“You know what makes me feel bad?” Rob’s father stares out the bedroom window. Rusty football-size hydrangeas block the view of his fishing boat trailered in the back yard. Rob hopes no confession is forthcoming. His head will burst into flames if his normally private father becomes personal; “It makes me feel bad about that snake I shot,” his father says. “Remember?”
Rob puts a glass of juice on the night table beside the day’s lineup of white and pink pills. “Yeah. I remember.” It was the biggest snake he had ever seen. Round as a tennis ball, eight feet long. It wasn’t bothering anyone and black snakes are not poisonous, but his father said it might hurt one of the kids running around in the woods that day, some friends of his parents and their families on a cookout. It was sad, seeing it dead, lying on the forest floor like a big empty garden hose.
It had always bothered him that he had shot it. Since he was a little kid Rob had thought he wanted to be an outdoorsman, like his father. Then, when he was fifteen, he killed his first deer. Rob felt the impact of the hit in his whole body. Something inside him fell down and died that day, surrendered with that buck, as it tried to rise from where the bullet had driven it to the ground. He never took up a weapon against an animal again. And now he didn’t eat them either. He still partook of fish and eggs. He wasn’t that enlightened. But he did try to practice non-violence, ahimsa, a Sanskrit word he learned in Eastern Religions 201.
If his father feels good, he and his mother do too. If his father suddenly can’t get his legs to move, or the pain is making him withdraw, then everybody is fucked. Today he is a little better. No more chemo. The barfing has stopped. Up until now, he has always been a busy man, a fisherman, a putterer, so they try to find small tasks he can contain on his lap. Today he wants to straighten stuff, so Rob removes the top drawer of the bureau and puts it on the bed within his father’s reach. It holds handkerchiefs, socks, general junk. And the imitation leather box with the military medal inside.
When Rob was a kid, he’d get it out again and again, studying the little silver star in the middle of the big brass one. Whenever he asked his father how he had won the medal, his father would always say, “Oh just doing what I was told, like every guy there.”
“What are these branches around the star?” Rob had asked more than once.
“I guess they’re laurels. To the victors go the laurels. Don’t rest on your spoils.” His father had chuckled, Rob joining in, but he didn’t get the joke until he heard the correct quote, years later in a history class.
His father picks up the box, puts it aside, begins to untangle a bunch of key rings, tie clips and single cufflinks. Leaving him to it, Rob fetches the trimmer and cuts back the dead hydrangea. He dropped out of college in September, right after registering for third year, so he could help his mother fulfill his father’s last wish—to die at home.
Now that the bushes are trimmed, he doesn’t know if it will make his father feel better or worse seeing the boat in the back yard from his bedroom window. It makes Rob blue that he’s too gutless to ask.
Back in his parents’ room, his father is asleep among stacks of handkerchiefs, ties, the Zippo lighter with the U.S. Infantry insignia, and an unopened pack of cigarettes. A reminder that he has conquered smoking and is above temptation.
On his way out the door that evening, Rob’s gaze lingers at one photo among the wall of pictured family and friends. His folks in the brand new lime-green 1965 Mustang, the spillway at Croton Dam behind them. In the driver’s seat, his mother is wearing a straw hat, a big grin. His father is leaning against the car. He had just been drafted. In a few months he’d be in Vietnam.
Driving through the countryside on quiet back roads, Rob looks for that sign he’d once seen, the motel with the Tibetan name, Bardo. A word that means a layover state after death, like limbo or purgatory without the flames. He wonders if Bardo is just the owner’s name, or is it a riff, a flipped-side homage to that famous hotel where you can check in but never leave.
The day of the drawer-neatening, Rob thinks his father seems good; but a week later, pain sweeps the poor guy overboard. Every two hours, his mother pours liquid morphine, bright blue as Easter egg dye, into a small plastic cup ribbed with measuring lines. His father throws the drug down like it’s a shot of scotch, takes a drag on an invisible Camel. Rob feels the ghosts of countless cigarettes resting in the cradling place between the fingers of his own and his father’s hand. The guy is stoic. He doesn’t say anything about what is happening to him. Rob figures his father has been talking to his mother about the deeper things, but when he asks, she says no.
Rob feels a heat of frustration gather in his chest, “If he doesn’t talk about his feelings now then…”
“When?” She puts her hand on his shoulder; “Oh hon, He’s not keeping his feelings from us. He just doesn’t know what they are.”
When his father’s teeth click together, speeding with the morphine to describe the thoughts his tongue cannot shape, Rob is reminded of a toy monkey. The chemo has left short fuzzy hair like a monkey too. His skin is sallow except for his arms where the fisherman’s tan has not fully faded.
Sometimes, when the morphine makes his father talkative, he recounts highlights from his life, as if he is living them again, not just narrating. He is picking apples, making homemade wine, fishing for bass. He speaks fast, lashes fluttering over half-closed eyes. The hospice nurse says this narrative he is telling is known as life review. Rob feels a little hurt when his father doesn’t seem to be doing things with Rob in his life review, or even his mother. The only name that he ever says is Sis which isn’t really a name, but it’s what he called his twin who died when they were three.
Mostly Rob watches from the doorway. Useless, lacking the guts to nurse his father, to help him piss into the plastic urinal. But forgiving himself too. He senses his father would be embarrassed for both of them were he to take part in these intimate ministrations.
His father trembles and writhes now between doses of liquid morphine. He’s too weak to hold the plastic shot cup and he has difficulty swallowing. His mother asks the nurse where they go from here and she recommends injections. But since hospice can only visit once a day, his mother will have to learn to give the shots herself. Rob’s mother wraps her fisherman’s cardigan more tightly around her, presses her lips together as if she’s humming. Fear jumps from his mother to him like a scrabbling little animal.
He rides around and thinks about giving injections to his father. Convinces himself he can do it. Or maybe he’ll just forget about school for another year. That way they can hire nurses to do all this stuff. He’ll help his mother find the right services, organize this. Take something more than the grocery shopping and laundry off the poor woman’s shoulders. Well, he did take care of the yard too.
That night around eleven, when Rob comes back from his ride, he smells cigarette smoke as he enters the house. His father’s too weak to smoke, and as far as he knows, his mother quit when he was six. At first he thinks the TV is on, then realizes she is on the phone in the family room. Her voice is a slow murmur he can’t decipher; she gives a sudden quick laugh. Rob draws in a breath of surprise. Chides himself for such a dumb response. What, she can’t laugh because his father’s dying? The admittance of those words drop him down an elevator shaft from a nice high he had groomed earlier, with some weed sent by his former roommate.
He wonders who she is talking to. It’s good they make her laugh. But he would be lying if he didn’t admit to a quiver of discomfort that someone might be in the wings already, waiting to swoop in and take her away. Of course it could have been one of her many female friends on the phone, but she usually talked to them in the kitchen while she cleaned up the sink or folded the laundry, and never this time of night.
The next day when he comes downstairs ready to talk to his mother about sacrificing school, there is a new nurse. A guy with a short gray pony tail and iguanas printed on his scrubs, says he’s from a private nursing service, and that his mother has gone out for a run. The nurse leaves after his father falls asleep. He makes another pot of coffee. His mother returns, checks on his father, takes a shower, joins Rob at the kitchen table for breakfast. He’s scrambled the one egg he could find and added enough grated cheese and milk to stretch it because she won’t eat unless he does. He’s made toast and taken out every possible topping he can find. There isn’t much. A glaze of jam at the bottom of the jar, some rock-hard natural peanut butter that no one likes. Ditto the marmalade. He sees he isn’t doing a very good job with the shopping. Vows to improve. “To pay for these nurses, I can either get more loans or put off school for another couple of semesters.”
His mother looks up over the top of her cradled coffee mug, elbows on the table. Rob notices her fingernails are bitten and chipped. They used to always be neatly manicured with coral polish in summer and wine in winter.
“Remember the year we had a Halloween party and the guy came as a pirate, with that lame beard?” Her blue eyes seem bigger. Rob realizes it’s because her face has gotten thinner and it makes them more pronounced; “He had streaked liquid shoe polish all over his face. You were so funny, very indignant that an adult would do something that cheesy. How old were you, eleven?”
“Twelve.” Rob remembers the beautiful red head that came with cheesy beard. She wore a witch’s hat, black leotard, and a purple cape that didn’t quite cover her perfect ass. Not his wife, they said. He was newly divorced.
“He’s called a few times asking after your father, always says he wants to help. I told him your father is in excruciating pain, and I am concerned I will hurt him more if I try to give injections. I’m not sure, even if I could find the money, that I’d be able to put together care as quickly as your father needs it.” She loads her mug in the dishwasher, “So the nursing service shows up this morning and says they’ll be here every four hours for…” she sighs deeply, “The duration.”
“Who is this guy? Cheesy-beard?” He asks, hearing his voice go smaller. He doesn’t mention the cigarette smoke last night. All trace is gone this morning.
“Some demi-god at one of the major hospitals in the city, can’t remember which.”
“And he has connections at nursing services here, in the wilds of Putnam County?”
“You know your father. He has quite a network.”
“He’s the first person I ever heard use that word as a verb,” Rob says.
It feels like his father is acquainted with about ten thousand people, and every single one of them is, according to him, a great guy. Maybe his father is right to unconditionally believe in the best in us all. Although it seems to Rob a bit unworldly.
Rob moves one of the club chairs from the living room, without his mother having to ask so she has a comfortable place to sit beside his father. When he finds her dozing in it one evening, he foregoes his joyless riding, and pulls over the cushioned bench from her vanity table. His legs are too long. He feels like a skinny bird on the low bench, a vulture, hanging over the bed. But he’s too zombie-brained to fetch a chair from the dining room.
Earlier the nurse gave his father an ejection that has made him seem comfortable. He quickly comes to love these people who show up and help so predictably. Not just for the relief they give his father, but for how they make everything seem natural within this world that is so different from the one outside the room where the most important thing in his family’s life is unfolding. There is no pretense any more about what they are all here for.
His father’s eyes occasionally open but this evening they are closed; he appears to be sleeping peacefully. Rob sits for a long time monitoring his father’s breathing. He counts the seconds between each in-and-out breath. He’s not sure if the gaps are getting longer. Now that he knows death is coming, he wants it over, the suffering to end.
Please take him. He repeats the mute plea with as much love as he can endure without breaking apart. Holding his father’s hand, he silently wills him, Please let go Dad. Just let go.
Although he has hardly acknowledged anyone in several hours, his father’s eyes open. He looks at Rob and says clearly, “I’m trying son.” Rob is profoundly ashamed that his father has read his thoughts. He doesn’t want him to die, just the anguish to stop. And, illogically, he wants it to be over so things can be normal again.
After a day in which he eats half a popsicle and rallies a bit, his father dies suddenly while Rob is out joylessly riding beneath a blazing full-moon.
The first lesson he learns about death is that normal is the world with the shape of that person in it, and when that shape is gone, the world does not suck itself back together. The matrix has realigned; the molecules have shifted. Gone changes the world from here on in amen.
At the funeral, bag pipes sob and wheeze, squeezing his heart like a tourniquet. A long procession of cars follows the hearse and limo. His father’s office was next to city hall. Great guy. Mr. pro bono who always had so much time for others. Rob is pissed as hell at him for dying.
Grief feels like flu. A low-grade body ache and hot flush. He fluctuates between woeful outrage that this sad life, with its messed-up shape, is the new normal. And despair that he cannot fix it. He remembers again and again, each time with fresh shame, how thoughtless he had been when his friend’s father died. They were fifteen. Didn’t he always have heart problems? Rob had asked, so cold-hearted. No, that’s my mother, his friend had said.
Though each day feels thirty-six hours long, reptile-brain and being-body are complicit with passing time. The hole where the living popped out of the plasma begins to repair. Sometimes Rob views himself from a remove. Dissociative behavior, he knows the term from Psych. On the outside, he looks like any college dropout on the streets at ten a.m. Standing in line to order his egg on a roll and coffee. But on the inside, it’s like they’ve dammed the river and flooded the town and everything is drowning.
With some of the insurance money, his mother installs hardwood floors in her bedroom and replaces the refrigerator. These distractions help for a little while. But the house seems to exist in a low light amid a gloaming dusk, window shades at half-mast. Rob sometimes comes upon his mother staring out a window, back curved like a tear drop.
Trotting downstairs this evening he steps on each Aubusson rose, the way he did as a kid. They sit dead center on every step, carved into carpet lush as sod. His mother is in the family room, in darkness. There is cedar incense burning, a scent that reminds her of girlhood visits to Cape Cod. The glow of the TV washes her face. He’s pretty sure she never changes the channel. That the TV is a projection screen for memory slides. He wonders if she always sees his father in a good light? Does she remember the day he threw the broken can opener off the back porch and almost hit one of the neighbor kids? Or does she only see him laughing, looking boyish with that GI hair cut he never abandoned after the war?
A twelve-wheeler goes through his heart. Rob feels tears rimming his eyes unexpectedly. Oh dad—he speaks to his father sotto voce—I’m so sorry you are not here.
“Hi sweetie.” His mother looks up, stops biting her lips. A diffident smile spreads over them; “New shirt?” She has given him money from the estate and wants him to spend some on himself.
He nods, “Going for a ride.”
“Drive carefully.” The reply is automatic as her gaze drifts back to the TV.
He gets into the old station wagon, pumps the gas pedal because damn it Dad, this is the only way to start it no matter what you say… used to say. He doesn’t really believe his father is watching or that his soul has moved on to an afterlife. He is not like his father—a soldier, a church man, a counselor. Rob cannot imagine one fucking bloody belief he would be willing to defend with his life.
He drives toward the river. It’s about a mile from the house, at the corner of Hudson and Orchard, when He lives! His soul shouts with a jubilant fire. It’s his old man. For a nanosecond. But no. It’s just a guy in his fifties wearing a Yankee cap. The mind is so dense. His father has been dead five weeks. Why hasn’t his brain caught on?
At the river landing, Rob parks. From his shirt pocket, he pulls out the last inch of a joint attached to a small alligator clip. Here’s to you dad, he lights up, my burnt offering. He thinks of his mother making her own, in front of the television, engulfed in a private communion of cedar smoke and shadows.
When the roach is ash, he gets out of the car, stuffs his keys and clip into his jeans’ pocket. A pickup truck arrives and a couple his parents age in an old MG. It’s prime time. The dropping sun paints big gaudy bars of watermelon light in the western sky. On the outside, Rob’s just another college dropout, come to see the sunset. Any bloke. Everyman. Moseying along. But inside, it’s raging howling dissonance, acid skies, the rise and fall of nations.
Diane Bonavist is former Editor in Chief of Tiferet Journal. Her fiction has appeared in Tiferet, The Milo Review, and Fable Online. Her novel, Purged By Fire, about the first inquisition, will be published this month by Bagwyn Books.