The TV monitor at the nurses’ station blinks from inert bed to inert bed. And all around the brilliant florescence, as if not to miss a trick, as if these patients were going somewhere. As if it mattered whether or when.
The ICU cubicle, all monitors and green lights, the discrete white curtain surrounding the bed, its head slightly raised, his head, his body, my father, a man who spent his life fixing things, rests impotent. The bubble and plink of the machines that suck and push. Mouths agape, they all lie tethered to tubes that clot and gurgle. Brown and green belches – Jesus Christ! Death’s distillery and the mucous dribbles into transparent canisters. This is the sound of looming death, this resonant, vast, hopeless aquarium.
He is only his breath. We have been waiting for him to die for five days. I am the only one left. The others, exhausted, go home where they will drink tea and weep and say how the nurses were all so very nice. Of course, I will call if anything happens.
The heart stopped in the recovery room after his quadruple bypass. High risk, he was, eighty-two years old. But now his blood pressure is normal. Pulse, steady, kidneys, fine – the doctors had worried about renal failure. Instead, he had a heart attack. They massaged him back but it had already finished him. Two nights ago they yanked the dialysis machine. The IV stopped yesterday. The measuring meters, gauges and digital windows waver and oscillate: they enumerate him completely. He is now of perfect statistical metabolism.
I sit in the gray metal chair at the foot of his bed. There is only this chair, and its back is terribly upright. I hear the whine of a floor buffer from far away. I jerk alert as she heaves the curtain aside. She is enormous in white trousers, a smock of sorts, close-cut hair, her face a fist. Okay Jim, she says to him, How are you dear? She flicks back his cotton coverlet. She smiles at me, already she perspires. I rise. You can stay, she says to me, then rolls my father onto his side, his thick mechanic’s wrist limp at his crotch. Quickly she washes his flaccid body, the arms and legs sloshing as if he had died in the surf of some Normandy beachhead. She is very good, this nurse, deftly balancing his dead weight with her shoulder and arm. I am sure he has never been is such hands. She finishes him with a salve redolent of lilac. And I think of summer, that summer when I helped him paint the house. I, nineteen, he, then ten years younger than I am now. Time’s mean trick. How we swatted at those shiny brown wasps, rapturously nasty from the sweet aroma of oil paint, their abdomens like ampules of glass, perhaps topaz. Beautiful, if they had not been wasps.
I see everything. The intricate traceries of his veins, for years varicose, as blue as the ink of FDA meat stamps. The doughy buttocks, his limp scrotal sacs, the penis no longer substantial. Everything becomes visible if one looks. Now the air is spring, her hands, tender yet firm, perhaps she is trying to bring up his blood. At once he chokes, hiccoughing, grabbing for a breath. None comes. Now he will die, I am sure of it. She is oblivious. The EKG skips wildly. He is not breathing. She continues her nonchalant stroke looking away. I imagine minutes have elapsed – is he dying? Chain smoking, she says. What? What? I listen closer. Cheyne Stoking, she repeats –I will later look up the spelling. And then he inhales enormously, wheezes, then farts. They all do it, she says, very common with cardiac patients. Fast breathing, then it stops for awhile, then fast again. Don’t worry about it. She lays his head on his pillow. His throat pulses like a lizard’s. She tucks him in, turns to me, Just keep telling him things. No one can say whether he hears you or not, whether he feels your touch. Goodnight Jim. Her hand lingers for a moment on his. Then she tugs open the curtain and leaves in a swish of white. I study one of the green windows with dumb precision… 156… 150… 167… 159… An old prayer swims up, just a line, the last line – they have pierced my hands and my feet, they have numbered all my bones.
I am free. I can do or say anything I please.
Do you remember that late afternoon in the August sun at Cooperstown? I raced Tommy around the bases and slid home. The empty stands at Doubleday Field gaped at us. I was Willie Mays, a childhood deception. Did you smile when you saw me running? You took my picture beside Mom in the first base dugout. My arms and shoulders were so thin then, not at all like Willie Mays. Your hands are still callused – I remember this part of you best. Another summer, you, deep in the hole behind the green bungalow, shoveling the moist earth into a bucket that hung from a rope and pulley contraption. All sweat and smears, digging the well. I was your helper, hoisting and dumping the dirt, making a pile beside the pit. Later, you rigged an electric pump to lift the water to the kitchen. The spigot fussed and spit whenever we threw the switch. The water was teeth-numbing cold and with a hint of machine oil. Squeeze my hand if you remember that bungalow. Well how about the bat? The Night Raider. He lived under the eaves inside the screened back-porch. We sat there at night listening to mysteries on that Philco radio and reading beneath lamps with fake Tiffany shades. He flew out during supper one evening and you, with one swoop of the kitchen broom, flattened him into the platter of roast beef. Or the softball game? Married-men against the single-men, you played in moccasins, cracking a late-inning liner past third that rolled all the way to the woods. You hopped into second on your right foot, laughing. You had run out of your shoes and stepped on a lit cigarette butt. I handed you a beer. I know you remember that.
When I quit my job, when I quit my marriage, when I finally again learned to hug my father, he just stood there. Stiff. Surprised. Perhaps shy. I kissed his cheek. My arms around his shoulders, I felt him rock backwards, as if I were a brush-back pitch.
But at least once he had held me – I have the snapshot on my bureau. We are at a beach. I am two years old. Both of us in white, long-sleeved sweatshirts. It must have been windy. He holds me on his right shoulder. I grip his shirt just above his heart, in my other hand, a small pair of binoculars. I look a bit frightened. He wears a huge grin.
We were never great friends. He was my father.
In the parking lot for a smoke. My jaw and teeth ache. My neck is stiff from the hellish chair. The residue of the clove cigarette lingers sweetly on my lips. I am a new smoker of advancing age. Hooked on clove. Why not? They could kill just as easily, and with a better taste. I look straight up into the moonless sky at Cassiopeia, tossed like seed pearls on black velvet. Two women, fortyish, barely tucked into bowling shirts, sit on the curb next to the emergency room door. They twittered like sparrows at sunrise. I gave one a light. She swayed unsteadily into the flame, her hand chafed and trembling as it curled around the match. She smelled of drink. “Hope” is stitched above her left breast.
Now I hold your hand again. Your arm is so heavy. Ridiculous how it lays limply on the blanket. I search for a grip. The displaced radius of your left forearm bulges. Fractured and poorly set long ago, you never spoke of how you broke that arm and if you cried or how your own father died when you were fifteen. You never spoke of your pain. I am waiting, my father. Now I have time. But where are you? I can drink no more soft drinks or the coffee that the nurses offer that turns the inside of my mouth to chalk. I close the curtain, snip a lock of your hair, gray, like mine. You have been breathing easily for some time. I lift the blanket, pull your gown aside once again. I must say goodbye to you, my father. There now… I have done what I never imagined I would do. Cold, like the rest of you, and the penis too, resting here, as one would hold a frog in one’s palm, its head between thumb and forefinger, its body snug in the palm. Awhile, and it warms. You are my father and I am your seed.
On the nightstand, his hospital toothbrush and a tiny tube of paste lay unopened, safe and sealed germ-free in plastic. Yes, you are warm and breathing well, though your breath smells vile. Wait for me, my father, I have so much more to learn. But first I must brush my teeth...at the sink, in the corner, the curtain a blizzard, infinite.
Published in Washington Review October/November 2000