The wall feels cold against my skin, it fells rough. Yet I remain very still; should I move, or perhaps so much as slightly tremble, I would collapse. Very slowly I turn my head to look out the window at the end of the hallway; outside the sun is blazing, birds are chirping. I can see a small cat walking on top of the vestiges of the Roman wall that surrounds the town, and the hospital; a wonderful day of July in the South of France. I slowly detach myself from the wall, and take a few careful steps toward the window. I feel dizzy. I grasp the bars with my two hands not to fall, and repose my head between them. I stare at the parking lot in awe; I had forgotten all about the outside world. I don’t understand how Earth can still revolve. A bunch of tourists holding maps look at the Roman remnants and pose in front of them, smiling with glee as they take pictures in turn.
I absentmindedly stare at them, trying to remember life before cancer. Life before you got ill. Right now it feels as if it never were. I turn around and look at your door, a few feet away from me. 18, it says. I can’t go in. I am scared to go in. I can’t go in anyways because the red light above it is on, and the nurse’s cart is placed in front of it. I wish time would just stop. If I must go in there, and see you, I will fall apart. I am so cold that I think I will never feel warm again. A nurse comes down the hall, nods gently as if I were a sick puppy, but avoids looking at me in the eyes. Lately everyone in the hospital has been doing so.
I caught a glimpse of your ghostly figure as she opens your door. I believe they’re changing your diaper. I can’t believe you need diapers. They probably call them something else; you’re sixty eight years old so they can’t be called diapers anymore. Until yesterday, you didn’t need them. Up to two days ago, you didn’t oxygen either. And up to three days ago, you were actually awake, and you could talk to me. Four days ago we were sharing a strawberry pie on the side of your bed. Four days ago. How does someone get so sick in just four days? They told me that the first chemo would make you a little tired, but you’re not just a little tired, you’re slipping away from this world. And fast too.
The nurses leave your room one after the other, giving me this puppy kind of look, leaving the door half opened for me to go in. I take a few steps toward it, and grab the frame before I can even see you. I close my eyes. I don’t think my legs can carry me any further.
“Hi daddy,” I murmur. “It’s me … It’s me.” I’m not sure you know I am here. Someone gives a small tap on my shoulder.
“The doctor would like to speak with you in his office.” I turn around to face the only male nurse in the service. I don’t like him. I think he doesn’t like you. I let go of the yellowish door frame, close the door on the white shape you became, and obediently follow the nurse down the hall, my heart pounding in my chest, in my head.
I cannot comprehend what is happening, everything is a blur. When they told me you had cancer three weeks ago, they said that when they would start the chemo treatment, you would be better. Now they tell me that the chemo is making you sick.
Your doctor is such a kind, compassionate man. But I don’t want to see him. I don’t want to hear anything he has to tell me. I don’t want to know. I want to stay in this fog. Left in alone in not knowing, because as long as I don’t know anything, I can still believe you’ll be okay. Not knowing is much better, if I don’t know how bad it is, there is still hope.
And yet, halfhearted I sit in front of the doctor. He begins a long monologue, often stopping to cough a little, choosing his words carefully, and trying to explain things clearly, while showing some compassion. Knowing I was in the United States when you were first admitted in his service, he tells how you came to the hospital after passing out in your basement, which happened because the level of sodium in your blood was very low. For that reason, you were only allowed a few glasses of water a day for weeks. Your sodium deficiency led them to think you had liver cancer. The exams showed it had started in your lungs, and had spread to your liver, and so they started chemo. You also had a lung infection, but since you often had these, being that you were a smoker, they focused mainly on your other problems.
Your sodium level didn’t lower anymore but your kidneys suffered from the lack of water, and then the chemo killed so many white cells that they are barely any left in your blood; you now had pneumonia and a stomach virus because of it. They still can not give you too much water, because of your sodium level, and it is damaging your kidneys even more.
What the doctor is really doing in fact, is hiding behind long sentences to tell me the chemo has weakened your organism so badly that you are dying. And that there is nothing he can do now that will change this. Nothing can fix you. In fact, anything they do to treat one of your problems, worsen another.
That should have been enough to make me accept it and shut up. I suppose. Or maybe to make me burst into tears and leave the room sobbing. I don’t know what people are supposed to do when they hear that. But I watch ER and Grey’s Anatomy and House, so I just blankly started at him before suddenly interrupting,
“So now, since he was in hyponatremia, and you kept him in water restriction for so long, it was obvious that his kidneys were going to shut down. Knowing that, and considering he was already so weak, you could have easily guessed that his white cells would be destroyed faster than they usually are after this type of treatment and that it would make it impossible for him to fight off the infection he already had. So why do the chemo at such a strong dose?”
The doctor looks at me in shock, and leans backward, opens and shuts his mouth, and shallows hard.
“It probably was too strong, it was … indeed.” He finally admits. “We followed the protocol … we simply … followed the protocol. We had to attack this thing before he killed him.” He doesn’t seem to believe his own words.
“I would like to see his medical file.” I say firmly. He simply nods, gets up, goes around his desk with your file in his hand, and sits next to me.
“He is immunocompromised,” I say looking at your overly low white cell count. “If anyone so much as sneeze near him it could …” I pause.
“Kill him, yes.” He says. The doctor seemed tense. “It is very unlikely, considering the shape he is in right now, that he will make it through the weekend … I want you to know, I am very fond of your father, he is such a lively…” I look up at him and he pauses embarrassed, “kind man,” he finally says.
I don’t have the energy to be angry. Maybe later I will. Apparently you would have died in two weeks if they hadn’t done the chemo. Now you are going to die within two days. I leave the doctor’s office feeling empty. Trapped inside myself. They’re moving you to a new room, dad. You finally got your wish. A room all to yourself. No snoring neighbor in the bed next to you. Now we can stay with you night and day, if we want, until the end. And besides, the man who shared room 18 with you has said he is scared, and doesn’t want to see you die. Well that makes two of us.
Now I’m standing in front of your new door, number 4, nauseous. Japanese say number 4 is very bad luck. The light above it is on again. I am afraid it will go off soon and I will have to go inside. I am such a coward. I wonder what they are doing to you now. The hallway smells like hospital food. But you don’t eat anymore. Could they be changing your diaper again? Or maybe they’re tying your wrists to your bed again. Yesterday they explained to me that the sodium in your blood was so low, that it made you lose your mind, and that you tried to pull the IV off your arm. Maybe they are just washing you.
The red light above your door goes off, and out come the nurse and her aid. Again they try not to look at me in the eyes, and barely smile as they pass me. It is as if I am deadly contagious. I stepped inside the room; they have rolled the shutters down. I walk into the darkness, suddenly surrounded by a strong smell that reminds me of ammoniac.
“I’m back daddy,” I say softly. I don’t recognize my own voice. But I don’t even know if you can hear me. I don’t recognize you. This can’t be you. You look so lost and vulnerable. It seems that life has already left you. You are wrapped in a white hospital blouse, so skinny that you seem to be drowning in your light beige bed sheets. Your thin face has taken a grayish shade, and your eyes circled with a light nuance of purple are now perpetually closed. Your mouth is wide-opened, making your cheeks look even more hollowed. With every breath you take, a daunting gurgling noise comes from your chest as it barely raises and you cough and chock a bit.
I want to cry for help but I don’t know who to call. I am all the family you have left and I don’t know what to do; all I want to do is ask you for help, but you are slowly sliding away from me.
I untie your wrists, and put another pillow under your back so you can breathe better. I look around you, the oxygen tube is still plugged, and goes around your ears under your wrinkled neck, into your nose, the pouch of sodium is still there, but now a huge white pouch is attached to your IV as well. I mechanically walk toward it and read the inscriptions. I don’t trust them anymore. I need to check everything they do. But this is just food. Milky white liquid food.
I’m afraid to touch you and see my hand tremble. I’m afraid to speak again and choose the wrong words. I’m afraid to leave you and to never see you breathe again. I’m afraid to stay with you and see you die. And I don’t want you to be alone when you die.
It suddenly occurs to me I need to tell people. Friends, family, they need to know you’re dying. Maybe they’ll want to say goodbye. Although the last thing you need now is for more germs to get in this room. I don’t know what I should do. People will want to say goodbye. Maybe just family. And only if they are completely healthy. I don’t want you to get any sicker just so people can say their goodbyes. And I am not saying goodbye. Not today, not ever for that matter.
I call your brother, my grandma calls her son, and other family members. Grandma is actually trying to find someone who we will be able to wake up in the middle of the night, to come with me to the hospital when you die. I am scared to be alone with you when you die. What kind of grown up am I? And I can’t stop thinking about it too. Now I’m afraid to go back to the hospital and find you are already dead. My grand father comes with me, and sits next to you for a while.
They let me stay very late that night; I can’t do anything but hold your hand until visit hours are way past over. They tell me to go home and rest. They will call me if they feel you are passing over.
I get home and don’t know what to do with myself; I don’t want to eat or drink until you do, and I don’t want to sleep until you wake up. My grandma is a mess, I am sure you didn’t know your mother in law loved you this much. It’s Saturday night, so I watch Lost. Sayid’s girlfriend dies in the episode and I watch in awe as he buries the woman he loves and grieves. How do people do that? I don’t know how to do that. I don’t want to do that.
I call the hospital during the night, they tell me you are still breathing. I guess I couldn’t expect better news. I suddenly realize I’ve never been to a funeral. And who do I call anyways, when you die, I don’t know how the whole thing works. Will the doctor call the funeral home? Or will I have to do it? Who will be there to answer on a weekend anyways? And when you die, I will have nothing to wear. I get out of bed and throw all my clothes on the floor; nothing I own is black. All my summer clothes are pink or yellow. I go up the attic and go through my dead mother’s clothes. How come someone this depressed and suicidal didn’t own anything black?
I eventually find my grand-mother’s wedding gown, she dyed it black when her mother passed. I put it on and look at myself on the dusty mirror. I look just about ready for Halloween. You simply can’t die, I think to myself going back to my room. I am not ready, you just can’t to this to me.
I crawl in bed and crumble into tears. I find myself begging a God I never believed in to spare my father’s life, to let me keep my dad for at least another few months, or weeks. I’m afraid to fall asleep and be awakened by a call announcing me you died. But I do. Or must have for I dreamed I was sick instead of you. It was such a relief, it couldn’t be real life.
I can’t go to the hospital before 11AM. They wouldn’t let me in. So instead I go to church. I clumsily lit a candle, and apologize to God for not believing in him, and having said that the probability that aliens exit is stronger than that of God existing, and than I beg. Angrily, I beg. If he needs you up there, wherever it is, and whatever he wants to do with you, then he can have someone else. He can have me. I explain you just found love, you love your life, and you don’t want to die. But me, I don’t care that much. I can die right here and now, it really doesn’t matter. I shut my eyes tight, and clutch my fists, and beg again, for God to exchange us, to make me sick instead of you, let you live, and take me instead. It’s easier to die than watch someone we love die. I never thought about it before, but now I know.
I leave the church feeling rather stupid, and head for the hospital. Nothing has changed; they explain me as I arrive at the hospital. I decide it’s a good thing. I come near you and whisper,
“You’re going to prove them wrong; you’re stronger than they know.”
Your hand slowly raises and looks for mine. And I decide you are not going to die. I will just hold your hand and trust that life can flow from me into you. I won’t leave your side until you can open your eyes. And I do just that. For hours. For days I will. I just sit next to you, holding your hand and imagine all my energy glides inside you, until the hospital staff urges me to go home. They are so worried about me. They bring me water, and trays of food, and take care of me. Sometimes I wonder if they’ve forgotten you’re the one that is sick. I don’t need anything. I am just cold, freezing in fact; it is 100 degrees and I am cold. All I will ever take from them is a blanket. A year ago, we would go to the market together, you would buy fruit, apricots, cherry and your favorite, peaches. We would go to the restaurant, and even argue. And you’d be rude too. I miss you being rude or mad at me.
That Sunday your brother and his family come to say their goodbyes. I moisten your face a little and try to wake you. My voice is always strong and cheery. I don’t allow anyone to cry near you. Or to say negative words. Your brother tells me to leave you alone; I say I will not let you go. I have never been so bossy. You slowly open your eyes, and briefly greet your brother. That’s a great start daddy. They only stay a little while, and leave after telling you they’ll see you soon. Do they believe it I wonder? Is that how we are supposed to say goodbye? By pretending we’re not? I lie down on the chair next to your bed, grab your hand and put my head against your arm. I imagine you in your garden, watering the tomatoes you only grow for me. I have no energy left, daddy, do you? And what’s left of it I want you to have. And I don’t want you to be cold.
The night nurse wakes me a little before midnight, and asks me if I want to stay for the night. Just in case …. She starts. In case you die is what she means. If I stay here with you, it will mean I think you can die tonight. I don’t want to think that. I want to go home knowing in my heart I will see you in the morning. And that’s exactly what I tell you.
Monday is here already, and you are still with us. The doctor tells me you’re your white cells have risen, so has you sodium level. The nurses tell me we should try to feed you protein creams. In the beginning you chock, throw up, and fall back asleep. But now they trust me. And I trust them. I spend so much time here that I have come to know everyone in this service. I like them too. I know they care about you. They leave me with some protein creams and jellified water, and I feed you. One little spoon after the other. I will do that for months if I have to. Slowly pouring life back into you.
You are so dehydrated that we need to massage your legs and arms with moisturizing cream. We crush antibiotics into your soup and feed them to you with a spoon. Slowly the infection backs up, and you daddy, immerge. If you are much more awake now, you still don’t talk much, can’t stand up or eat regular food. But as days follow one another you seem to become stronger. To become yourself again. I feel I may be getting my daddy back.
“Isn’t she a pain in the ass?” you suddenly say one day to a nurse as I insist on feeding you more soup. I smile. This is my dad. Always the word that makes people laugh. They tell me it’s not over yet. You need to be hungry. To want to feed yourself. If you seem to get stronger by the day, your doctor is still a bit skeptical. Your blood tests come back a bit better every time, and you’re able to sit up by yourself, to stand even if we hold you. Only, you never want to eat.
My best friend Marie is here. And you know she is. I like the fact that you do. Had she arrived a week ago, you wouldn’t have been able to just see her. She and I are very optimistic. We never knew a human being could have such strength within himself. I look at you and I’m amazed.
“I am hungry,” you suddenly say to me one evening, “a couple of peaches would be nice.”
I look at you dizzy. You are hungry. I run down the hallway, burst open the nurses “authorized staff only” door, at come face to face with your bewildered doctor.
“He is hungry,” I cry out of breath, “he wants some peaches.” The doctor’s face lightens up and he tells me to choose them tender and to peel them for you. I run to the car, and to the store. It’s almost 7pm and everything in the village will be closed soon.
Moments later you hungrily devour your peaches; around your bed are your smiling doctor, and every staff member working that night in the service. Marie is here too; as she watches you I can see tears in her eyes.
“I am going to the bathroom,” I manage to articulate as I walk toward the door. My voice is hoarse. I swallow hard. Marie nods; I know she understands. I look back at this little scene. Take a mental picture of it and slowly close the door on it; my dad, glee in his eyes, sitting up on his bed, juice running down his chin, happily chews and holds in his hands a couple of peaches.