This is a reposting ... something I wrote years ago after my father died from complications of diabetes. I spent 2 months together with my sisters and mum nursing him through his last days.
I see by your eyes when I slip into the room that dusk is starting. I nod hello, ‘bonjour monsieur’ to your roommate at the right – a nice man, complications of diabetes and a heart attack, young too. Across from you, the sweet old lady says hello – I ask her how she is feeling – always a lady she answers softly and uncomplaining. The adorable Quebecois woman to her left laughs happily as I touch her foot – her toothless gums snapping together. She is actually quite young – probably only a few years old than me – but time and care and lack of money have carved lines in her face, taken her teeth and her youth but not her sense of life. You sit, tense, in your narrow bed, your poor bandaged leg with its frame distorting the shape, rocking restlessly. I kiss your forehead, searching your eyes. The circles beneath are bruised and dark, emphasizing the glittering green of your gaze but in them I see my dad, a glimpse only, but still there. I glance outside the window – across the parking lot of the hospital, the soft, gauzy curricles of new leaves glint green in the setting sun. The day had been beautiful, the perfect spring day with the breath of breeze carrying on it countless memories of new beginnings.
I check the pouch which carries your urine and tense, as I see it is almost full. Born of habit and usage, I check the chart and see it was changed a mere hour previous – that means your kidneys are still acting up. You struggle for normalcy, pretending your don’t see the sun which glints through the window at an angle which alerts you to its setting. You ask about ma and whether she got any rest and I pretend not to see your eyes slide to the side, checking fearfully on the angle of light. I ask if you have slept, for a moment the old sardonic grin appears, tugging at me at its incongruity in the gaunt planes of your face. Before these endless nights and days I would have ventured to guess that no-one could have gone for a week without sleep, but time and you have proven me wrong.
I make myself busy, cleaning off your side table, throwing out the used kleenexs which litter its scarred, metal surface, then take the water cups and empty them in the bathroom. An espresso cup from the little Italian bakery on Sources alerts me that Binny had popped in. Walking briskly (for I know dusk is coming), I quickly fill a cardboard bucket with ice and return. You are sitting now on the side of the bed, your gauze covered foot dangling dangerously near the grubby floor. I admonish you and then superstitiously check your foot. A sweetly sick odour wafts from the stain which mars the tip of the white bandage. I ask when they changed it last and you reply irritably it wasn’t long ago.
Dust motes dance in the waning sunlight which at this angle shines directly on your bed. You close your poor tired eyes for a moment, basking in the warmth and promise of safety. Then, your eyes open, the gentleness displaced now by an glittering intensity. You reach and pull the flashlight from the drawer, and began to snap it on and off – checking carefully for the strength of its light. I pull yet another set of batteries from my purse. Taking them, you concentrate carefully on unscrewing the lens and inserting the new batteries.
We chat desultorily as I massage your foot, the skin cracked and broken, with the crème Dede had brought. I also rub in the special lip balm as the constant oxygen has dried out the tender membrane of your lips. You say that Kealin already did that, after your dinner she gave you a sponge bath and rubbed cream in. I say it won’t hurt. Your skin is parchment pale and like vellum it is cracked and worn and somehow fragile. Your cheeks, once plump and rosy, have hollowed and caved in on themselves.
Together we ignore the gathering dusk, the threatening darkness which gathers outside the hospital window, leaching colour from the fragile landscape as it leaches coherence from your mind.
Adrenaline courses through your veins as the light dims, tense, strung taut and almost thrumming, you sit drumming your heels on the bed. I have hung the blankets so your foot is more or less protected, I have learned there is nothing to be gained by trying to calm. Hospital routine continues around us as we sit cocooned in the harsh, grateful light of the fluorescent fixtures about the bed. I give you a few moments peace as I slip downstairs and slot quarters into a machine. I return with a hot, black styrophone cup of coffee. Remnants of reason return to your eyes and you grin conspiratorially with me. Opening the drawer, I slip out a tiny bottle of Irish whiskey and measure a minute drop of your youth into the coffee. I pull the tray closer, your fingers are numb and clumsy, the coffee hot. I warn you and am reassured, slightly, by your crusty response. You sip, small, intense sips at the hot liquid, the sweet smell of Irish rising with the coffee’s steam into the fetid hospital air.
The nurse comes bustling in, her uniform creased but clean. She chats cheerfully to you as she checks your intravenous (fine), your blood levels (good, considering). She murmurs sympathetically as you grimace as she checks the site of the intravenous needle, then pulls off a piece of tape and anchors it more firmly. She efficiently changes the bag of urine, marking down the measurement on your chart. The bed groans and clanks as she adjusts the back, admonishing you to lie back and relax and try to sleep. She turns off the light. In the reflection of light from the corridor, your eyes are huge as they turn fearfully to mine, I take your hand then reach and put the flashlight into it. You turn it on and place it precisely on the tray, spending several minutes adjusting the angle of light. You have your cane now, you sit, back uncomfortably rigid staring out at the night.
I adjust pillows behind your back, I take your cane, I push gently on your shoulders but you resist. I sense your eyes feverishly searching the corners of our small cocoon, the linen walls moving in the slight breeze from the air units. Beyond, your roommates rest, not for them the terrors of the night. Only for you, my dearest father, my once strong, once proud da. Suddenly you sit completely upright, your foot tangling in the steel cage which imprisons it. I pull the blanket up, resigned and help you swing your feet around. I place, despite your protests, the soft slipper on your foot – reminding you that the last thing you need is more infection. You demand your cane and reluctantly I pass it to you. Sure enough, a few seconds later you lurch forward. I am waiting for this and in a second have my shoulder beneath your arm. Limping you swing into the chair I have placed ready. I pull the tray with its precious light closer, anticipating you. I affix the oxygen prongs into your nose. Angrily, you swat away my hand and pull the clear plastic tubing away.
And so we begin our nightly battle, child against parent, parent against the night, child against madness. We skirmish, we battle, we rest (though not for long). Within an hour I have you at least back in the bed, I feel better when your foot is dangling above the floor, grubby and inadequately cleaned from a health system which promises much and delivers little and sees cleanliness as something that can be replaced by a bottom line. My arm smarts where your cane caught me unaware but I have managed to prevail on you to keep the oxygen in for almost 10 minutes and I relish my small victory. Outside no longer exists, not the corridor lit by night lighting, not the sound of nurses and buzzers going on beyond the room to your door, not the life which lies outside the opaque walls of window which reflect a distorted pageant back to us.
We are warriors, you and I, soldiers of an army of two, fighting a battle because that is what we do and what we are, unaware of the war, rather, caught up in passion and desire and madness we do what needs to be done.
At 2 a.m. a gentle hand pulls back the linen curtain and the sweet-faced respiratory technician slips in. You quieten, though just a moment before we were locked in a quiet, intense struggle, me to keep you in bed, you to escape. Reason returns for a moment, and like an admonished child, you sit with your head hanging, your great eyes full of guilt. She sits beside you, murmuring soft words, scolding you gently for not having your oxygen. Obediently, you hold the mask to your face as the ventilin steams through the small holes, hissing sibilantly in the quiet night. Taking advantage, I slip downstairs to stand in the cooling spring night to smoke a cigarette. I inhale and look up into the night sky. Here, in this world, the stars wink above the orb of sky, the smell of spring wafts across my face, touching soft fingers and caressing my skin.
In the other world, the inside one in which you inhabit, there is no breeze, no friendly winks of light to reassure, no velvet darkness to encompass and caress you, just deep, endless hard darkness to strike and buffet you, to lose you in its harsh embrace. Stubbing out the cigarette, I hurry back inside.
A nurse is with you when I slip behind our curtain. She has turned on the night light so it is angled at the end of the bed. You sit, content, bathed in its weak light, unaware and uncaring as she changes the bandage on your foot. I help. As she twists of the layers of gauze, I steel myself. The rot has increased exponentially I think as the soft, stinking mass of your foot is revealed. She looks up, sympathy in her eyes, but she knows I know and want to be here, so says nothing, merely rolls the reeking bandage carefully and placing it in the plastic bag I have ready. With a swab she cleans the area, rinsing off rotting skin, cleaning off infection. Your small toe is already gone. Gloved, I hold your heel gently as she probes at the black mass which used to be your next to smallest – her breath catches and she looks up at me sharply as the mass slides off into the waiting gauze. I meet her eyes with an impersonal gaze and simply fold the gauze over it and add it to the bag. A few minutes later and your foot is wrapped and clean.
The worst part of the night is on us now – the nurse switches off the light as she slips silently out and with the dying of the light goes the last modicum of reason in your poor exhausted brain.
Silently, but intensely we struggle. I hear your breath come shallowly and harsh and attempt to push the prongs of the oxygen into your nose. Determinedly you pull them off, snapping the tubing. I speak quietly but harshly to you, and like a child, you stop, abashed, for a moment. I replace the tubing and we begin our struggle anew. A part of my brain remains apart, amazed at our futile struggles, I question how we came to this, a father and daughter locked in such an intimate and vicious cycle of struggle. Even as I lie, half on you as you struggle to escape, I remember. I remember when you were all to me, the font of all wisdom, the voice of reason. A man loving and educated, teaching us classical music was not violins and cellos but something to feed the soul, that reading opened your mind to the wonders of the world, that education was necessary to expand your universe, not simply a means to an end. A man, emotional and reserved, to whom Christmas was the most joyous day of the year; a man who kissed us and hugged us and never, never laid a hand in anger on us because men would never do that – hurt a woman or child. A man whose tongue would cut and whose great green eyes would bring us to tears. A man, passionate and caring, careless and cruel, but most of all, our da – always there for us.
Exhausted, we both pause in our struggle, I sit beside the bed, keeping an iron fist on your chest to stop you from rising. The cane, your grandfather’s sturdy black ash, is under the bed, away from your reach. I glance at my wrist and see it is close to 4 a.m. I long for mum. Attuned as we are, you ask where she is. I answer, steadily, soon.
As if in answer to our prayers, the curtain twitches. The smell of spring mingled with her own sweet, unmistakable essence precedes her. She is wearing a heavy tweed coat, a warm cashmere scarf wrapped around her throat. She slips over, quietly, her thin frame insubstantial yet like steel, strong. She runs her hand over your face. I feel your relief, but most of all your joy.
Outside, darkness still shrouds the world but inside I feel the light which emanates from her presence. You bask in it. You quieten. From the feeble light of the flashlight I cannot see your expression, but I feel your reason return. She murmurs, then a soft hand takes mine and tugs me outside. We sit on the harsh benches outside the elevator bank, she elicits your night from me, a routine one when all is said and done. She embraces me. Although I am so much larger, I feel enveloped, protected, a child again, safe in the womb. I cling, quietly, desperately, then release her and kissing her soft, worn cheek, we slip back. He is sitting up now, his gaze turned expectantly toward the door as we enter. Content, he is quiet. She slips up onto the bed beside him, he pushes over, even jokes slightly that she is taking all the room. He nestles next to her back, his poor tired eyes close. In the silence of the room I hear his sigh of contentment.
Quietly, I gather my purse and go out to meet the day.