In the last conversation I ever have with my father, he tells me that I am so much like him. Maybe too much.
“I was so confused when I was your age,” he says, his voice a thick rasping around his tracheotomy tube. “I didn’t know which way was up.”
I sit at his bedside, picking at my already bleeding cuticles. The peeling vinyl from the green dining room chair is digging into the backs of my thighs but I stay rooted, staring across my father’s flesh as if it doesn’t exist. After three years of ignoring his deathbed nakedness I have become quite adept at averting my eyes. Anyway, my gaze becomes fixed to the curling lips that whisper word after word of a lecture even I know I’ve needed for quite some time. It’s the only way to really know what he is trying to say.
I don’t know when I last spoke to my father. Maybe we have never actually spoken before at all.
I nod along as he says I shouldn’t have run away from home again. He tells me to be more understanding of my mother. She doesn’t know what to do with me. This is so hard for her.
I don’t tell him that I am tired of understanding. Or that I wish Mom would just ignore me full-time instead of only most of the time. Or that my friends are helping me through all of this bullshit. I only listen, or at least I pretend to.
Dad doesn’t mention Josh. I wonder if he knows. I wonder if he and Mom realize that my boyfriend has really died and I am going crazy. I wonder if they know that this is my life. That Mom was the one who kicked me out; told me not to come back. I wonder if my father tells her to understand me. Or to at least try.
He is talking too much, the effort of this heart-to-heart straining his lungs, his energy, and he begins coughing. He purses his lips around a wad of phlegm and I spring from my seat. I move quickly to the other side of the hospital bed and pull the slender straw from its rest. I flick a switch and my father’s suction machine rattles to life. I place the straw against his lips and he parts them. I push the straw gently into his mouth, emptying it of the phlegm that would drown him if no one was here to perform this little routine.
I rinse the straw in a glass of water on his bedside table and turn off the machine. I look back into my father’s face, wondering if there is more to be said. I look to the torn dining room chair on the other side and think that if there is to be more talking, I’ll have to trade it for the one with the bent leg instead. Wobbling will be better than having my legs sliced into by vinyl.
“Anyway,” Dad rasps, his voice faint. “Thank you for coming home.”
I look down at the metal railing of his bed, ashamed. I nod, wishing I had some kind of response. But what should I say? You’re welcome? I’m sorry? Either one would be untrue.
Dad’s eyes are slits behind heavy, puffed lids. His eyelashes touch and I notice that they’re still so thick and black. Looking at him like this, at only his face, he looks just like Dad in all the pictures. The Dad embedded in memories of a thousand weekend naptimes when we’d all fall asleep in the big bed upstairs after a whole morning spent clinging to his back in the swimming pool down the street. The Dad we knew was dying, though we pretended it would never actually happen.
I lift the chair from the floor, quiet like we have to do most everything now, but Dad’s eyes open anyway. We glance at each other and I put the chair back onto the fading green carpet. I rest one bare knee on the seat, avoiding the jagged gash exposing graying cotton beneath peeling vinyl.
The front door creaks opens and Grandma ushers my brother inside, telling him not to just leave his slippahs right inside the door. A moment later Evans is standing in front of Dad’s bed.
“Can I watch tv?” he asks.
“Go ahead,” Dad replies.
My father and I exchange glances. The last one we will ever share.
“Okay,” he says.
“Okay,” I answer, even though nothing has been for years.
image of words on a page by Kasharp via Wikimedia Commons