His father wasn't thin. Mark had expected him to be thin from the disease. His father was also asleep. He looked peaceful. The small, two-room apartment his father had called home for these past few years was much the same. Mark looked around and realized he had expected something to be different. My father's dying, he thought. Something should be more obvious.
His sister, Miriam, was sitting in the living room. Actually, it was a combination kitchen/dining/living room. The only other room was the bedroom; there wasn't a door between the two, just a small passageway. The bathroom was tiny, the furniture shabby, and the place didn't smell very good. His father's easy chair was facing the TV with two VCRs and four remotes on the small table next to the chair. The brown recliner was stained. One of the VCRs was recording something.
"Does he still watch this stuff?" Mark asked, remembering that his father had recorded over 800 tapes of varying programs encompassing everything from documentaries to Broadway shows; a living legacy of PBS.
His sister looked up and he realized it was she who looked different: thinner, with sunken eyes, obviously tired, and he sensed a pain that wasn't leaving any time soon. She had shouldered the burden of caring for her dying father without much help at all. Mark had offered to help but she had insisted that this was something she wanted to do. He now realized why he had flown here on Christmas eve. Miriam was exhausted and Mark suddenly felt her intense pain of impending loss. This was her father. Not really his, but clearly hers. Her father was dying and she didn't want just anyone taking care of him in his final weeks and days.
Mark had struggled with his feelings since his father had called to say the lymphoma had returned and he wasn't going to fight it. Mark knew he should feel awful but he didn't feel much at all. This ambivalence appalled him. "What kind of person am I?" he thought. His parents had divorced when he was 18 months old. He had never known his father until 16 and a junior in high school. Even then the reunion was more emotional for his father than for himself. There were times when he felt they had really connected and tried to build a relationship, but he had long ago come to the conclusion that early years can't be rebuilt. His sister was five years older and had always maintained an emotional connection. Still, with his father dying, Mark hated himself for not feeling more.
He had talked with his wife about these feelings but--whether real or imagined--he sensed her emotional reservoir was past flood stage. Evelyn believed there were worse things than death. Her own father had died recently after being in a coma for over four years following a car accident caused by a drunk driver. That had been long and not easy.
It was his sister who, in an earlier phone conversation, had helped him connect with more appropriate feelings.
"What if he were a family friend?" she had asked.
That fit. That made sense. He had felt his feelings adjust and some guilt leave.
"Yes, I can feel that. I can feel sorry but not overwhelmed. I realize I'm more concerned for you than him. What can I do to help you?" Mark asked his sister.
He loved his sister and didn't want her handling everything--especially taking care of his father's stuff after his death.
"I'll let you know," she said. "Just listening is good and I'll let you know when I need something."
She had called and asked him to come. He had, and now he saw she had handled all she could. "Get out of here," Mark ordered. "I'll be fine."
She gazed around the dark, drab apartment. "Well, let me show you what you need to do."
She explained how their father could no longer go to the bathroom by himself, didn't recognize anyone outside of her, might need his clothes changed, and could get really cranky.
"He doesn't talk anymore, just grunts so you have to figure out what he wants. Mostly he sleeps, but the bathroom stuff is hard," she cautioned. Mark knew she had dislocated her shoulder in a bike accident recently and must have really struggled.
Mark looked at her in surprise. "He can't walk?"
"Not really. You have to support him and sometimes he makes it to the bathroom and sometimes not. It's been painful for me too. He hates being this helpless."
"He thought he'd just drift off in his sleep?" Mark asked in surprise. He wondered what his father thought dying was.
She looked at her brother and wondered, Could he handle this? Mark clearly wasn't ready for what he was hearing. She explained how Daddy had refused further treatment and thought that by refusing to be in the hospital, he would die quickly. Society doesn't tell us much about death, she thought. We don't know how long it takes and what a gradual process it is. One gets weaker very slowly and it's a process with no quick release and no ending in sight.
Her father hated being dependent on anyone like this. He didn't want this to be happening. She wondered if she should tell her brother about the gun that she had found a few weeks ago when he still had some strength. Her father with a gun! It was so ironic. He was violently anti-violence yet wanted to end his own life. She realized she was completely exhausted and looked at her brother.
"He'll probably wake up in a while. There's a cup with a straw. Try and get him to sip some water. He hasn't eaten anything in days and probably won't, but there's some chocolate shake stuff in the fridge. Call me if you need anything." She gave him some more instructions, a hug, and then left.
Mark sat down on the couch but felt restless. He got up and went to his father's bed and looked at him. He looked so much the same as he had in recent years and Mark wanted to do something for him. He re-arranged the covers and kissed his father's forehead and went back to the couch. When Mark awoke, he realized more than his normal twenty minute nap had taken place. He jumped up and went to check. No change. Thank goodness. How would I know if he's awake? Not long after, he heard his father trying to move. He went in and his father was lying on his back and looked at him. The older man looked around and started motioning as if looking for someone else.
"Miriam went to spend Christmas at home", the younger man explained, thinking, how inane is this? He probably doesn't know me.
His father was trying to do something.
"You want to sit up?"
Vigorous nods and some noise greeted Mark's words. He lifted his father into a sitting position at the edge of the bed. How could his sister have done this with her shoulder? Their father was still a big man. He kissed his father's cheek and sat by him, holding his hand. His father looked at him again with large rheumy eyes set in a large face, a mostly bald head with a few wisps of hair on the sides and a trim beard. He was trying to get up. Together they managed to get him to the bathroom. There was a plastic piece situated on the toilet that acted as a lift does in elevator shoes, raising the seat portion to make it closer and easier to sit down.
"You ok? Can you handle it? Can I help." This seemed totally hopeless. Mark felt like a fool, incapable of helping anyone.
"I'll call you", his father said, once situated on the tiny toilet.
He had spoken! Mark silently questioned that with surprise. A few minutes later he heard his name called and they managed to make it back to the bed. He offered his father some water and was pleased to see he could still suck the straw. The weakness seemed almost, but not quite, complete. His father made more motions and seemed to want to lie down. Mark didn't move quickly enough, and his father fell over on his side. Then followed a long, stupid, and painful process where Mark tried to pull his father up on the bed, trying to make him comfortable. His father was obviously embarrassed and irritated at the same time. Finally, Mark got behind his father, gripping his arms under the man's shoulders and hauled.
"Owww", the old man moaned in a surprisingly strong voice.
Oh great, Mark chided himself, now I'm hurting him. He settled his father as best as he could and asked if he could get him anything. "How about a chocolate shake?" His father nodded and Mark went to get it, happy he could do something even vaguely useful.
Having the liquid required sitting up again, but this went a little better. After several sips his father indicated he wanted to get up. Together they managed that and his father started to go towards the other room.
"You want to go to your chair?" Mark asked.
"Yes. Let's watch a movie", his father said. Mark was surprised. Miriam had said their father didn't talk anymore.
They settled on a French movie with subtitles. Mark was born in France and still spoke fairly fluent French, but sub-titled movies were difficult. Sometimes the translations were inaccurate. He kept drifting between listening and reading. He made soup and offered some to his father, who ate some. Mark was pleased. This wasn't too bad. He found some rather old ice cream in the freezer, scraped the top off and fed his father some of that. He remembered that, in the past, this was one of the few activities they had shared. They'd get a pint of ice cream and two spoons and pass the container back and forth.
Mark's sister walked in while they were eating. Their father looked up and smiled triumphantly, as if to say, "See, I'm ok." He was clearly happy to see her, while she appeared a little shocked.
"What are you doing?" she said, surprised. He hasn't been in that chair for two weeks."
Mark explained all that had happened. Together, they sat and watched the end of the movie. "Not a great movie, huh?" she said to her brother.
"No, not Depardieu's best", Mark agreed, "but he's been watching." They looked at each other and smiled.
"Well, I just wanted to check on you guys," Miriam said after a while. She kissed her father and told him Mark was going to stay with him that night. He smiled and kissed her back.
After she left, Mark got his father settled back in bed and went to the couch. He thought about the varied life his father had experienced: from a conscientious objector during World War II, a radio and TV producer in San Francisco to an innkeeper in New Hampshire. Gradually, Mark drifted off to sleep. He woke early in the morning to a room greyed in the early morning light. He checked on his father. Still asleep. His sister said he usually woke up a couple of times during the night. He checked his father's robe. Still dry, Mark observed. No accidents overnight. Maybe he was just lucky.
He tried to find something to eat in the kitchen. A fair amount of food was left in the cupboards. Guess people don't plan these things, he thought. A few minutes later he heard his father moving and went in.
His father looked at him. It was clear to the son that the father didn't know him. At that very moment Mark knew his father had slipped into another place, a place of all weakness, a place where nothing made any sense.
"Well, good morning darling, how about the bathroom?" said Mark. They struggled to the toilet and back. His father went back to sleep and, a short time later, his sister came in. They looked at each other. Mark told her about the uneventful rest of the night but how their father had woken up in a different space.
"Heck of a Christmas, huh?" the brother finally said.
Later that day, on the plane headed back, he thought about the visit. His sister had said she felt much better, and that everything would work out. He was unconvinced, but remembered her last words, "I think he woke up just to say good-bye to you."
Mark's father died a few days later, on New Year's morning, with his daughter at his bedside holding his hand.