Until he lost consciousness eight hours before his death, my father was lucid. He did have night terrors, usually around 4:00 a.m., when, animated by morphine dreams, he’d rise cackling from his bed, hairy arms flailing, and bolt for the door. My mother and brother had to wrestle him down. Once as I watched this, my father peered at me over their shoulders and said in a thin, watery voice, “Please help me.”
Later, when the sun came up, he was sharp, awake, and wisecracking, seemingly unaware of what had happened a few hours before. “I need to get spruced up,” he’d say, “and get ready for my day.” In the last weeks of his life, he devoted much time to propriety. He insisted upon shaving himself, combing his own hair, wearing clean pajamas, and having bay rum massaged into his scalp and shoulders so he wouldn’t, he said, “smell like a patient.” Although too weak to walk, he refused a bedpan and demanded to use, alone, unaided, the portable toilet beside his bed. I complained this was dangerous. My mother said, “Your father has a sense of pride.” (One morning I heard him struggling to get to the toilet and rushed into the room to help. “Get out of here,” he barked. “And close the goddamn door behind you.”)
Eventually he could neither stand on his own nor clean himself, and there came an afternoon when I had to help my father do things he’d always done alone. I unbuttoned his pajamas, lifted the flannel from his pale skin. I knew what I was doing was irrevocable. I can still see with photographic clarity the gray hair on his chest, his appendix scar. I knew then I would always love him more in certain ways and in others always love him less.
The Bible’s “Thou shalt not uncover thy father’s nakedness” refers not only to the obvious, incest, but also to other dishonor. The Hebrew word used for this nakedness, ervah, comes from a root meaning “to empty,” “to raze to the ground,” “to leave desolate.” The act of gazing at a naked parent is, at heart, destructive.
My father lay before me on his bed. Despite the cancer filling his chest, he hadn’t lost much weight and still looked thickly built and strong. I washed him with a sponge and for the first time looked at his vulnerable body and took full measure of his viability, much the same way he must have done when he bathed me as a newborn. I lifted his legs and cleaned him, much as he had once done for me. I could no longer love him so much as my protector but as someone who needed my protection, which is, perhaps, a greater love.
I tried to get it all over with as quickly as possible. Wringing out the sponge, sloshing water, I chattered and chattered. I talked about the weather. I told jokes in that loud clear voice people use when addressing foreigners who don’t speak English. Satisfied my father was clean, I dressed him in fresh underwear and pajamas. Only as I was tucking his blanket around him did I notice he was crying. He grabbed my hand.
Our geography had changed. For so long I had looked up at him, and he now looked up at me, at my big, round face, hovering above him, balloonlike, against the flat white ceiling. My voice came from above, his from below. Did he search my face and voice for reflections of his own? I’ll never know. Exhausted, he drifted off to sleep stroking my hand, murmuring, “My boy, my boy.”
Toward the end I had to lift my father from bed to wheelchair and back again, and I felt pleasurable awe in his lightness, in my strength, in this new sense that my heavy past could be picked up and set down as needed. At the same time there was an unbearable tenderness to having my father cradled in my arms.
The last time I lifted him, he was sitting in his chair and said, “I need to rest.” I put him on his bed. He went to sleep. We could not rouse him. First his feet went cold, then his calves, then his thighs. My sister-in-law, a difficult woman, petted his forehead and crooned, “It’s all right. You can go now. Just let go,” as if my father were still breathing for lack of anything better to do.
At the time I was born, or so the story goes, I took a long time to breathe. There had been complications. It was touch and go. I was an odd, unhealthy color. “Your father held his breath too,” my mother told me. “I thought he was going to faint.” My father was 42 when I was born, my mother, 28. He’d already been married once before. For him my birth was a clear break with his previous life and, in a very literal way, a new beginning. Thirty-three years after he stood waiting for me to start breathing, I knelt beside his bed, waiting for his breathing to stop.
This article is part of the Father's Day issue. To read additional articles from this issue, click here.