“Dad, can I get you anything?” I asked, as he struggled with the flat, lifeless pillow beneath his shoulder blades.
“I would love a Whopper, Jr.,” he breathed. Pausing to catch his breath again, sucking the oxygen from the plastic life lines crookedly falling from his nostrils, he turned his sunken blue eyes to mine. “And I would like to watch . . .” again he rested his thoughts in order to draw in more air . . . “Christmas Vacation”.
His once strong hands, now thinned and shaky, slowly lifted to the nasal tubes, attempting to arrange the hissing air hoses more securely. The tubes fell away, askew once more, as his arms collapsed back at his sides. “Let me help you, Dad,” I said, as I leaned over the bed rail, trying not to tangle myself in the snake nest of monitor wires. I slid the nozzles into his nose and ran my fingers around both sides of his face, the bristle from his normally close-shaved skin pricking at my fingertips, pulling the tubes tighter until my hands met behind his head. I fastened them in place, then pulled that useless cardboard pillow from behind his back and guided his head gently back onto its stiffness.
“Boys, run to Burger King and get Papa a Whopper, Jr. and a Coke,” I said to John and Jake, as I fumbled through my purse. Having found a twenty and my keys, I handed them over to John, now 16, and gave him a feeble grin as our eyes met. I engulfed my baby boy in a hug, having caught the heartache in his eyes, as I urged him to run home, too, and find the DVD Papa wanted to watch.
As the boys shuffled out of the room, I turned back to Dad. His eyes were closed as I studied the man lying before me. He had aged so much in the twenty-nine days since his low-blood-sugar-induced fall into the kitchen table. I absorbed every detail, wanting to remember each crazy grey eyebrow hair; the wrinkled collection of pale skin gathering beneath his chin; his frail six foot six body, sinking closer to the ground with each gulp of air; and his hands . . . ah, those hands . . . enormous, creative and strong no more.
I grabbed ahold of Dad’s hand, sliding my palm beneath his chilled fingers. My thumb caressed his pinky and he gently squeezed my hand, saying “thanks” with the short-lived grasp. His eyes remained closed as mine released their anguish.
The boys returned with their Papa’s wishes as I was wiping the final remnants of sorrow from my cheeks. He must have smelled the burger in his dream, his eyes fluttering back to consciousness, as they pushed open the heavy oak door. Jake found a seat on the mauve sofa near the window. He was quiet, as usual, lost and unsure, a boy in a man’s body. With death lurking and unwanted, he had no clue how to save his Papa (and himself) from its inevitable arrival.
John took my spot as I wandered over to join Jake in staring blankly out the window. After a few bites, Dad raised his shrinking hand, shakily waving off John’s gesture to feed him another mouthful of bliss. Death danced merrily back into the room, our smiles faded, as Papa dissolved, smaller still, onto the rigid bed.
After sending the boys home, quiet gasps of snores escaped from Dad’s slouched mouth, as I half-heartedly lost myself in the movie he had asked to watch. Normally, quoting nearly every line, I would have been snorting with fits of laughter. It didn’t seem right to be cackling, even if it had tried to escape my bereaved body.
“This is my favorite line in the movie,” he muttered, startling me from my trance.
Holy cow! How did he suddenly wake up from an unconscious state for his favorite part of the movie? I mused, half alarmed and half seriously impressed, as Dad began quoting movie lines. I looked at my Dad, laughter brightening his dimming eyes, a smile breaking through, his pale skin radiating a moment of elation and I joined him . . . I set the laughter free. Death stood frozen in the corner of the room, wanting to partake in the merriment but duty would not allow it. So it watched; studying, waiting.
Dad giggled off and on throughout the rest of the movie. My hand and his intertwined in a moment of harmony. A squeeze here. A kiss on the knuckles there. A final farewell in the touching of a hand . . . a hand that had held a tiny bundle of joy on the steps of Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati in March of 1966 as Mom climbed into the red Volkswagen beetle, a hand that had pushed my pink bike with the flowered banana seat as I learned to ride without my training wheels on the Mt. Washington Elementary School playground, a hand that hovered too close to the steering wheel as I pulled out onto Mears Avenue for the first time in Dad’s new silver 1982 Plymouth Horizon, a hand that twirled me around the dance floor in the undercroft of Guardian Angels Church to Al Martino’s “Daddy’s Little Girl”, a hand that gently enveloped my baby boys as he gazed at them in awe, a hand I knew would always be there to hold if ever I needed it.
Death, who had been impatiently hovering, had taken over holding his hand when I made my way from the room. When I arrived back in that chilled room a few hours later, his hand was icy still. The hiss of the tubes silenced. The laughter faded. As I placed a kiss upon his cool forehead, my hot tears cascading onto him, I felt the warmth of his hand upon my shoulder. The spirit of his enormous, creative, strong hand.