My father is dying, but I’m the only one who seems to know it. He’s in the hospital and they’ve moved him from Intensive Care to Cardiac Step-down to a regular ward. His roommate is recovering from gall bladder surgery and his whole extended family surrounds him with warmth and cheer.
My father doesn’t speak more than grunts. He can’t move himself other than to paw ferociously at the tubes running into his chest and the IVs in his wrist, the feeding tube threaded through his nostril. His catheter and the stoma for his colostomy bag. My brother thinks he’s on the road to recovery, and none of the nurses or doctors disabuses him of his certainty. I doubt that my father even knows where or that he recognizes us.
We are standing over his bed, discussing the vast gulf between our perceptions.
We hear a nurse shouting out in the hallway, “Didya get the cumodin yet?”
“Dad used to take that, a blood thinner, right” I say.
“No, not Dad, Mom, after her new valve” he says.
“Are you sure?”
“But Dad did help invent cumodin,” he says, “in grad school at Columbia.”
“I didn’t know that,” I say.
“Hey, Dad, Dad,” my brother raises his voice. “Who did you work with at Columbia, who was your thesis advisor?”
I roll my eyes and make some sort of tsk-ing sound. My father opens his wide and gasps to take in enough air to speak. “Sh-sh-sh-ar-ar-g-g-g-eff,” he gets out.
“That’s right” my brother says tenderly, “Shargev, the guy who invented Cumadin.”
I don’t know what to say—am I calling things prematurely? Then again, it all seems to be a bit like the talking dog joke—what’s on top of a house? Ruff? Who’s the greatest baseball player? Ruff. And then I wonder why I never knew that my father was involved in the invention of pharmaceuticals. I knew the story that at Columbia he worked with the great Italian atomic physicist Fermi. And that some of his classmates ended up drafted into the Chicago Project—but I always thought these were harmless exaggerations. In my memory, he always emitted a peculiarly offensive smell from his days in the lab (an odor he retained long after he retired) and that his work (and scores of patents) was restricted to fabric finishes (to make our jeans softer and more pliable) and later to rolling steel lubricants (which is why he was always running off to Pittsburgh and Detroit).
“Remember when we almost moved to Oak Ridge?” my brother asks.
“No,” I say.
Once I hit puberty I rejected science. And thus my father, I suppose. My brother, on the other hand, became a microbiologist. We argued constantly, well into our twenties about the truth and the efficacy of science. It was easy for me—I had Hiroshima and Nagasaki in my arsenal. And later, Dow Chemical and Napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam. Love Canal. Thalidomide Babies. And once I learned about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, well, I stopped arguing altogether. How could any experiment ever ever have any validity when the mere presence of an observer affected the outcome? Wouldn’t you make love differently if you knew someone was watching?
No one but me thinks my father is dying. He’s released from the hospital, sent to a nursing home, and they invite me to attend his first physical therapy session. He can’t move by himself and he’s shivering. Wheezing. Still, they manage to get him to sit up in bed. I feel as though a slight expulsion of air could knock him over. He looks angry, fierce, vacant, confused, defiant, detached, pissed, compliant…I can’t read his expression. His therapist takes me aside and seats me down at a nearby table. I look back to see if my father has toppled yet; but no, he’s holding steady. She pulls out a clipboard and cheerily fires a barrage of questions at me.
“What’s his favorite color? His favorite board game? What’s his favorite flavor of ice cream? Sometimes, you know, we take field trips to Baskin Robbins”
I can’t answer these questions. I stare at her incredulously.
“I want to work with you, Leonard, to make you father as comfortable as we possibly can.”
“He’s on a feeding tube,” I say.
“Well, we’ll just skip that one then.”
Suddenly she realizes that I had been her English comp teacher ten years ago when she went to community college.
“It’s very possible,” I say.
“But I was such a disaster then,” she says. “If you knew me then you wouldn’t recognize me today. But I really got my life together.”
I look at her. She’s pretty, I think, a soft round face and deep-set eyes. Thick and long brown hair in a French braid, a bit too fancy for her plain uniform. She smiles, waiting for me to remember her. “You do remember me, don’t you. You couldn’t forget someone like me.” She opens her eyes wide and tilts her head quizzically. She seems to be flirting with me, but that couldn’t be. My father’s just across the room, so very near death. She’s wearing a wedding ring along with a huge diamond. I can see a picture of an adorable boy toddler laminated onto her keychain and I think it must be her child.
“Does he have any hobbies?
The next day, I get a call from the nursing home. They found him not breathing, his heart no longer beating, and rushed him to the hospital.