Often I catch a memory from his last days, a scrap of detail—the tremolo of breathing machines, tawny hospital corkboards purposefully left undecorated due to the morbidity of the upcoming Halloween holiday—and hold it in my head until the pain leaks off. I keep thinking if I write his death in order, some sense will come to what happened. But it is hard enough finding a place to start.
I didn’t want to just drop you there: a cold-snap Friday night in October, 2012; a crowded, blue-lit room of the ICU at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati; my father sitting upright with an oxygen mask strapped over his mouth, his blue eyes moving so attentively to all of the conversations around him—doctors, nurses, relatives, does he or does he not want to be resuscitated in the case he has to be put on life support?—that it seems to me impossible that he is going to die. I wanted to begin by telling you about the phone calls I received that afternoon in my apartment in Manhattan, each one more frantic and distracted than the last, “they say you should come home immediately,” “no, not tomorrow, not on Monday, they say right now.” I wanted to describe my pleas to the Delta Airline representative while I shoved clothes—any clothes, senseless clothes, black clothes because someone had told me I might need clothes for a funeral—into my suitcase or how I couldn’t catch a cab at rush hour to make the 7:10 flight so I had to take the F train to LaGuardia and cried without shielding my face in front of the other passengers who kept their distance on the long commute home from work. I wanted you to hear it from me that I was cold and rational and monosyllabic in the car ride from the airport and concentrated not on the frozen Ohio River scenery but on the glowing dashboard clock. I wanted to move you slowly toward that room in the ICU, for you to feel the hug from my sister in the hospital corridor that seemed to ask me to save her from a fire, the ice patches in the parking lot, so that when you finally got to that room and heard my mother say to me over my father’s legs, “you need to say whatever you want to say to your father right now, any last words you need to tell him,” you’d understand exactly how I felt.
I have been unable to describe the chronology that led to that moment of being told to say all I’m supposed to say to a parent before he dies because there is no real preparation for saying goodbye to a parent. No event that leads to it makes it any clearer or more pitiable or smarter or profound. Take a minute or an hour or a year. Gather the choice sentences. Add love and gratitude and a few diplomatic apologies and maybe a memory, a summer trip to Tennessee, cross-country skiing over the golf course of the country club we didn’t belong to. None of it is ever enough.
My father, despite the many doctors’ prognoses, did not die that evening. I slept on the plastic recliner next to him that night and the next and the next, taking shifts with my sister for a week, holding his hand amid the tubes and gasping machines of room B707, waiting for the moment I prayed against. This death is so personal it lapses into the general: I brought family photo albums and opened them on his blanketed lap, I smuggled in coffee for him to sip through a straw, I read him the last chapter of the paperback CIA thriller he was reading at home before he was taken away in the ambulance, absurdly worrying he would die without discovering the mystery’s solution.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Later we were told he had beaten most odds by living as long as he did. He had been sick for three years and maybe, theoretically, for thirty. A cause of death is rarely an accurate summary of a life, but in my father’s case it serves as a decent indicator of how he spent his years. Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that I was told during one of his early chemotherapy sessions to picture not as a throng of chestnut tumors but as an octopus expanding its tentacles through the chest. No one deserves lung cancer anymore than they deserve to be eaten by a shark, but mesothelioma seems to me a particularly unfair outcome to a life spent on the grind. He never smoked. My father ran and was the principle worker in a small company that installed industrial flooring, often in messy, half-completed construction sites. At some point, and perhaps on multiple points, he breathed fibers and dust from asbestos, which collected like sediment, waiting decades to devour its host. My father’s cancer was a result of his job, his 5am to 5pm, summer, spring, winter, fall, the price of a house in an affluent neighborhood in Cincinnati, two children, a dog. It had been work that killed him and he worked even off the clock, stripping scrap wire for its copper as he sat watching television in the kitchen until the nightly news came on. We had not been very much alike. I was a boy very much in need of an art form, and he was so much a man that he didn’t feel threatened by having a son like that. An embarrassing memory that I cringe at writing down: in third grade, I was so obsessed with one pop song by Cyndi Lauper, I wanted a copy of the magazine the singer references in one of the verses. My father drove me to the local bookstore and upon my insistence went up to the clerk and asked if they had Blueboy magazine. The woman at the desk drew her “uhhh” back deep. “No. We don’t carry that. Um, I think that’s a gay porn magazine.” Need I remind you this is Southern Ohio in the 1980s? Did I tell you he grew up slinging hay on a farm on the border of Indiana? There is a moment when a minor incident in a local bookstore can balloon into a demonstration of the limits of paternal love. But standing at the counter of Little Professor Bookshop my father didn’t stiffen. Not a fidget, not a blush. He turned to me and shrugged. “They don’t have it. Sorry, Christopher.” Writing that memory now, I blush. I’m the one who’s sorry. And I forgot to tell you in the hospital that when grandpa died I watched in the cemetery the way you put your hand on his coffin, an open-palm gesture so smooth, so generous, it stayed in my mind as the definition of respect. I put my hand on your wood coffin that way too but it lacked your ease. I didn’t do it right.
In that week in Intensive Care, we ran out of brighter things to talk about. The trees outside the window were still green but the leaves were falling in squads. My mother, my sister, me, we all knew we should take longer breaks, go home, sleep, be silent alone somewhere else. But death holds people hostage, it won’t let anyone walk away. We lingered and napped as the nurses drew blood and changed the IV and catheter, and our eyes cased the machine that read the oxygen in the blood, hoping the number would stabilize. We directed our prayers and appeals to these machines, touching them lightly as if they would do us magical favors if we were soft and entreating enough. The oxygen masks got smaller; he was improving; one specialist discussed the possibility of bringing him home. But caseworkers brought a different message via laminated folders filled with pamphlets on area hospices and “end-of-life decisions.” We watched the television suspended in the corner, endless rounds of news from the outer world: Felix Baumgartner makes record-setting jump to earth from outer space; a prostitution ring in a Maine yoga studio is broken up; fire-hot Cheetos are banned in school lunch rooms for being too addictive; the Obama-Romney “binders” debate; the first male model appears on The Price is Right. All of this made as much sense as anything said to us by the physicians who breezed into the hospital room like Roman emperors or the nurses who did the real work of comfort. We held out hope, we lied to ourselves constantly, we spoke of Christmas together, New Years Eve, converting the downstairs living room into a bedroom, we talked of spring. I drove at midnight down empty Columbia Parkway for my turn to sleep next to him, staring at the condensed Cincinnati skyline, the city that always sleeps, and at the hospital snack bar when I started crying the woman behind the register with wild eyes told me, “everything is going to be fine, it’s all going to work out, there is a plan for us all,” and I thanked her and recognized her symptoms because I shared them: she was absolutely out of her mind.
I once asked him if he was frightened. “Are you frightened? Are you scared of dying? I’m serious.” In a moment of stupidity, I thought he too might be tired of the constant skirting of the subject. He looked at me peculiarly, tightened his dry mouth under the mask, and in his only act of annoyance, sighed and said “yes.” Sometimes at night he’d wake up and try to unstrap the tubes, confused as to where or who he was, and I had to tell him to lie back down, and he did. He wasn’t good with drugs. He never had recreational drug stories, my father. He tried to write notes to us to communicate abstract and specific worries, “is this right” or “how do I get microwave” “not a pill” or “blue note books in dining room.”
On day eight they downgraded my father to a private room outside of the ICU. He only needed an oxygen tube in his nose by then. Spring started seeming like a realistic topic. Going home, copper wire. I had worn the black clothes for a funeral every day and had read the few Agatha Christie novels that persisted in my old childhood bedroom. I was only going back to New York for a few days. I was going to get decent winter clothes and to gather work from my office, and then I’d be back. My leaving appeared to make him less anxious, no one leaves if you’re going to die any second, any day. I remember him lying on the bed, holding the oximeter clip on his finger that measured his heartbeat and oxygen supply, smiling, telling me to be safe. “I’ll see you again,” I said, “so soon, four days time. I’ll be back before you know I’m gone.”
A hurricane called Sandy happened. A blackout of cell phones. Unable to get a flight out of New York, I called him from payphones in the East Village until they stopped taking quarters and died. A week later, I booked myself back on the first flight to Cincinnati on Sunday morning and called him from my cell, “hold on, I’m coming. It was a very serious storm. I swear that’s why I wasn’t there sooner. People were killed in it. The city went black.” I spoke as if I were talking to a child, because I couldn’t gauge from his distant okays and all rights if he understood that I would see him in four hours in the hospice they had brought him to. I got the call from a friend of the family while sitting at the departure gate.
What had I told him that first night, those last words which weren’t the last? “Don’t…you can’t…how can you….you’re the cornerstone, we’re not a family without you…I love you…I always have, you know that, so much.” When he came home from work, he smelled of the metal inside a toolbox. I had been a child for too long.
Christopher Bollen is the author of the novel The Destroyers, as well as two previous novels, Orient and Lightning People. Based in New York City, he regularly writes about art, literature, and culture. He is currently Editor at Large at Interview Magazine.
Banner photography credit: Jonathan Crow / Flickr.