My Father, The Fish, and The Rocking Chairs
No one had time to send greeting cards to William, my father, flowers meant for men, maybe an assortment of succulents in a ceramic dish for his coffee table. In his room, the plastic pitcher of hospital water sits beside an empty Styrofoam cup. A paper-wrapped straw lies abandoned on the swing-around tray to hold orange Jell‑O snack packs, never served.
An orderly had shaved William’s beard, which would have bothered him, to insert the feeding tube, never used.
We didn’t even have time to call Hospice volunteers to hold our hands through the five stages of grief.
The nurses, brisk and indifferent in teddy bear scrubs, offered me Saltines and squat cans of Ginger Ale as if I’d just given blood. They’d ordered pizza at 3 a.m. for dinner. The delivery guy had looked tired when he dropped off two larges with extra cheese and pepperoni.
On the phone, the night nurse told me my father was turning his head towards her voice. She said the breathing tube would likely be out the next day, so that we could talk to him. That’s all I wanted, the chance to talk.
But when we got there Sunday, he wasn’t responding when the doctor sat on his chest, pounding, yelling at him. They were trying to get him to react to pain by inflicting it on him. But they were calling him by the wrong name: Allan. It’s no wonder he didn’t respond.
My son, Matt, stands tall and curious, by the hospital bed. I ask a nurse for an extra chair. She disappears.
Matt, sturdy and strong at 20, doesn’t flinch while the doctor pries open my father’s eyes to ultrasound his pupils, looking for a sign of dilation. Finding none.
Matt has never met my father, William.
We’ve arrived: daughter and grandson. The legal next of kin.
Nurses launch staccato questions, small cannons, about DNR wishes, allergies to latex, previous surgeries. I have no idea. I don’t know my father, William.
The nurse doesn’t return with the extra chair. Matt and I stand stiffly beside the bed. The security rails are down. My father is in no danger of rolling out, or moving at all for that matter.
I want to seize Matty’s hand and run, run to Chipotle down the street, past the parking garage ($5/hour) to eat chicken quesadillas with extra salsa and guac on the side.
I want to tell Matt stories about when he was little, like the time he sat on the slippery edge of the tub, pretending it was a horse, the time he got lost in the Hot Wheels aisle in Toys-R-Us and they had to go into lockdown in case he’d been stolen, when he crawled on the beach and tried to eat the stub of a cigar.
He was a 9‑pound baby, swam out like a fish, turned his head towards his sister Sarah’s sing-song voice when he was an hour old, held our fingers in his pink fist, hiccupped. He had a large head that we told him meant he had a great big brain, and he proved us right. He loved to be swaddled. We took turns rocking him to sleep.
Matt played Barbie dolls with Sarah even when she wouldn’t let him be Ken, got a plastic ring from a gumball machine and asked her to marry him when he grew up, colored Crayon pictures of red flowers for me on Mother’s Day. In all his drawings of the family, none of us ever had feet.
I want to run but the night nurse has turned to me, saying something I can’t understand, a perfectly tossed grenade:
“The brain swelling is increasing, and he’s not a candidate for surgery.” She leaves before I can ask her again for the fucking extra chair.
I stand next to Matty, rocking back and forth on my heels, not able to steady myself.
There are not enough monitors in William’s hospital room that could bring good news. The breathing tube is doing all the work. Where is the heart monitor, with its reassuring blips up and down like graphs my kids made in 6th grade math? Where is the blood pressure cuff, the optimist, reporting a healthy reading? What is his temperature? I want to rap his knee with my knuckles to check for reflexes.
I don’t recognize my father after 20 years. Maybe it’s the hospital gown, hastily tied, askew. The hospital sheet they call a blanket barely covers his legs, thin like branches. I ask a nurse for a blanket. She disappears.
Matty was born on an autumn Saturday. After three short hours of labor, he swam out on the crest of a wave. The nurses brought me dinner because I’d had chewed ice chips all day. Braised beef and carrots, apple brown betty, the requisite pudding cup. The pediatric nurses came down the hall to see me, the woman who’d birthed the biggest baby in the nursery, chubby-cheeked, pudgy legs like a three-month old.
“My grandmother delivered twins,” I told them, modestly.
It is Monday.
The nurses, this night eating garlic knots with a side of marinara, have a bouquet of lollipops in a ceramic container shaped like baby booties: blue, with a yellow bow. The pops are the tiny tasteless ones my kids always tried to trade for peanut butter cups on Halloween. Sarah used the red ones to color her lips when she trick-or-treated as a Disney princess: Ariel, Jasmine, Snow White.
This time there are no folding chairs in my father’s hospital room, ICU # 43. We wound through the corridors, overly-lit by fluorescents, the air dense from the whispering, prophetic nurses on the brink of delivering bad news. We saw elderly people propped upright, sleeping with their mouths open. In one room, a woman with white hair clutched a teddy bear to her chest.
“They give those to people after heart surgery,” Matt told me, master of trivia large and small.
Our visit is short. William is unresponsive. All I want is for him to turn his head in my direction. He doesn’t even need to open his eyes, or remember my name.
The doctor with the cleft in his chin, third shift, calls me past midnight. I am sleeping with my cell under my pillow like my children did with lost teeth.
“By tomorrow, it may be time to call in family members.”
I wait until dawn to make the calls. I call my mother, long divorced from William, my sisters, scattered too far to ever make it by airplane, the pastor of the Lutheran church he’d taken to attending, or so I’d heard. The calls are short; some go to voicemail. My Yorkie pup, disoriented being awake so early, follows my stride around the kitchen, tail wagging furiously.
Five minutes later, my cell plays Mozart for an incoming call. I expect it to be my younger sister, but it is the Pakistani doctor, clipped and professional. His words don’t register.
My father wasn’t meant to die with the breathing tube still connected. He wasn’t meant to be alone with cold legs and a gown tied wrong. He was meant to meet Matty and hear stories about when he was little. William and I were meant to forgive each other.
“We’ll be there shortly,” I tell the doctor, who offers generic sympathies before hanging up.
I go upstairs to Matt’s room.
“We gotta go, honey,” I tell him, and he immediately understands.
This is what they do to signal someone has died in the ICU: they pull the curtains and turn down the lights. They put the hospital Chaplain on high alert.
“His pastor may be coming,” I tell the big-shouldered nurse.
“The decedent won’t be here. We take it away as soon as next of kin leave.”
So Matt and I are the only ones to see William’s body. I wish they had closed his mouth after taking out the breathing tube. I try to budge his chin, but it’s too late.
I should count his cavities and see if receding gums are hereditary. Matt has had only one cavity but his wisdom teeth may be crowning. His concerned dentist told me to keep an eye on them. Matt thinks they may just come through, no problem, and maybe wisdom teeth are a good thing after all.
I don’t recognize the backs of my father’s hands, the bones of his fingers, the braided leather bracelet, worn and faded, on his right wrist. I take off one of my bracelets, silver chain link, and slide it over his hand, a perfect fit.
There is nothing to take from him. An orderly told us he came in without any belongings, not even ID, but he was lucid then. Two days ago, he knew his date of birth and social security number.
The stroke hit when he was walking down his stairs. He’d fallen at least half the flight to the bottom, crumpled in a heap for some period of time. William told the medics it was three days, but he showed no signs of dehydration. No one knows for sure. Neighbors heard him crying out and called 911.
My father had lived alone for 40 years. There wasn’t anyone looking for him.
No one offers us broken crackers and soda at the hospital this time.
The nurses have disappeared.
I want to scream at them, stamp on their rubber medical clogs for telling me to wait to visit, that it would be a better time when the breathing tube came out, not sooner. I never saw him turn his head towards my voice, never saw a finger twitch, an eyelid flutter. He never mouthed my name or squeezed my hand. I didn’t get to say, “This is your grandson, Matt.”
Matt, my baby, is a grown man, broad shouldered and level headed. He is self-sufficient in a way that subdues my panic when I think of him ever being hurt. He used to hang onto my legs when I took him to nursery school; the teachers had to pry him away. Matt cried at the front door when Sarah and I left the house to shop for back-to-school supplies, the spiral notebooks and #2 pencils, the box of 24 Crayons.
But when I break down sobbing at William’s bedside, Matt puts his arms around me and leans down to cry into my hair. I worry this loss will change Matt somehow, chip away at his faith that everything will be all right with the world.
I want to tell him about his grandfather. But there isn’t much to say about my childhood, raised by William, a man who drank like a fish and forgot the names of my sisters and me and how old we were and that we even lived with him. My ultimatum 20 years ago, useless, squashed any chance of reconciliation. We went away from one another without either of us crying at the door.
The nurse parts the curtains and unfolds, at last, an extra chair.
“Take all the time you need,” she tells us.
When we sit on the hospital chairs, they don’t seem sturdy enough to hold us, rocking in all directions.
Cari Scribner’s fiction is forthcoming in Gravel, Bartleby Snopes, The Tishman Review and Brilliant Flash Fiction. She has a completed novel, and is at work on a memoir, 6 Caroline, about growing up with a parent with schizophrenia. She is also compiling a volume of short stories. “My Father, The Fish, and The Rocking Chairs” is non-fiction.