Six Days that Should Have Been Six Months
Days 22 & 23
March 30-31, 2020
|30 March 2020|
Città della Pieve
101,739 Coronavirus Cases
Worldometer, Last updated: March 30, 2020, 21:34 GMT
|31 March 2020 |
Città della Pieve
105,792 Coronavirus Cases
Worldometer, Last updated: March 31, 2020, 18:34
LATEST: Italy to extend quarantine until ‘at least’ April 12
A total of 61 doctors have died during the Covid-19 pandemic in Italy, says the national federation of doctors FNOMCeO, including at least 22 in the past week.
Italy reported more than 800 deaths on Monday, yet new cases of coronavirus continue to show signs of slowing.
Another 812 people died since contracting the new coronavirus, according to the latest
daily figures (March 30, 2020) from Italy’s Civil Protection department on Monday, an increase from 756 on Sunday.
In total, Italy has confirmed 101,739 cases of coronavirus since the outbreak began, 11,591 of them fatal.
Another 14,620 people have recovered, including 1,590 in the past 24 hours – the highest number of recoveries in a single day since the outbreak began.
(Source: The Local/AFP, firstname.lastname@example.org, 30 March 2020, 18:05 CEST+02:00)
Today, March 31, 2020, at 12 noon, Italy fell quiet for 10 minutes. I should specify, quieter than it has been – and it has been very, very quiet. The moment of silence was in honor of the victims of COVID-19. Italian mayors stood alone outside town halls across the country to observe a minute’s silence, as flags flew at half-mast. They mourned the 11,591 people who have died from the coronavirus pandemic in the country. On the PBS NewsHour last night, the ending segment was about a sound engineer who lost her aged father, not to the coronavirus (he tested negative after a 5-day seemingly eternal wait in the ICU), but during the epidemic. She was far from him and far from her mother who was ultimately allowed to bid him farewell, alone, at his deathbed. Her sisters, too, lived far away, and were not allowed to be bedside.
That story brought back a tearful wash of memories of my father’s own deathbed scene. I decided to share the short story that I wrote three years after he died, describing the last days and the hours of his life. I can’t imagine what it must be like for family members to be forbidden from spending those last precious hours, minutes and seconds with their closest loved ones.
In Città della Pieve, after writing a touching remembrance of Francesco Pasqui in the local paper just days ago, our mayor, Fausto Risini, made a silent tribute to the local business owner, who died from COVID-19 on March 18, 2020. He was 59 years old. His wife, Marisa, son, Alessandro and daughter, Stella, were not allowed to say goodbye to him at a proper funeral. The new rules of distance during the coronavirus forbad proximity at the deathbed or a traditional send-off to the afterlife due to the potential for propagation of the virus. This incident represents a universal situation for families around the world who are losing loved ones daily to the coronavirus. It is a crushing and poignant situation for loved ones, no matter what beliefs they hold.
FEATURE: The Molting
There was nothing ordinary about my father’s death. It belonged to he and me alone and was therefore unique and tortured, like our relationship. The death certificate records the hour of death at 7:15 p.m, but actually it was 6:50 p.m. The inaccuracy knawed at my heart. If I don’t tell my story, no one will know the truth about the time – or him. I am not sure why it mattered so much to me, except that six months after he was cold, everyone had forgotten and I still cried alone and always at stoplights.
Beside my father, Aymar, a stranger is watching Bill O’Reilly on Fox. The sound is turned up to accommodate deaf ears. The room is separated in two by a curtain. An eerie light creeps over the rod, casting misty beams of blue light onto my father’s face. We speak in half whispers, brewing tension that I sense seeps into the stranger’s quarters despite the cacaphony of O’Reilly’s rants. I imagine this unknown man who’s become so familiar to me this week feels out of place, like he is intruding on our commune of watchmen. He turns down the sound and switches off the TV. Silent as a ghost, not a trace of a flex movement in his feet, he shuffles out, past my still father and his bedside committee.
The room is ours then, quiet and dim. We are four, plus my exceptional dog, Stinky. Aymar’s friends, Alexandra and Gene, whom I had summoned just over an hour ago, and Jim, my husband. When I called Daddy’s friends, I told them that I didn’t know exactly how long it would be – tonight, probably not – but I wasn’t sure that he’d make it to Monday. They semi-circled the beltway in just over 20 minutes and are standing next to Jim and I – the deathwatch brigade, all eyes on Aymar.
Alexandra approaches the bed. I look up to study her face and understand that she needs to tell him privately. I make room for her, joining the others at the foot of the bed. She leans in close and speaks into his large, but faulty ear. For the longest time, she whispers to him. I cock my head, quizzically, then brush Jim’s ear with my lips. “What’s she saying?” He slips his arm around my waist and squeezes me tight the way I like. “She’s telling him who’s here in the room.” He guesses, then kisses my temple and squeezes me tighter around my waist. “He needs to know his friends are here – and Stinky.” He winks his sparkly blues at me trying to make me smile and I do, knowing Daddy would be pleased that his grand-dog is in a ball under the bed keeping watch over him, Stinky’s habit when visiting grandpa.
Only my mother, Aliette, is missing. She thinks Aymar is dead already. She had left him this afternoon when the sky was so grey it was raining death. She couldn’t have imagined he could hold on past the gasps that seemed his last. I imagine she’s in bed now, in pieces, probably. Perhaps she’s asleep finally, exhausted from her grief. She’d cried so much earlier in the day. “Aymar, don’t go, talk to me, talk to me,” she had beseeched him as she struggled to maneuver herself around the railing of the hospital bed to put her head on the pillow next to his. She’d gathered strength and courage in her grief to let her walker go – and she never walked without it. Steadying herself on one side of the railing, while he laid prisoner on the other, she rocked back and forth. Wailing like an Arab woman at a wake, she cried for him, “I love you, Aymar, talk to me, please talk, you haven’t said goodbye.” But she was too weak to get all the way around the railing and could only pat his head and crouch over him. Over and over, she stroked his head, her hand through the bars.
The loving was awkward. Visitor to prisoner. She couldn’t reach him, fully. Finally, exhausted, she pulled away, nothing she could do to keep connected to him, like a drowning duo on a buoy made for one. Finally one lets go from exhaustion, then sinks. A metaphor for their marriage played out, bedside. I supported her as I drew her away.
I had left then to take her back to her apartment where Emmy was waiting for her. She needed to rest. I intended to bring her back later in the day to see him. I wonder now if she will feel cheated. If she is having a lucid day tomorrow, she probably will. There are so many blurry ones recently, what with the Alzeihmer’s.
I imagine the night ahead will be long. I begin my habitual ritual of observation. It is what I have done every day for the past six days that I have come to visit my father in this place of intended hope and insured demise. The neon overhead light casts an ugly pallor on my father’s skin. I wish I could peel away the sallow veneer that masks his handsome features. I don’t recognize him. Neon’s not flattering to the rehab center’s décor, either.
I take in its institutional style for the umpteenth time this week, with a glance around the room. The walls are painted beige, naturally. A jaunty sea-foam green trim winds its way around the room, up and down, baseboards to ceiling. The upholstery is floral bland. I guess the management thinks it looks perky and has the power to brighten moods. I’m an authority on institutions catering to old folks at this point; numerous observations have me convinced that these places source the upholstery collectively, typing in floral bland in GOOGLE. All the furniture is veneered, just like my father’s face. Oak veneer chairs, tables and a remarkably ugly cabinet in which Daddy’s tweed blazer, button-down shirt, cashmere sweater vest and topsiders were hastily piled by my husband after he brought Daddy here to admit him. I was away. Somehow, Jim managed to get him here bare-bottomed, no pants, and with no AC adapter for his cell phone. Not that he needs these items now. Days ago, he’d asked over and over again for the phone to be charged so he could call Lee. Lee. Lee. Lee. A name I never knew before, but became so accustomed to hearing since being in this place with him, bedside. He never noticed his pants missing, or mentioned that.
I reach out and touch a silent Daddy’s hair. It’s so soft. The haircut looks trendy. Funny. I think of my best friend’s family back in France, my defacto family there that I miss so much. In my mind, I can just hear my young godson, Alain, amused, gleefully saying, “He’s got a coupe brosse – Bizarre!”A crew cut – unheard of in France for that generation. A style adopted by street gang members to look menacing in the tough banlieux. Hardly Aymar. He would have been horrified had he known that I thought his hair looked like a crew cut – or looked trendy. “Damn military,” he would have spewed, invariably segueing into a rant about the war in Iraq, directed at Jim. He never missed an opportunity to attack Jim on the Republican platform. I study his hair. It really does make him look trendy, strange for an old guy like Aymar. I certainly never thought he was trendy. Cool always, trendy, never.
Aymar was a purebred classic in the most classic sense. Cool and classic. I suppose classic prevailed but, way back when, my friends at boarding school thought he was the coolest dad of all the dads. My lost friend, Leslie, had surprised me with her reminiscence of him in a letter after years of silence, “He was so sophisticated and dressed so well. I remember him smoking that pipe, being so informed about history and politics, listening to classical music and painting those amazing miniature soldiers – but mostly I remember your father as being so much cooler than my parents – or for that matter – any of the other parents!” I remembered then how proud I’d been that he was a cool dad – and so different from the others.
I run my hand over his head, back of the skull, nape of neck, over the contour of his skull. I stop at his forehead, just above his dueling brows – one blond and one brown – an attribute that captivated – and sometimes frightened – toddlers when he practiced Pediatrics. Stroking his head like I’m doing is so intimate; it’s something I never would have dared in normal times. My mother was always saying that the contrasting eyebrows said allot about his temperament.
I remember his hair always being beautiful. This new white hair intrigues me, so sweet, like duck down, almost like a baby’s. Not really his. I’ve heard that it can be like they are reborn. The chemo treatment stops. The hair grows back soft, off the skull, sticking up straight – just like a baby’s. I suppose the baby analogy makes sense. I can’t stop stroking his duck down coupe brosse. His cranial vault (one of many medico-terms I stole from him) looks like that of a meek, needy bird, seemingly shorn. But his hair has grown out; it’s not been shorn. It’s so completely different from what he had just a month before, and so different from what he had six months before that, his crown of mature-male-model-with-full-head-of-hair mane that he wore in the many photos we have collected in boxes in the attic. Its color, today, is nothing like the silvery almond hull hue he has had for years. Pissuex (piss-colored) as he described his hair, in true grumpy-Gallic, Aymar form. Always fussing about something, my mother would say, even his good looks. But I always thought his hair was so lovely, easily-coiffed, neatly, but with no effort on his part. A swipe of the comb to the right, one to the left, and, voila! Grooming achieved. My mind traveled back to Aymar’s prime. “Your father is so distinguished!” I was caught off-guard in the bookstore, stopped by a silver-domed, generically preppy woman who looked vaguely familiar. “Does The Doctor buy ALL his cloths in Europe?” I nodded my gratitude, smiled weakly and turned to continue perusing the A to L section, Fiction, at Olsson’s, the local bookstore. The mystery lady continued. “Of course your mother is the chicest woman in Old Town,” worried that she might have offended me by slighting Mumy.
Only after we’d said our goodbyes and I’d gushed my thanks in a carefully self-trained show of gratitude did I recollect who the bearer of compliments was. I’d been gone too long. Over a decade, an ocean’s span and too much imbibing Cotes du Rhone in Parisian Cafes had fuzzed my memory cells. Somebody’s mother I assumed or maybe one of Daddy’s tennis partners’ wives. The tennis partners he never ever had a drink with after a match. It wasn’t so much that he was a snob, he was more a misanthrope than anything else.
My hand cradles his neck. His nape is warm, his skin dry, and its texture, like ancient papyrus. My fingers explore the peaks and valleys at the back of his neck. His pathetic thinness has transformed the cartilage into caverns where a spherical shape once held a proud head. I think of the fantastical rock formations of Bryce Canyon, a place that intrigued him for its scientific wonder and seduced him with its beauty. Most people knew him as a man of reason – a Cartesian through and through. He was a man of science, true, but he was acutely sensitive to beauty and poetry of nature and loved art – and of course, beautiful women. There was always that. I’m brought back to this Lee I don’t know and the telephone’s dead battery.
I pull back and look away from him, angry, the sting of remembering the ugly truths that stole my innocence, broke my mother and destroyed my family. I bite my lip and blink back a rush of tears. But forgiveness has long since installed itself in the continuity of our day-to-day lives. The wisdom that comes with adulthood has delivered compassion despite his faults that I explain away as normal blemishes of his male character. I now feel that he did the best he could as a father, given the circumstances.
My hand travels down his arm and I notice that the temperature of his body has dropped. My fingers trace dwindled muscle mass, then valleys of a cold, swollen hand that is capped by greenish fingers resembling rotten sausages. His wedding band compresses his ring finger. It is terribly swollen. Should the ring be cut off? There is a weird pudginess around it that is juxtaposed to the rest of his skeletal frame. The ring never looked quite right on his finger. I worry about his circulation causing gangrene. My mind plays tricks on me. The rotteness of my parents’ marriage becomes palpable in my throat and steals down my esophagus and makes me gag.
Seeing his sallow color, feeling his cold skin, I know it’s possible now – him dying, I never thought he would. I figured he’d outlast all of us. He’s such a pain in the ass, such a curmudgeon. The difficult ones always stick around to make your life a living hell. With his fucking moods, he’d always kept me hopping like an Indian circus performer dancing on hot coals, never knowing when the steam would spout. I’d be on pins wondering when the next temper eruption or mood swing would send me into a stress-propelled tailspin. Worse, my poor mother was his barometer. She spent her life balancing the weight of his mercurial moods, deflecting outside irritating elements, trying her best to shield his bad moods from those inevitable atmospheric pressures. It was high stakes balancing act on life’s delicate scales that left her suffering from terrible anxiety.
Lately, he’d been more difficult than usual so I’d been avoiding him, turning my back on what I imagined was another cry-wolf alert. Caller ID, “DADDY,” would signal the quotidian crisis. I’d ignore the call or return it as late as possible, hoping he’s be asleep. I didn’t realize his trumped-up problems were veiled SOS’, beseeching me to relieve the pain of his molting lungs, liver and bones. I was a bad daughter after being the everything daughter.
The smell in the room is rank and still – the odor of death – like nothing I have smelled before. I’m curious, is this what “the end” smells like? He’s on oxygen, clear tubes in each nostril. I wonder if it’s the same apparatus he wriggled out of the other day, annoyed at the nurse’s prognosis and call for oxygen. “Oxygen, hell, I don’t need any Goddam Oxygen!” He sniffed weakly at me but amazingly, the stick figure was still able to muster his usual bark and gesticulate in his habitual jerk and pitch move. The way he gesticulated with those wild moves to emphasize a point reminded me of James Brown. Jive James, who, at the end of his career, performed his signature gyrations woodenly, more like the motions of a manipulated marionette than a soul man.
And now, back to the present, the end, here with Jim, Alexandra and Gene, Daddy is dying. Dying for real. Aymar breathes in and out, long breathes, struggling. One eye is sealed shut by the sand man. Gummy tears have crusted and the seal will not be broken. But one eye is half-open watching me, hawk-like, making sure I’m still there. I try to close it with my forefinger but it resists, popping open. “Yes, I’m still here Daddy.” I whisper an inch from his enormous ear. Relentless, stubborn Aymar. I want him to wake and be like he has always been, wired, loud, cantankerous, difficult, aware of everything around him, smarter than everyone, and larger than life in every way. Life is slipping from him. The silence kills. He’s always been so noisy, angry and intense – always ready for a fight. With his family, in the best of times, he was mercurial, in the worst, he was explosive.
The breaths become short. He gasps. He heaves with movements of his chest that reveal pathetic, protruding ribs from beneath the hospital gown that is crisp, new, and smells of glue. Its newness smell offends me. A dark thought flashes through my mind that summons the image of a shroud, purposely camouflaging the shell of a departed soul. Then miraculously his breaths become normal. He breathes in and out, softly, peacefully. I turn to Jim and the others and say, “He’s breathing normally – look!” I’m euphorically drugged by my observation. They nod, glancing briefly at me with a look of, what? Pity? I bristle. They return their gaze to my father, brows furrowed, not convinced he’s improved, though I am. I think he’s out of the woods. He’s breathing normally, now. A nurse comes in the room and I repeat to her, louder than to my friends and husband, thinking she’ll understand, “He’s breathing normally! I don’t think he needs the oxygen anymore.” She just looks at me. Pity, again. Errrr.
I go back to my place at his side. I crouch closer to him, drawing his soft head into the cavern I create beneath my chin so that I can better feel his regular breaths on my neck. I cradle him for a minute, rocking back and forth, and whisper to him, “I love you, Daddy. Don’t go. Come on now. Snap out of it.” I’m mad. Slowly, I lower my head down to listen to his heart. The sound of his breathing is almost imperceptible. His breath releases wisps of air as light as those from brush strokes, minute gusts that only I feel, such is our intimacy. I know he loves me too much to leave me.
I remember his recent rally. He waited for me to return to die. I had recently returned from an ill-timed fall trip to Europe with my new step-daughter, Natalie. Had I known my father would begin the death march just as I took her on a trip, I wouldn’t have left. Weak and pitted against a then unknown projection of six months to live, Daddy rallied when he saw me, his middle-aged little girl. Barely through the door of his drab room, I caught his eye. He heaved himself up in his bed, pitching forward akwardly, so obviously thrilled. That mischievous smile of his spread across his scrawny face, enormous ear to ear. “Caro! You’re back! Ooohh, I missed you so much” He didn’t stop smiling, his eyes teary, squeezing my hand, arm and shoulder, trying so hard to hug the way he used to. He weakly asked about my travels, but was confused about where I’d been – Paris, New York, some far-flung exotic place?
The cancer had eaten his memory. Jim looked on. Later he told me, “He really loves you; it’s incredible how he reacted to your visit!” He was incredulous. “He didn’t light up like that when Aliette visited. Maybe you being home will make him turn around. Maybe it will buy him some time.” I studied my father who’d stopped beaming at me long enough to fit in a nap, his head cocked at an uncomfortable looking angle on the pillow. “Do you think he’ll make it to Christmas?” I asked Jim. Because his father had died of Cancer, he was my personal authority on all cancer victims. I needed him to assure me that Daddy would be with me for as long as possible, starting with the month-long stretch between, now, Thanksgiving week, and Christmas. He was studying my father who seemed to be in a rallying condition when he replied, “Well, it’s impossible to predict, but I think there’s a fifty-fifty chance,” He didn’t look convinced.
That had been six days before; an eternity.
The nurse inches her way in. I resist. I hate being pushed aside, scared of the distance and sure that ceding my place will endanger him. She gently coaxes me away and checks his pulse and heart. She purses her lips while pushing up her glasses on the bridge of her nose. She steps back, relieved, and lets me resume my place next to him. She leaves the room but doesn’t close the door behind her. I turn to follow her out with my glance but she’s gone and the door is only ajar now, shards of light from the brightly-lit hallway cut into the small space at the foot of the bed, pointing toward my father’s large feet that protrude from beneath the sheet. The shards of light lend operatic drama quality to the scene. Caravaggio light. His feet are spotlighted. For the longest moment of this interminable afternoon, I study not his face for signs of life and breath for its regularity, but another part of him – those enormous feet that seem to be on stage, stars of a Broadway show.
I think I’m losing my mind. I look up and lock eyes successively with Alexandra, Gene and my husband, Jim. They are gathered at the foot of the bed so naturally they look at me and try to capture my thoughts. I’m embarrassed, glad they can’t read my foot-fixated, crazy mind. I think of all the remarkable places where those feet have taken him throughout life, how proud I would be to stand in those enormous shoes of his. I look down at my size eights and feel small.
Stinky is curled in a corner, but pressed up next to Jim for comfort. I coax him over to Daddy’s bedside, draping Daddy’s stubby, greenish fingers over the bedside for him to smell. “Look, Stinky, it’s Daddy! You love Daddy, remember? Viens mon DiDi, viens…” Come my baby, come. Stinky, whose first language is French, slinks to my father’s bedside, head lowered, peering at me, his eyes sad. His non-verbal communication is clear; Do I have to, maman?
Stinky smells Daddy’s fingers and recoils. A sting of tears gathers in my eyes and a lump forms in my throat and quickly descends into my stomach. An ache overtakes my entire body. The smell. My dog has recognized death. He is scared of Daddy, who he loves. He doesn’t even know him now. Stinky finds refuge with Jim, firmly shutting both eyes and curling into a tight ball pressed so hard against Jim that Jim is cornered and can’t move. Minutes later, Stinky peers with one eye over the paw supporting his cocked head and studies me suspiciously, wanting nothing to do with me, now, or the science experiment on the bed.
I start to cry then. The innate sense of my dog finally convinces me. I was sure this was a bad spate, but not the end. It must be very close now. He won’t rally now, bouncing back like Sallie or Liz’s cancer-victim moms did. He won’t provide the surest capital one has in love – time. Minutes, hours, days become like currency in a recession. I am almost penniless.
I turn to Jim and the others. They know without me saying to call the nurse. She is there in seconds, almost as if she had been waiting for his death, the grim reaper on duty, just outside the door. She stands back in deference to me and my anger at my father. My sadness has turned to annoyance, then sheer pain and anger. I resist the urge to pound him and start crying inconsolably. “Goddam you, Daddy,” I repeatedly holler at him, louder and louder. “Goddam you, Goddam you, Goddam you! How could you do this to me?” I want to hit him but instead pound the side of the bed and the railing that guards him. He is leaning precariously to one side, sliding towards death. “You are tough, so tough. A tough guy. Come on. Shake out of it! Come back. Goddam you!”
Jim leans forward. He touches my arm, then softly strokes my back. I turn my angry, tear-seared face to him. He looks so sad – and worried. But he doesn’t touch me again. He knows I need to negotiate the end with my father – alone. Immediately, I turn back to Daddy, inconsolable and furious. I lose this battle with him.
Aymar was the one who was okay, who was supposed to live to a hundred and drive us all crazy with his formidable and un-relentless grouchiness. It was my sweet, easy, perfect mother who was sick, the one who was supposed to go first. She was the sick one, after all. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression – she had at least ten issues, illnesses or diseases. He’d been attending to her all this time, racing between the grocery store, the cleaners, the doctor’s appointments, and the pharmacy for regular refills for one of her ten prescriptions that never synced with other refills. He was so busy, so tired. But worrying was his main occupation – worrying about her. That’s why I’d had to give up my life in France; why we were always looking after her so carefully and never noticed he was so sick. He didn’t let us. Now, here he is inert on a hospital bed and she is most likely asleep in an apartment with Emmy watching over her.
The nurse takes his pulse and heart rate. She cocks her head to one side and then lowers it, in a gesture of confirmation. “His pulse has stopped.” She tells me. “He is sleeping.” I don’t understand the euphemism. “Sorry?” I squeak. Christ, all he’s been doing for 48 hours is sleep! Then she clarifies and, though annoyed at her choice of words, I do understand. I am still wary of her judgment or anyone’s, really. How can this be? There I’d sat on my birthday, in that silly trendy restaurant in Madrid. We were surrounded by unknown Texans whom my homesick Lone Star step-daughter had befriended when Jim broke the news to me on the phone. The experts said it would be six months. Then, when Natalie and I returned and life was supposed to get back to normal, they said four.
One week later, he lies with life seeped from him. Life hasn’t resumed, it’s slipped away. I feel robbed, violated. I look up and the world has changed colors. Daddy is still now but ensconced in my arms, his head on my chest; head tucked under my head, when I concede that his breath is not whispery but non-existent. I have nothing to compare this dying to so I fight the concession, sure I am wrong, as are those all around me. I have never lived a death before, never been with a dead person. It is odd how peaceful the process of dying is. He slips into a quiet state with a diminishing breath and then he’s gone. Whoosh, just like that. But no! He starts to move, rather violently. His arms flail at his sides and the hollow chest heaves up as if to say, I am not dead; I just wanted to shake things up a bit!
I am euphoric, high. The movements stop and he is still. One eye is half-closed as it has been all day. He’s looking at me through it, not wanting to let my sight slip from his view, even in death. Watching. He needs me to fight for him, with him. I’m sure that’s why he’s moving and still looking at me. We’re a team against all these naysayers who think he’s dead and just don’t understand how tough the Lechaux’s are, even in death. I think he’s alive, there’s been a mistake. Out of the blur and whizzing in my ears, the nurse’s voice loses static and the words are clear, “Muscle spasms, it’s normal.” I look at her for a second and then down at him again. I am sure that somewhere inside that inert body, there is life. It is impossible that someone with colossal stamina and stature can go so quickly, so inexplicably. Around me, the death-watchers gently pull at me with gestures that try to convey reason without words. “Come now…” “He’s in a better place you know. This is so much a better way to go…quickly, almost painlessly.”
Platitudes – God, they piss me off. They want me to let go and leave him behind but all I want is to keep running my hand over the fuzzy dome of soft silver that is his small head. I know if I keep him warm by contact, he’ll be alright. I rub his arms and the back of neck. I tell myself, he’s not gone; it was just a momentary loss of breath. This is a rest. He always took a nap after lunch, needed one even when he was fifty. He’d close his eyes and take a quick cat nap, even in strange places, in front of people – restaurants, church, airports, and movie theater queues. I imagine him embarrassing and annoying me with one of his rude outbursts. It is poetry to my subconscious: “To hell with manners, to hell with them, I’m tired, I’ve got to shut my eyes, catch a few zzzzzz’s, I’ll wake up in an hour or two – or when I damn well please, ready for the afternoon of my life.”
I bask in my delusion. This is no nap. Clarity seeps into my consciousness and the recent past comes into focus. The last week plays out like a wartime newsreel in my head.
The reality is by sheer force of will, Daddy chose to die – efficiently – the way he did everything else. I know he felt the alternatives were too grim. Diapers, hospice care, six months to live – screw that, he thought. To have my daughter attend to my every private need and then witness a filthy end, replete with my body being effectively turned inside out to reveal the rotting cells? And Aliette, what about Aliette in all this? She can’t survive the cinematic adventure played out in our living room where the drama of a lifetime would be featured in Technicolor.
Daddy loved irony. He always said Americans just didn’t understand irony like the British. Well, he got his dose. A perfect reversal of roles. Mumy was the sick one and he’d been her caretaker. Now he was going to die a grotesque death right under her nose. Fate had played a dirty trick and he wouldn’t be able to attend to my mother’s every need any more. He was the one needing 24-hour white-clad care, the hospital variety. And it was going to be right there in the comfort of their cramped apartment. The theater of their home. Lovely.
As a private person – a proud person – it was just unacceptable.
A career doctor, he saw the dark future ahead – spewed guts, morphine, hospital equipment, human smells that seem inhuman when emitted from a decaying victim. Nurses would enter the room with increased frequency, revolving doors of medical personnel with unfamiliar faces attending to the slipping-down life of a once great man. In his mind’s eye, he saw me cleaning him when he was soiled. It was unacceptable, his precious daughter cleaning up the dregs of a human being who happened to be her father. Aymar had finally been vanquished by the cancer the doctors said had retreated from its battle with his withered 85-year old body.
So when I had told him on day two of his final six days that he had six months to live, maybe four, he looked surprised. When I then told him on day three that the cancer had spread to his liver and lymph nodes and possibly to his bones, he took it like any other piece of bad news, eyes opened wide, eyebrows pitched high, practically connecting with the lower wrinkle of his forehead, mouth agape in a perfect small sphere of surprise, and a mild annoyance that the doctors hadn’t bothered to tell him themselves. After all, they were colleagues and that would have been the proper thing to do, professionally. Then I told him on day four that I was taking him home in a week, that I would be caring for him over the next several months. I’d decided on hospice care and found an organization that I thought would be good. He looked at me like he always did when we were just the two of us, with a mischievous tenderness that was displayed by a valiant effort to wink, then his eyes shifted sideways. I could tell he was thinking. He turned and smiled the warmest smile ever, “I love you, cocotte, you’re adorable.” An instant later I think, his decision to discharge me of my duties was taken although I didn’t know it at the time. I’m certain that he decided the effort to live wasn’t warranted. He knew Mumy would be safe and cared for by me. Comforted by that, he made his decision steal away the most significant individual I loved in my life, leaving a crater in my heart and chaos in my existence. In saving me, he eviscerated me. That was the night he spoke his last words to me. He didn’t know they’d be his last, nor did I. They were not poignant or heart warming or particualry earth-shattering, but they were true- blue Aymar. Next to Daddy, beyond the curtain, his roommate had tuned into The O’Reilly Factor. Daddy’s eyes were closed but he had a slight grin on his face, “Bill O’Reilly is an ass-hole,” he said, and he never uttered another word in his life.
He had waited for me to return from Europe and had listened to my bad news of his health. True to his will but against mine, he then said his goodbyes unbeknownst to me. Aymar, after all was Aymar. He called the shots. The world had always revolved around him. It was Aymar who decided it was time. Time deferred to Aymar.
Six days that should have been six months.