all* of us 

to hope,

to swing hard, to be bold in our hearts, to endure instead of surrender

because it means, i think, we are *meant* to hope, 

and if we are meant to hope,

(almost silly how simple, is it not?)

there is a reason to expect Hope be