On a chilly, Sunday afternoon in February, my mother asked me to sit with my father while she went to town for supplies. She didn't really need anything, for she had been a well-organized and careful planner during the five years she assisted my father in his battle against cancer. I suspect she just wanted to be alone for awhile, and maybe go someplace where she could cry or swear without anyone around to hear.
As I sat beside my father's bed, skimming through the pages of the latest National Geographic, I read aloud from an article about Lewis and Clark and commented on how fortunate they were to have had Sacagawea with them on their journey. A picture of Clayoquot Sound led me to muse about sitting in a canoe and watching the gray whales breach on the dark, glassy surface of its tranquil waters. I rambled on about newly discovered galaxies and migrating sandpipers, and I think my father was listening, but I didn't look him in the eyes to make sure. Occasionally, he would ask for some ice cubes and I would dash off to the kitchen and get him another cup full. While I was there, I noticed a crumpled bag of walnuts in the refrigerator, and some dried apricots, and a bowl of Mom's potato soup. These were some of his favorite foods, but his body was rejecting everything now, and I wondered how soon it would be before my mother wrapped up all the leftover items in the fridge and sent them home with me. During each trip to the kitchen, I peeked around for some liquor, but I never found any. I still had questions for my father, and I was nervous about asking them, and taking a shot of whiskey or gin felt like something I needed to do before I did a difficult thing.
I already knew dozens of stories about my father, about his adventurous youth, about his time in the service in WW2, about how he met my mother, about his many hunting and fishing trips and remote jobs across the vast frontiers of Alaska. They were incredible stories, stories any son would be proud of, and I certainly was, but all I knew were the details, not the thoughts and feelings associated with them. The closer he came to death, the more questions I had about his life, and I worried that there might be much more left for me to know and learn, if I would but dare to ask.
Upon returning from my last trip to the kitchen, I entered my father's bedroom and caught him wiping his face with his handkerchief. His eyes were red and a thin line of wetness slid down a crease in his cheek. He quickly put his reading glasses back on the tip of his nose and pretended to read a newspaper. Maybe it was just perspiration he was wiping away, but I didn't know, and I abandoned my decision to ask him anything. I put the cup of ice on his nightstand, sat back down in my chair, and continued to read and ramble on, while blinking monitors flickered against the despair in our eyes and rubber tubing dripped indifferent noises over the uncomfortable pauses. As we waited for Mom to come home, the edges of lonely shadows fading into the walls, it occurred to me that the thing my father and I might had most in common, was our fear of knowing how we really felt about each other. Another long hour passed before my mother returned. She was all smiles and bright tones, rejuvenated, it seemed, by a few moments reprieve from the heartless awareness of impending death. I welcomed the sound of her voice over the hoarse whispers of my father and the clattering of ice cubes against his brittle, yellow teeth.
By the next weekend, Dad wasn't in his room anymore. My mother and older brother had moved him into the spare bedroom, where she sometimes sewed and ironed. That room was for visitors. People occupied it temporarily, and I didn't like seeing my father placed there, like a packed suitcase. He was lying on a scruffy, flannel blanket that covered a gray hospital mattress I'd never seen before. It looked cheap and unforgiving, and must have been purchased or rented from some place that sells such dreary things. His skin was thin, and pulled tight over his bones, and he was so dehydrated that his tongue constantly darted out over his lips.
"Feel your father's feet," my mother asked, "right here and here.
They are so cold, can't you feel it?"
I touched his feet and I felt it. I felt the creep of death. I didn't ever want to touch him again, but his legs ached so badly, and I had to do something. I shifted those blue, inflexible pegs over and over, under one pillow, then two pillows, up and down and up and down. But no pillow was soft enough, and no position was good enough, and I couldn't keep him from fidgeting. For a brief moment, his shuffling about abated, and I asked him if he was comfortable. Such a stupid, stupid question. I wanted it back more than anything I'd ever done, and I remember feeling relieved once I realized he could no longer answer me, and that was stupid too.
We stood over him like useless children, waiting for the icy fingers of that creep to extinguish the light in each and every nerve ending. He twitched and trembled in waves of painful pins and needles and prickling leftover feelings, and I know he felt it all. I saw it in his scattered eyes, and in the way he shook his head to get away from it, and I know he wouldn't have said how much it hurt, how much it terrified him, even if he could. He seemed to aware of what was happening to him, too aware, and I prayed that he would slip into unconsciousness. But he didn't, and his desperate, voiceless suffering made me angry enough to whisper hateful things under my breath to God.
The three of us continued to shuffle and bump into one another, daubing damp cloths at his dry mouth, and rubbing at his wasted arms, and saying things at him, things that must have made sense to us at the time, things that were so patronizing, hollow, and meaningless that it disgusts me to recall them. The creep ascended to his heart and then to his brain, tearing through the fabric of my father, and still he remained aware of everything. I wanted to explode and scream out loud that this awful thing should be done, and that I was tired of this pitiful dance around the bed, and of the dead-smelling charade of sheets and spoons and falling hair. Instead, I turned my head away and tried to compose myself, for I wanted to tell him that I loved him, and that I would look out for mother, and that I would be strong and brave, just like him. But when I turned back around, he was already emptying out in a jerking cascade of hisses and sighs, and I wondered, what has happened here, is this good-bye? He gulped at the air like a fish trapped in the sun, and we thought it would never end, and then another spasm came, and another head jerk, and another contortion, and another, until his last gasp took a full minute to come out, and like a door slamming, it startled us.
It was silent after that, and I could hardly recognize what was lying there, for it was not so much like my father anymore, but more like a bony, sallow doll, so small and awkward.
His lips were taut, and his eyes were open, aghast even, and they reminded me of the eyes of a bird I once saw crash into a patio window, looking so confused and afraid, not knowing where it was, and what was to become of it. His hands were wadded up into stony fists, just like my own, and I waited for Mom to stop crying. My fingernails dug deep, prying open the creases in the palms of my hands, and I waited some more for Mom to stop crying. I reached out, and with my knuckles, I tried in vain to push back a lock of gray hair that had fallen in his face.
As I fumbled, I heard my mother say, "Please, close his eyes."
I looked at my brother and he nodded, and I wanted to do as they asked, I wanted to close those vacant, useless eyes and make us all more comfortable. But my knotted fists made this task, more than any other before it, impossible.