I went into my father’s apartment today to check up on him this afternoon, because I hadn’t heard from him all day. Normally this isn’t anything of alarm, but when someone is dying, every moment, every word–every silence–has a heightened reality to it, so any silence for a few hours too long is always concern that it could be ‘the silence’, the final silence.
So at 4pm, I was worried.
My father leaves his apartment unlocked these days, which he used to never do. As I approached the door, the usual smell of death was greeting me as ominous reminder…even though I know the smell is coming, even though I’ve grown accustomed to it, there is nothing that can prepare you for the stench of death that awaits you every time you get close to someone who is dying.
I slowly opened the door, and the entire apartment was dark even though it was 4:15 in the afternoon. Being late November, the Ottawa sun was already setting and it was dark and quiet. Not a single light on, no computer humming, nothing.
I paused in for a moment, listening. Was my father already passed?
I waited for a moment, then
I heard a voice whimpering from the bedroom.
Relief. I couldn’t believe how much relief came all over me, calming my senses.
I heard my father mumble again a little louder, but the tumor has almost closed his throat completely, so it’s almost impossible to understand what he’s saying, even on a good day.
He can barely get words out (or water in), the tumor has swelled so badly. When he speaks, I usually just pretend like I’m understanding him, until he says something that denotes a response and when I don’t respond appropriately, he gets frustrated and angry because he still has all of his wits about him, so my lack of response then reminds him I’ve been faking it and actually didn’t really hear anything he had just said.
I stoically walked into the bedroom, not really sure what to expect,
only to find my emancipated father curled on the bed, motionless, his back to me. If I hadn’t heard him whimpering, and I had just seen him like this, I might have assumed he was already dead.
“whhhhatzx uppp Teddiiiie”
It took me a second to decipher what he was saying.
“I’m okay Paw. I just came to see you.”
I spoke slowly, carefully, softly.
I stepped closer to the bed, not really sure what to do. I felt helpless. The awkwardness in the air was as thick as the tenderness, as my father and I have very few good memories of family normalcy. My parents divorced when I was 3, and I didn’t see much of him throughout my life. The *only* memory I have of him being married to my mother is the memory of him beating my mother violently, then feeling relieved the cops arrived. Not exactly the best foundation for great family intimacy.
So I stood there for a moment, very unsure what to do. What is the right thing to do right now? There was a tiny part of me–a minute sliver–that crept in the irony: here was the person who had done so little for me for so much of my life, now just crippled and helpless, needing me, and yet in this moment I was even surprised myself that all I could feel was compassion.
“Paw, I just want you to know I am here for you, whatever you need.”
I slowly sat down on the bed. My father still didn’t move from his fetal position, he was still faced away from me.
My father tried to say something, but I couldn’t understand anything. I decide to take my hand and rub his back, the only comfort thing I could think to do in that moment.
A first between us.
I rubbed his back with my hand, slowly, then moved my hand to his upright shoulder. Boney. I’ve never felt anything like it. Pure bone with skin on it.
My father mumbled something. I couldn’t understand it. He twisted a little, frustrated.
“Your lips Teddy. Why do you keep smacking your lips.”
Short. Mumbled. Mean.
I wasn’t sure how to respond. All I could think to say was the truth.
“Because I’m nervous Paw. I’m nervous. I’m not sure if I’m ready for you to go yet. I’m scared.”
Then he mumbled again a few times, more things I couldn’t understand. Then finally he found the energy to blurt out, MacKays, so I was able to piece together what he was saying,
“You’re a Mackay! MacKays don’t get scared!!”
I laughed and cried a little in one moment. If only my father had actually known me most of my life, he would have known I’ve spent most of my life living up to this motto.
I continued to rub his back a little, unsure what to do. He wasn’t reacting one way or the other, so I couldn’t tell if he was enjoying it or not.
At first I assumed he was talking about his breath, which reeked something awful. Then a few frustrated grunts later, he was talking about me.
Oops. In all of my worry not hearing from my father, I just realized I hadn’t brushed my teeth yet.
Time for me to leave.
In my 39 years on the planet, I had just had my first, and now perhaps only, real moment of intimacy with the paternal half of my DNA makeup, and in his snarks about my breath I knew it was coming to end.
I slowly rose off the bed.
“Hang in there Paw.”
Is there anything else left to say?
“I’ll see you in heaven Teddy.”
What? First time too muffled.
“Heaven!! I’ll see you in heaven.”
I’m not sure if either one of us is headed towards heaven, but I told him to go ahead and get the party started. I figured wherever he is, I’ll join him again, one day soon.