This wing of the hospital is empty and quiet compared to the others. I have a notion, a thought I try to dismiss, that this room might be where they bring patients to die.
A skinny version of my father rests in a patterned nightgown. Tubes splay out from both arms. There’s a pad on the windowsill where I’ve been sleeping so often I’m used to hospital smells.
I want to be more accomplished than this by now. I want to have written a book, landed a more academic career, something. I’m a twenty-nine year old waitress. But this is going around. My big brother chases his rock star dreams in between network marketing. My little brother has just graduated from high school. Even my dad said last week on a drive home from his chemo treatment, “There is so much more I want to do.”
Outside the hospital window, a pond spreads out in a field of dry grass. “See that guy in the hat?” Dad points, excited. There’s nothing there. Nobody. Yesterday he watched an entire parade. He described dark faces and elaborate costumes.
He saw zebras, and floats made of flowers; it sounded like Mardi Gras, but there was nothing. I wish it were Mardi Gras. Anything other than that empty pond. “You really can’t see that?”
“I wish I could, Dad.” I get down on my knees on the hard tile and put my elbows on his bed, peering closer. “I’d love to be able to see that with you.” I wonder if it’s a spirit guide coming to greet him. I hate that thought and I wonder anyway. “Does he look familiar?”
“No.” He coughs and rolls over.
We go home and come back, and they put him in a room with no view. He’s in and out of consciousness, eyes slipping back into his head, then he snaps awake like he’s falling asleep in study hall. A nurse tells us the cancer is shutting his body down.
The tumor in his neck has grown larger so it looks as if he has a giant double chin. The rest of his body shrinks more every day, his yellow, thin skin is like saran-wrap tightening over his bones. He’s supposed to be resting, but every few hours they come in and poke him with something or wake him up to swallow pills.
While he sleeps I pray and I cry. Suddenly I want to ask him if he thinks I’m beautiful, but I don’t. It seems selfish, foolish.
He starts to babble, then turns coherent.
“You’re here with me, aren’t you?”
“My little free spirit, all she has to do is bat her eyelashes at me and she gets whatever she wants.”
It is enough.
He’s losing bodily functions. A social worker and another nurse are here to tell us about Hospice. The women are close to his age. Before they begin the information session he says, “I’m sorry if it smells in here, girls. My daughter’s been passing gas all day.”
Under the jokes, I feel his humiliation.
The oncologist says that the tumors are too big. The primary care doc says that if he ever gets a tumor himself, he won’t do chemo or radiation. My dad says this is no ‘quality of life.’ He wants to go home.
The last thing my father says about me is, “Whitney’s a good waitress.” He tosses and turns in his living room now, the hospital bed in front of the picture window as he requested. The nurses take turns wetting his lips with a sponge and massaging his bones. My step-mom sits on the bed by his shoulders. My big brother hovers over his body from a dining room chair. My little brother paces.
Outside in the overcast afternoon, the first boy I ever kissed pulls up to the neighbor’s house across the street. He has the same swagger from high school, carefree with his shoulders loose. He glances at us and then averts his eyes.
My best friend from childhood walks out from her backyard, staring at all of the cars parked in our driveway. I want to run to her and hug her and say, “My dad’s dying” as if we’ve kept in touch, but the very thought of it wells up in my face, burns my nose and so I just sit there, paralyzed on the couch with uncertainty.
His funeral is its own parade. My mom greets people on the sidewalk. My step-mom takes pictures. The fire department marches in wearing dress blues, and lines of people flood through double doors on both sides of the church.
It seems like the whole town is there, teachers he taught with, students he influenced, city staff he worked with as mayor, his friends from the Eagles and VFW. We play the CD he made: Frank Sinatra, Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places,” and “Amazing Grace.”
Family and friends stand up and share stories. Funny things, memories. Grief.
I’ve written a speech. I get up in front of the crowd and try to make them laugh. I tell them he would love this.
I tell them he can see us, and we just can’t see him.