There are things I remember. It was April 1, a Tuesday. It was the first day of a new semester, and I was in a good mood. It might have been raining, or dark. I don’t recall. It might have felt like spring. I got the call on my way home. Most nights it takes two hours from campus to my front door, and it had been about an hour and change when “Mom Cell” appeared on my screen. I didn’t answer. The bus was in Chinatown. It was packed. Loud. I was crammed into a side seat in the back. They were supposed to be in Europe, and if they were back by now, the call was just to tell me they were home. I let it go to voicemail. They weren’t. For some reason I checked the message. My heart stopped. I remember that. I felt forced to stay put. I wanted to jump and scream, but I had to keep waiting till the bus slowly unloaded over several miles, and I was home.
It’s a blur, but it must have been the next day. It couldn’t have been that night. I bought a last-minute red-eye and I was on BART in the early evening, making my way down to SFO. I needed something to focus on and so I listened to Beck’s Morning Phase in its entirety. It was perfect. It was the exact soundtrack for this exact moment, especially as I looked across the carpeted car and the faces downcast or outcast. I remember thinking to myself, “I am a son going to see his father die. This is what happens in life, and now it’s happening to me.”
It was as clear as that. As emotionless as that. I felt no judgment nor any need to judge. BART took exactly as long as it needed to take, and I was at the airport, trying to enjoy the melodrama of ordering my dad’s favorite beer at the bar. It cost $9. I drank it too slowly, and soon enough it was time to board. I don’t recall speaking to anyone, nor anyone speaking to me.
I landed in Newark the next morning. It felt like New York, but forgotten. Things seemed loud and foreign, even in the near-empty ground floor. My bag arrived but my mom didn’t answer her phone. I waited for an hour as I looked out into the morning and wondered if my dad had passed through those doors as he was rushed to the hospital. The details are, of course, his business, or our business, but it’s no secret that it was bad. He was, very nearly, dead. Both when he was taken from the airplane and this morning, when I was only a few miles away with no one else to call and no idea where to go.
I eventually found a cab. He didn’t talk to me, though he overcharged me. I half-heartedly found myself and yelled at him, or lectured him, about taking advantage of people. He didn’t care. I don’t remember if I cared. I was out $20, but money meant nothing. Not much meant anything. I was at the hospital, and far from coming to see things end, it felt as if things were just starting.
I remember my mom looking older than I’d ever seen her. And smaller. I remember my father’s bloated body. The many tubes. The breathing machine. Time runs together. He woke up at one point, and I’ve never–in my life gone by, nor in anything I ever hope to encounter again–seen any living creature as scared as he was as he looked at me. He suddenly had strength and pushed himself up in bed. Away from me. Seeing me raised something in him. He shouldn’t be here, he was thinking. I was thinking. I remember, over the near-week I was there, him slowly getting better, not dying, not recovering; two steps forward, one back. Being alone in the room with him. Not sure what to say. Feeling protective, but also like I should be protected. As if by reverting to a needy child, I could bring him back. I remember going alone to visit him in dialysis. I sat next to his bed as his blood ran through a humming machine next to me. This was near the end of my stay (I had to get back to work, and my family) and he seemed strangely lucid. We talked, but eventually he was too tired. And cold. I urgently asked a nurse for a blanket, hoping that that would be the cure to everything.
Months later he revealed that he didn’t remember anything about that day. It was, perhaps, my one calm memory from that time. Once he told me this, the details began to fade for me, too.
Meanwhile I cared for my mother, who was injured in an unrelated fall, and could only move across the linoleum floors at a snail’s pace with the help of a walker. We were staying in nurses’ old rooms. Thin blankets and stained floors. There was nothing to eat and seemingly nothing around the hospital. We ate in the same small diner on premises for every meal. Late one night needing to escape the inevitability of sadness and frustration I was feeling in my father’s room I went down to get a coffee. The young woman who worked there saw me, and when I waited at the counter for the chef to come out and charge me my meager sum, she waved him off, saying, “He’s fine.”
It was the single most generous thing anyone’s ever done for me. I wanted to cry, but as was the case for that entire week, I didn’t. The next week, when my mom was still there, essentially sentenced to the purgatory of fluorescent lights and waiting room TVs, the same woman walked her to her table. I can only imagine she wouldn’t let her sit down until she had wiped the spent salt grains from the formica. My mom, no doubt grateful, still eased herself down and ate alone.
Personal tragedy is difficult to communicate, especially in hindsight, especially when ostensibly everything worked out. People lived. We all went home. We joke about hating Newark. It’s a distant, if forgotten, memory. But in those days, I felt like I could see for the first time in 360-degrees. I saw myself simultaneously as a child and as an adult. I saw myself living the life that I had only seen in movies or through a telescope lens. I saw control and chaos, and the utter despair in realizing how fragile love is. How temporary life is. How alone we really are.
It would be weeks before I’d give in and let myself feel all of this. It would also be weeks before my dad was let go from yet another hospital. Weeks before my mom could feel a relative peace. Spring slowly slowly turned into summer, but not without a bitter fight. It wasn’t easy or quick. It felt like a tantrum.