Pain was its own teacher, and there wasn’t any way to learn how it worked but to be visited. If the visits weren’t right on top of each other – if they were far enough apart so you could forget the way it came but close enough to remember it went away – you could learn to ride it out. – Pete Dexter, Deadwood.
My father sobs.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
The old man cries as Pastor Bob recites the Twenty-third Psalm. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadth me beside still waters.”
Dad’s head waters every time Pastor Bob prays. Tears gush over pale porcelain cheeks that glisten. “He restoreth my soul; he leadth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”
Dad soaketh his pillow case. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
My head bowed, I am uncomfortable holding Pastor Bob’s hand. Don’t even know the man.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” Mother’s face trickles. A single, slender crystal tear torn loose, so slowly traces fifty years’ troth across a suddenly lonely landscape, looking very much like the rest of her days. And nights.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
I don’t listen. Can’t cry. I pray instead. Please, Lord. Please, don’t let this guy sing ‘Amazing Grace.’ I wish I could scream.
“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
It could be worse. Following the quadruple bypass, Dad’s complexion has taken on an waxy angelic tone. Following the strokes, he’s finally showing a sense of humor. Actually funnier than before he went out of his mind. The brain specialist said the enhanced wit was a not uncommon result of “a right hemisphere event.”
For example. Dad sat up out of a deep sleep, looked around vacantly, shouted, “Too much hocus pocus! Not enough magic!” Fell back, snoring again before his head settled onto the pillow.
Footsteps pattering hurriedly down the hallway. A single-file parade of white uniforms filled the white room. Surrounded the white bed. Hovering white.
Dad sat up again, looked around at the crowd of white, slowly, his eyes narrow in focus. He yelled, “Yuppie entrepreneurs!,” then fell back onto his white pillow. More snoring.
And, most importantly, none of his numerous maladies are hereditary.
One day he disinherited me.
“You can’t do that. I am your only surviving child,” I reminded him. “I’m Junior, your first born,”
“I’m leaving everything to my church.”
“You don’t have a church.”
That cut him short. His eyes glazed over like an icy interstate highway. He drifted off, staring into the distance. Lost.
I went looking for him. Jabbed him right where he lives.
“You mean to tell me, I don’t get the paperweight collection, one from every state, where you turn it over, shake it upside down, then turn it rightside up and white flakes fall on some liquid plastic scene that’s supposed to remind you of some long-forgotten joy ride,” I hollered myself breathless.
So even a dead man could hear. “No snow globes!!?!”
No answer. Perhaps I thought, worried now, I should hold a mirror to his mouth. Then I see his chest move up and down. Ever so slowly. He’s in there somewhere.
Then a wheeze.
“How about your coin collection? All those shiny silver dollars in the navy blue folders. That’s gotta be worth a fortune.”
“They’re worth plenty. You can just forget my coins.”
Finally, it was time to go. Mother asked Dad if it was okay to kiss him goodbye.
“No,” he says. I saw she was hurt. I tried to lighten the mood.
“How about me?,” I asked, pursing my lips into a grotesque O-shape.
“You least of all,’ he growled.
I kissed my Dad on the lips. Surprised him. Saying goodbye this last time, we simply puckered up and planted smooches directly upon one another’s grizzly face like it was normal. Like John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart swapped spit all the time, too.
“Can’t imagine life without your father,” Mom sighed.
“Try,” I told her. She looked at me like I had said something crazy.
I told my Mom I liked kissing my Dad. “Me, too,” she said, perking up. “You know, he’s only told me twice in fifty years he loves me. And I had to coerce him both times.” Followed by a vaporous sigh. “Three times, counting right before his last surgery.”
The old man wasn’t going to get away from me so easy. Not this time. With more wires coming out of him than a home entertainment center, he’s far less elusive than he once was. There was nothing else for my Dad to do but kiss me on the lips. “No tongues,” I warned.
Mom had brought their wedding portrait to the hospital, trying to goose Dad’s memory. They got married, in the parlor of her parent’s home in Punxsutawney. It was the Christmas weekend, not so many months after the end of WWII, the second war to end all wars. Both of them look eager.
It’s a black and white photograph. A busty virgin, she was young and looked younger, full of promise. She’s wearing a fuzzy suit. Her right breast is covered with a floral corsage. Three red roses. He was the dashing sergeant, a decade her senior, on a four-day furlough with a full head of dark hair, slicked straight back. Dad’s in his dress uniform. His left chest festooned with military decorations.
Fifty years later, they were still holding hands on a stroll along Venice beach, looking not too hard for sharks’ teeth.
We had always just assumed he was immortal.
I can’t stop feeling helpless. So I go down to the end of the hall, to the visiting room where a woman, about my own age, is on the phone. She’d probably be attractive if I didn’t have to hear her talk.
Turns out she is comparison shopping for cremations. Apparently, prices have skyrocketed in the last two years since she made arrangements for her stepmom. Now her father’s got two days to live and she’s got a sales meeting coming up. You won’t believe the difference from one crematory to another.
Her last call is to her doctor’s office. She needs to renew her Valium prescription before the weekend. Just in case.
The television above her head is muted but I am distracted, no, pulled by the strange sight of a bright white Ford Bronco, O.J. Simpson slowly rolling down a California freeway. He was some great runner.
Next day. I can’t help thinking I am much too young still to be holding my mother’s hand at a time like this. I am holding Mother’s hand, as we watch Dad, tubes everywhere, try to remember his own name.
“It’s the same name as mine,” I tell him, raising my voice.
He doesn’t hear so good with his good ear and he’s part deaf in the other.
Mother left his hearing aids at home, because, as she said, more than lives can get lost at the hospital.
Dad gave Mother, tears everywhere, this empty thousand-yard stare. Like hollow-cheeked Jews outside overcast Nazi showers. Eyes burned from that pale face, a glacier receding.
He looked right through me.
“And, who are you?,” he asked.