As the school year was drawing to an end last September the only thing I had on my mind was my dying father. I hardly ever attended classes and when I did I might as well have stayed away. I was too busy struggling between hating my father and fearing his death. I couldn’t see what the point of school was when he lay dying in a hospital bed directly across the street.
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I only visited my father twice during the entire length of his illness. Before his illness he had been a workaholic who had little time for his family. He would breeze in and out of our lives long enough to grumble about life in general and the poor behavior of his three children in particular. He always had something unkind to say to us. Our mother, in sharp contrast, always had an excuse to give us. He was tired, overworked, stressed out by his job. These excuses were supposed to validate his absentee parenting.
Ironically, it was during one of these two visits that my father died. It was also the second last day of the school year. I was feeling the potentiality of my impending freedom. There was a perfect warm breeze in the air and I could smell summer. It felt so good to be alive that I thought I would pop in to see him. Perhaps the warm winds had brought with them an air of forgiveness.
The elevator took me up to the 4th floor, to that quiet ward where patients only ever exited via a warm freshly zipped body bag on their way to the morgue.
I absently rolled a marble around on the palm of my hand. It was actually the marble that had made me think of my father in the first place. When I was a child he would hold my hand in public places and we would keep a marble rolling within the clasped cup of our palms. It was his way of keeping me close at hand. If the hold became too loose, the marble would fall free of our grasp and I would be in trouble. It was a practice that often amused us.
Finding the marble on the sidewalk had caused me to think of this old habit of ours, and this in turn caused me to consider visiting him. So as I left the elevator, I was holding the marble in my palm…still thinking of our strange but fond tradition.
As I entered the room, I instantly noticed his pallid, gray skin. I absently placed my hands in my pockets, forgetting about the marble and the memories it had conjured up only moments before. I stopped in my tracks and stared open-mouthed at his gaunt, withered features. Behind his unintelligent gaze I saw the reedy shape of his thinly veiled skull. I knew I was looking into the face of a man who was not long for this world.
I disguised my shock as I continued past the threshold of his room and took a seat on the orange plastic chair at his bedside. I looked out the window for a second; vaguely aware that he was staring firmly at my profile as I did so. I was looking out across the street at the school that I had just abandoned. My English Lit class was in session, and I could see the empty seat where I should have been sitting.
My thoughts were swimming. I didn’t want to look at him again. His hair was thinning to a scratchy little swirl of gray on the top of his head. As much as I held onto my animosity for him, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for what he had been through.
Suddenly I wanted to beg for his forgiveness for being such a difficult, troublesome son. I wanted to throw away the bad memories that were swarming to the surface, straighten up and make this dying man’s life worthwhile.
There was a food tray cart wheeled over his bed, extending over the shape of his sheet-covered body. The cart was a sickly shade of green with the look of something that had been painted and repainted several times to meet the changing needs of each consecutive administration of the hospital over the last 50 years. However many coats of paint it would get, it would never be anything but the ugly utilitarian holder of gray trays of even grayer hospital food. Sure, if you lifted out the hinged center it displayed a fair sized mirror, but what cancer victim in their right mind would want to face that kind of reality on an ongoing basis? They should have painted over that telltale window of sickness.
I scrunched down in my chair so that I could reach the marble now deep in my front pocket. Finding it, I placed it on the cart and watched it move along its smooth surface. I then punched the cart in anger and swung it away from the bed, revealing the perfectly form-fitted shape of my father’s emaciated body beneath the ocean blue sheets of the bed. I wished then that I had left the cart where it was.
My father raised a skeletal hand, reaching for the marble that was only seconds before flung from the cart as I pushed it away. In the shock of seeing him in his weakened state I had forgotten both the marble and the reason that I had brought it to the abominable place to begin with.
I quickly found it within the twisted folds of blue and clasped my father’s hand until I could feel the marble floating against our conjoined palms. This was soothing…a moment where we became our prior selves. I was, in that moment in time, the little boy who was afraid of becoming lost. He was the father who was still a hero in the eyes of his naïve son. I splayed my fingers as my father painfully slipped his in and we sat their silently holding hands, remembering happier times.
Through his fingers, I could feel the quickening of a pulse whose only desire was to leave its tortured body. I allowed tears to trace my cheeks just as they were tracing his.
The hospital room was so quiet. There was a vague mingling of odors…of disinfectant and urine and something darker, something sick and gray and unexplainable breathing under the surface of all the familiar scents. I sat there listening to the sounds of my own breathing, which was something I had never really paid attention to. Perhaps it was only because I was comparing it to his tortured rasping.
We stayed that way for some ten minutes…quietly, wordlessly holding hands. I was going through all the reasons that I should have been angry with him while he just lay there, seemingly memorizing the contours of my face. I don’t think he had ever spent that much time looking at me in my entire life. Somehow that was all we needed. In those ten minutes we made up for a lifetime of being unconnected.
He spoke first. At the time I thought of this as a personal victory of some sort. But I don’t know what I won. It was his last conversation. I only hope now that I was a good listener at the time...that I had made his last words worthwhile, at least to him.
He pressed more firmly on my hand and made to speak. I moved in closer, straining my ears to hear him like they do in the movies. Oddly enough, though, he spoke to me with his normal voice. It was loud and crisp and clear.
“Don’t stop being different, Matty,” he said. “You’ve got to smarten up. But don’t stop being you.” It was the first time he had called me Matty since I was a little boy. Again I became aware of the marble being held in our clasped hands. It had seemingly transformed us back to that magical time of my own forgotten childhood.
“I won’t, Dad,” I replied through the sudden lump in my throat. “Stop sounding so morbid…”
“It’s coming soon, Matty,” he replied, squeezing my hand even harder, painfully digging the marble into the muscle of my palm. “I can feel it now. It’s a nice day out there, today. A nice day for it.”
“Come on, Dad,” I whispered, leaning in closer. “You’re okay.”
“Be good for your mother, Matty, and don’t stop being yourself. I’m sorry I wasn’t the father you wanted. I hope you can forgive me for that.”
“I do, Dad, I do…” I trailed off and returned his firm grasp.
A sudden memory came rushing up out of the distant past. It was of me sitting between my father’s open knees on the big Lazy Boy in the living room. He was cutting the little pieces of a jet plane model from their sheet of plastic. He made a point of telling me to always use a razor blade when separating the pieces. “Never pull them from their plastic moorings. It leaves a little nub and it looks messy…like you didn’t try your best.” I remembered how I tried to cut a wing off the plastic sheet and instead cut my finger with the razor blade. My dad got so upset I thought he was going to cry. He picked me up, took me to the kitchen sink and held my finger under the cold water as he held me in his arms. I can’t remember it hurting, just how good it made me feel to see the worry and concern on his face.
I told him this memory and I could tell that it made him feel better.
“I wish I could have been that father, Matty,” He whispered. “It’s just so hard sometimes. You work, you try to pay the bills and provide everything your family needs…”
“I know Dad,” I interrupted. “Life is busy. You don’t have to tell me…”
“Yes, but I should have used a razor blade Matt,” he continued. “You can see all the messy little nubs in this family.” He laughed, and stifled the cough that this evoked. I chuckled along with him. “You know I love you, though?”
“Of course, Dad.”
We returned to our comfortable silence…me sitting in the hard plastic chair reaching up to hold his hand, while he stared into my face as though it were an anchor to this world.
His hold weakened and I clumsily let the marble fall…the link to my childhood was lost. I chased the marble through a crease in the sheet but was unable to catch it before the room’s silence became too much for me to bear. I knew without looking at him that his pulse had ceased.
I lay my head on the bed and wept openly, but not before kicking the ugly food cart one last time, this time clear across the room. Hearing the clang of metal and wood slamming to the floor was momentarily unnerving. I had disturbed the silence surrounding my dead father. I looked up into his face and felt a sudden warming. He looked released, more alive than he looked only minutes before when he was still breathing.
Somehow I had made my peace. Sitting in the quiet of the room I began to feel alive. My heart opened up even as the tears were cascading down my cheeks. I was inexplicably able to forgive a man who had really done nothing wrong; who had only done the best that he could do. Years of anger had melted in the second that his pulse stopped pumping, in the second that the marble fell from our entwined hands.
I returned the marble to his palm, grasped his fingers in my own and pressed the button for the nurses’ station. My visit was over. My life was merely beginning.
At the end of every short story the reader should feel like a cloud has lifted from the face of the moon.