I sit at my father’s bedside listening to his breathing. The rhythmic gasps of the ventilator disrupt the stillness of his coma. A monitor glowing lime green displays his blood pressure, screaming when the numbers drop below safe levels. His pulse flashes blip, blip, blip across the screen. Wires of blue, white, and yellow disappear under the edge of his hospital gown.
My father has a hole in his neck. I can’t stop looking at it.
A bandaged incision runs the length of his chest. A nurse tells me the surgeon sawed through my father’s breastbone to reach his heart. I knew him so little before his surgery; now I must know everything, every detail of the violations to his body and wholeness.
Each day I sit by my father’s side, talking to him, hoping my familiar voice will call him back to waking. I tell him about the February sunshine, the Chinese restaurant down the block—anything just to keep talking. He gives no hint that he hears me, no sign that he will wake up.
My father looks peaceful, free of the pain he suffered before surgery when he grimaced and stiffened, alerting me that something was gravely wrong. Tests revealed a mushrooming staph infection on a heart valve.
He contracted the infection from an unclean IV needle inserted by an ungloved ambulance medic. During the week before surgery, the infection mimicked stroke symptoms. My father could not read a newspaper or absorb words read to him, could not walk steadily, sometimes could not control his elimination. What he could do was cry. I wasn’t used to seeing him cry. I thought it meant he was terrified to be so ill. My mother later told me he cried in realization that I loved him enough to travel three thousand miles to be at his side.
We aren’t good friends, my father and I. I can’t say he doesn’t love me, but he’s never known how to be with me, nor I with him. He didn’t want a sensitive child, one who reminded him of his own fragile self. He wanted a child with skin as thick as an alligator’s.
At age eleven, I awakened him gently from a nap and he kicked me. Hard. I never forgot, even though he said he was half asleep. I also never forgot the fury in his eyes or the times when he whipped me or slapped me across the living room with his huge hands. I learned to curl up and protect myself. Not only from him—from the world.
As an adult, I struggled to find common ground with him. Through periods of conflict, silence, avoidance, and rough efforts to connect, we barely maintained a state of peace. He yelled when I didn’t wash dishes the instant a meal was finished and when I left my jacket hanging over a chair for even two minutes. He didn’t like my boyfriends, my clothes, my vagabond ways. I’d been on my own for twenty years, and still he treated me like a teenager.
Before surgery, I sat at his bedside for fourteen-hour stretches. I smuggled frozen yogurt from the cafeteria when he refused to eat the bland hospital food he called garbage. I played tapes of Mozart, Dvorak, Brahms—his favorites—and felt a rush of love as he conducted along with the music. He grew weary and asked to rest his head in my lap. He lost his hardness, dropped his authoritarian mask.
Now, after surgery, my father is comatose in the intensive-care ward. I am soft in the safety his softness has created. I relax, relieved that he is no longer spilling his anger. Never mind that he can’t—we are peaceful together.
I am fascinated with his body. He has lost weight since entering the hospital but still looks handsome, like Gregory Peck. I’m closer to him physically than I’ve been in decades for more than a guarded hug or to work alongside him stacking logs onto a winter woodpile. I massage the soles of his feet and touch his ankles, hairless and soft as the skin of a newborn. I marvel that no flash of lightning strikes me as if to proclaim that one can never, ever get this close to one’s father.
When I reached my teens, he stopped touching me, holding me close, sharing his comforting body-presence with me. Now he cannot avoid the contact. I stroke his arms, round my hand over the warm top of his head. I place my hand on his heart and feel the steady beat. I touch his chest as though breaking a taboo, sharing tenderness that he could not tolerate when conscious.
The day comes when his neurologist tells us that my father will not recover. When they opened his heart, pieces of the infection traveled through his bloodstream to his brain, causing a series of strokes. He will never regain consciousness, feed himself, understand speech.
After we discontinue life support, I sit with him again, day after day, waiting. He speaks to me in images that come when I still myself. I see him flying away, far off in space, tethered to this realm by a thin cord that stretches into minuscule fineness. The cord cannot keep him with us, cannot bring him back to health. I release him in my heart, grateful beyond measure that I met my soft father before he died.
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To quote Mary Oliver, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”
What gifts have the dark times in your life bestowed upon you?