Pain was its own teacher, and there wasn't any way to learn how it worked but to be visited. If the visits weren't right on top of each other - if they were far enough apart so you could forget the way it came but close enough to remember it went away - you could learn to ride it out. - Pete Dexter, Deadwood.
My father sobs.
"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want."
The old man cries, as Pastor Bob recites the Twenty-third Psalm.
"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadth me beside still waters."
Dad's head waters every time Pastor Bob prays. Tears gush over porcelain cheeks that glisten.
"He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake."
Dad soaks his pillow case. I can't bear to see him cry.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."
My head bowed, I am uncomfortable holding Pastor Bob's hand. Don't even know the man.
"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over."
Mother's face trickles. A single, slender crystal tear torn loose, slowly traces fifty years' troth across a suddenly lonely landscape, looking very much like the rest of her days. And nights.
"Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life."
I don't listen. I can't cry. Wish I could scream. I pray instead: Please, Lord. Please don't let this guy sing Amazing Grace.
"And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
It could be worse. Following the quadruple bypass, Dad's complexion has taken on a waxy angelic tone.
Following the strokes, he's finally showing a sense of humor. Actually much funnier than before he went out of his mind. The brain specialist said the enhanced wit was a not uncommon result of "a right hemisphere event."
For example, Dad sat up, out of a deep sleep, looked around vacantly, and shouted, "Too much hocus-pocus! Not enough magic!!" Fell back, snoring again before his head even settled onto the pillow.
Footsteps pattered hurriedly down the hallway.
A single-file parade of white uniforms filled the white room. Surrounded the white bed. Hovering white.
Dad sat up again, looked around the crowd...slowly... his eyes narrowing in focus. "Yuppie entrepreneurs!!!," he yelled, falling back on his pillow.
And, most importantly, none of his maladies are hereditary.
One day he disinherited me.
"You can't do that. I'm your only surviving child," I reminded him. "I'm Junior, your first born."
He got all serious, Robert Mitchum in a gangster movie. "I'm leaving everything to my church."
"You don't have a church."
That cut him short. His eyes glazed over like an icy interstate highway. He drifted off, staring into the distance. Lost.
I went looking for him. Jabbed right where he lives.
"You mean to tell me, I don't get your valuable paperweight collection, one from every state, where you turn it over, shake it upside down, then turn it rightside up and chalky flakes fall on some cheesy liquid plastic scene that's supposed to remind you of some long-forgotten joy ride or best forgotten family vacation!?" I bellowed myself breathless, like I actually cared.
So even a dead man could hear.
"No snow globes!?!?!?!?!?"
No answer. Perhaps, I thought, worried now, I should hold a mirror to his mouth. Then I saw his chest move up and down. Ever so slowly.
He's in there somewhere.
Then a wheeze.
"How about your coin collection? All those bright, shiny silver dollars in the thick navy blue folders. That's gotta be worth a fortune."
"They're worth plenty. You can just forget my coins."
Finally, it was time to go.
Mother asked Dad if it was okay to kiss him goodbye.
"No," he says.
I saw she was hurt. I tried to lighten the mood.
"How about me?," I asked, noisily pursing my lips into a grotesque, fishy O-shape.
"You least of all," he growled.
The old man wasn't going to get away from me so easily. Not this time. With more wires coming out of him than a home entertainment center, he's far less elusive than he once was.
There was nothing else for my dad to do but kiss me on the lips.
"No tongues," I warned.
I kissed my Dad on the lips. Surprised him.
Saying goodbye this last time, we simply puckered up and planted smooches directly upon one another's grizzly face like it was normal.
Like John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart swapped spit all the time, too.
"Can't imagine life without your father," Mom sighed.
"Try," I told her. She looked at me like I had said something insane.
I told my Mom I like kissing my Dad.
"Me, too," she said, perking up noticeably. "You know, he's only told me twice in fifty years that he loves me. And I had to coerce him both times."
Followed by a vaporous sigh. "Three times, counting right before this last surgery."
"Four times," I told her. "He said it right before your last surgery, but you weren't awake to hear."
Mom had brought their wedding portrait trying to goose Dad's memory. They got married, it was the Christmas weekend, not so many months after the end of WWII, the second war to end all wars.
Both of them look eager.
It's a black and white photograph. A busty virgin, she was young and looked younger, full of promise. She's wearing a fuzzy suit. Her right breast is covered with a floral corsage. Atop her head sits a fancy bonnet, looking just like a flattened hot water bottle.
He was the dashing sergeant on a three-day furlough, a decade her senior, with a full head of dark hair, slicked straight back. Dad's in his dress uniform. His left chest festooned with military decorations.
Fifty years later, they were still holding hands as they strolled along the beach, watching the sunset.
We had always just assumed he was immortal.
I can't stop thinking. Every time I look at him, I see myself in thirty years.
So, I go next door, to the family waiting room, where a murder trial is playing on the television. A woman, about my age, is on the phone.
Turns out she is comparison shopping for cremations. Apparently, prices have skyrocketed in the last two years since she made arrangements for her late stepmother.
Now, her father's got two days to live and she's got a sales meeting coming up. You wouldn't believe the price difference from one crematory to another.
Her last call is to her own doctor's office. She needs to renew her valium prescription before the weekend. Just in case.
Next day. I can't help thinking I am too young, much too young still, to be holding my mother's hand at a time like this.
I am holding Mother's hand, as we watch Dad, tubes everywhere, try to remember his own name.
"It's the same name as mine," I tell him, raising my voice.
He doesn't hear so well with his good ear and he's part deaf in the other. Mother left his hearing aids at home because, as she said, more than lives can get lost at the hospital.
"The same name as mine," I repeated.
Dad gave Mother, tears everywhere, this thousand-yard stare. Like hollow-cheeked Jews outside Nazi showers.
He looked right through me.
"And who are you?," he asked.