Here’s an excerpt from tonight’s writing session for NaNoWriMo: This story is about my dad’s passing while I was training to deploy to Iraq. I hadn’t been present for most of his sickness; had just graduated from Basic and immediately was mobilized.
In the car, driving to the hospital in Fort Wayne, mom talked a little bit about how it had been going. They had gotten a hospital bed and put it in the living room for dad because he couldn’t walk up the stairs anymore. They had even gotten a special toilet seat stand so he could go to the bathroom, but it didn’t help enough and they knew they had to move him to hospice when mom found dad in the kitchen, on his hands and knees, cleaning up his own shit because he couldn’t hold his bowels anymore. She said she walked in and he was on the linoleum, cursing and wiping it up.
The radiation hadn’t worked.
I thought back to the time he had installed that black, fake marbled plastic. Mom had been so happy he had done it. After it was finished and she was smiling, he lightly tapped her butt and she swatted his hand away. Later that night he had been cooking on the stove and caught a pot lid on fire, it broke and melted a spot in the floor. Mom didn’t smile the rest of that day, but I still laughed as he yelled, “Laura, Laura, the jiggin is burning, the jiggin is burning,” and I ran in, and then grabbed a chair, so I could reach the screeching fire alarm. Dad had a lot of issues with fire in our lifetime together. (He meant “chicken” by the way- accents ya’ll)
We got to the hospital during the day and I was still happy to be home when I walked into his room. Mom had warned me that he had been given a lot of morphine the last few days, but they made sure to decrease it because they knew I was coming.
He was dozing when I slipped up to the bed and leaned over his face so he could see me. His eyes opened wide, along with his mouth, but he couldn’t talk very well. He let out a low moan and raised his arms to me, shaking his head in excitement.
I’d never seen joy like that in his face when he looked at me before. Not when I graduated from college, or preschool for that matter, not when I told him I was engaged, not even when I told him I was joining the Army. Actually, when I told him I was deploying, he was upset.
We stood out on the back porch, the one he had built with his own hands, under the stars, our breath covering the dotted light.
“Oh Laouwrra (I loved how he said my name), this was the stupidest thing you could have ever done,” he said. “You shouldn’t have joined. But I’ll tell ‘ju what, you hear a loud noise, you run, ‘ju keep your head down. Don’t turn your back to anyone either, they’ll stab you.” Dad was Puerto Rican after all, he knew what he was talking about.
I told him this wasn’t Vietnam and I wasn’t Forrest Gump. I’d just be guarding prisoners and I’d be safe, with them behind bars or wires or something. Little did I know, many times, I would be have to sit in a room with six detainees, awaiting their court proceedings to see if they would be released or not. I never did turn my back to them though.
In his hospital bed, dad’s mouth formed into the biggest smile I knew his decaying body was capable of, which wasn’t much. It was everything to me. I don’t think he knew I was coming. He put his thin arms around me and hugged with as much strength as he had. He had wasted to a skeleton, cheeks sunken, face gray, not the beautiful brown it had always been. The skin was peeling off of his lips. I think I slept there that night.
A couple days later, mom took me to TGIF’s to get away from the hospital for a little bit. I ordered steak with Jack Daniel’s sauce, sweet potato fries and a beer. I was mad at the sun for shining, there were people dying this very day, and yet it still shines in my eyes through the blinds, what the fuck.
A few minutes later, the waiter came up to us looking concerned.
“I’m very sorry, but it’s Election Day and we shouldn’t have served you that beer,” he said. I cocked my head, thought about chugging it, but handed it off. Fuck me right.
The next few days went in fast forward. My brother and sister from Puerto Rico, dad’s ‘other family’ came to the hospital, along with various other people from his life I didn’t know. I look at pictures someone took from that time and it makes no sense. Snapping pictures of people in the bottom of sadness seems wrong. Sadness and the face of a man not there anymore in the pictures, his eyes blank, sucked dry from the drugs.
The day the news came that dad’s mother wouldn’t be coming from New York, was the beginning of the end. The hospital staff had stopped feeding him food because the cancer just ate it. It would just prolong things, the nurse said. Instead, mom and Jan, my sister-in-law, gave him water from a little green straw sponge thing, they mostly just wiped his lips with it.
During one of his lucid moments, the nurse was at his bedside, talking to him, because obviously they were friends now.
“Hey, hey, give me your number,” dad asked the nurse. She laughed.
“Dad, are you fucking kidding me right now,” I told him. I laughed too.
I don’t know what day it was, but at some point, the Chaplain came to dad’s room. He had been gasping more and more for breath as the day wore on. He rattled and wheezed and I wished he would just stop. The Chaplain was Catholic maybe, a Priestess, with a purple sash. It reminded me of the blue sash Elvis had given me in Branson. I was sitting in the corner as she stood over him, we all lowered our heads and hushed words were spoken, as he confessed his sins, I suppose. I wish I had listened better to his Last Rite.
Shortly after that, a nurse put something in his IV, she said it would make it easier for him to go. He was suffering.
I soon fell asleep on the maroon plastic couch in the hospital room.
I awoke to mom shaking me, telling me it was time. I lurched upright, but didn’t stand up. I didn’t take my eyes off of him, and I didn’t count how many times he rasped in and out for air, in a moment he just didn’t anymore. I felt everyone else in the room inhale, waiting for another of his exhalations to come, but it didn’t. Someone cried out. Then his chest moved one more time and froth came out of his mouth, and he was still. I know I cried, I just don’t remember it. Jan helped the nurse clean him up.
I don’t know what I expected death to feel like. This was it though, I guessed.
Mom scooted up next to him on the bed and rubbed his forehead and brushed his hair aside. She was tiny beside him. She told him she loved him, and I thought of all the times she had said in the past that she hoped he would die, even when he wasn’t even sick yet. I wasn’t mad at her though. He did that to her. The years of him showing her she didn’t matter, made her say that. But she took care of him when he did get sick. She was there for every second of every day of his pain, unfortunately, it was hers too.
Then I remembered when I was little, and would run up to him, chirping, “Swing me daddy swing me,” I’d say. I’d then turn around with my back to him, and he’d grab me under the arms, pull me between his legs and launch me forward into the air, over and over. One day I ran up to him, in our small kitchen in New Jersey, singing, but he said he couldn’t swing me anymore, his back hurt too much. That was a sad day.
About an hour later, maybe less, everyone filed out of the hospital room and I stayed to say goodbye.
It was like a stranger lying in the bed in his place. I couldn’t smell the Videl Sasoon in his hair anymore, he’d always used that hair cream. I hesitantly touched his arm. It was dry, not cold yet. I said I was sorry, for what, I didn’t know, I was just sorry. I kissed him, and I might have felt his mustache on my cheek, or imagined it, I don’t know if they had shaved it off. I always hated it when he shaved his mustache. He wasn’t dad without it. I stepped back from the bed, but then had to walk forward again. I couldn’t force myself to leave, until I did.
I never saw him again.
Except in one dream I had after he died. In my dream, he swung me again, but this time, I was facing him and could see his face. That was a good dream.
A day, or two, I’m not sure; after he died, I took a plane back to El Paso.
Dad’s funeral was the day my unit flew to Iraq. I didn’t see him buried, because I didn’t want to deploy with people I didn’t know. I never liked the smell of casket flowers anyway. Adam was a pallbearer, I don’t know who else was.
Many people don’t grow up with their fathers in their lives, and sometimes they’re better for it. Dad raised me, but I always knew it was mom who actually grew me. I know he loved me, he loved us. My half-brother Jamie, wasn’t even my dad’s, but really he was, because when Jamie’s “real dad” wouldn’t claim him, Al did, whole heartedly. Just that fact, I think made me love my dad just a little bit more, just enough not to hate him.
Often times, I’d sit in the garage with my dad, desperately wanting to talk to him, but I never really did. I’d sit on a stool, swinging my legs, quiet. I don’t know what his favorite song was, who was the first girl he ever kissed. I don’t even know what dad looked like as a kid. He probably had gangly legs, because even as a grown man, they were bow legged and skinny. I look at my right calf leg now, and I see a small, bluish birth mark, and I remember, dad had one there too, I think, maybe I’m making that up too. I then look at my toes, and my second one is shorter than my third, grandma had those toes. It reminds me, I’m made up of the people that came before me, they’re not here anymore, but I am. I’m still making all the mistakes they did, I drink too much, I complain too much, I’ve lied, I’ve cheated, and eat too much; but I’m also the best parts of them. I’m kind, I love, and love learning and dancing. Dad had to learn English on his own and he did it by reading newspapers in New York City. He said he tried to go to a free class once, but it was just a party for people to meet up and they didn’t do much talking.
There’s so much I don’t know about my dad’s life. It hurts sometimes how little I do know.
I do know, though, that when I asked him for things, he did whatever he had to, to get them for me, like that Jasmine doll from the Hallmark store I adored, until she was completely wrecked. I know that his way of showing me he loved me was by giving me that Timex watch, and he even changed the batteries for me. He sized my engagement ring. That was the hardest part of breaking it off, giving back the ring, because it was the last piece of jewelry my dad worked on.
I do know, dad could be happy just sitting on the front porch, looking at cars drive by, another Puerto Rican thing, I hear. I know he had a disease, alcoholism, which he fought against and eventually won. He also had a disease of his heart. I imagine his own dad didn’t love him very well. I know he did the best he could, with what he had. Alberto wasn’t a very nice person, but he was loved anyways, it was hard not to.