Cari Scribner

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.