by Karen Watkins
Father appeared to be sleeping on the hospital bed, now a prominent feature in our family living room. I fixated on a tube coming out of a hole carved into the base of his throat. As gruesome as it looked, I repressed the vomit forming in my gut, knowing he had to have it to breathe and speak.
“Oh hi Belle, come closer,” he wheezed through the tube. Hearing his voice through the stoma shattered my heart, and I fought back tears. He had been diagnosed with throat cancer, yet he never smoked or drank alcohol. What was I facing having started the cigarette habit as a teen?
The radiation treatments were successful, and we were given the hopeful prospect of cancer-free for five years. Less than five years later, his oncologist determined that cancer had erupted in my father’s lower bowels, requiring surgery and a colostomy to replace his natural process of eliminating waste. The horror of witnessing the assaults to my father’s life by the tortures of cancer, the subsequent treatments, and the side effects of painkillers seared a hole in my heart that would never heal.
I spent months in that hospital room massaging his neck enabling him to sleep. I couldn’t remove my hand, or it would wake him up. Losing all feeling in my hand and arm, I rested my head on the bed next to his shrinking body. I muffled my sobbing, as the aching pulsated through my arm, across my shoulder and down my back. “Oh Lord, how can I do this?” I whispered. I loved him, and my sacrifice to massage his neck and perform other comforts for him seemed meaningless in the grand scheme of life. I had to restrain any sensitivity to his body in order to give him some relief from the surgery. Putting Calamine Lotion on his testicles and anal pore repulsed me at first, but when I realized his willingness to suppress his embarrassment to gain comfort, I knew I had to muster up the courage to consider them simply body parts.
Screaming, “Belle, the spiders – please brush them off. Help me!” Painkillers had induced frantic deliriums. The hallucinations – I could do nothing to rid him of the horrors he believed he saw. I witnessed terror in his eyes I had never seen. Surgery after surgery left him missing parts but not cancer free. Each surgery left him just one step closer to death, certainly less of a fully functioning man.
The time for heroics ceased the morning of May 25, 1971. All the lifesaving options, the damaged organ removal surgeries, the devastating cancer killing radiation, the grueling experimental chemotherapy, had done nothing but postpone the inevitable – death.
“Dr. Black, don’t you think it’s time to stop the procedures and give my father some form of human dignity, some form of respect in dying?” I pleaded. “For heaven’s sake, he just needs some peace.”
“I believe we still have a chance to heal him,” Dr. Black claimed.
I must admit we also had clung to the hope of victory during each procedure. A week later, the team of oncology doctors acquiesced to my father’s futile chance for survival. I clinched my jaw keeping the anger, like Mount Vesuvius, from erupting, feeling I needed to spew blame on someone for the months of watching my father’s excruciating suffering.
“You need to take Charles home now. Hire some nurses to assist you in caring for him in his final days. There is nothing left for us to do,” mumbled Dr. Black, unable to look me in the eyes as he spoke. His demeanor, sagging shoulders and downcast eyes, suggested he was defeated, that his Hippocratic oath had not dubbed him God, able to heal my father. Somehow I felt he had failed himself more than he had failed any of us. At that moment, my wrath over his unrelenting determination to beat this unconquerable disease metamorphosed into a morsel of respect.
I told myself that moving back home would open up the option for my mother to verbally and emotionally abuse me again. Moving out had spared me the mantra she spoke for as long as I can remember. She never wanted a girl. She only wanted sons. I had been the object of her wrath over whatever. A lifetime of rejection had left its own set of scars on my soul.
A hospital bed was set up downstairs; my mother and I each took an eight-hour shift and hired a nurse to take the midnight to seven A.M. stint. I taught myself to needlepoint and crewel. Using my hands in a rather mindless endeavor kept me awake but put no further strain on my weary cognitive functions. He slept most of the time, but he would awaken and express his love for me, “I love you Belle, more than stars in the sky.”
“I love you Dad, more than stars in the sky. Everything is going to be fine Dad; try to rest now.”
I hid my welling tears. I swallowed the intense sorrow of facing his death to stall it from eating away my soul. I determined to give him strength. I still wanted him to fight this heinous disease, but I knew the victory had succumbed to defeat. Comfort him. Give him sips of fluid. Keep him warm or cool by covering him with blankets or removing them. Hold onto each second he was still my father, not a corpse.
I mounted what seemed to be endless stairs after Nurse Betty arrived Sunday just before midnight. Exhaustion became a common state of mind as my body functioned on autopilot. My frame withered under my normal size 5 clothing. My doctor speculated tuberculosis, but I knew the cause – stress. Plummeting into my side of the bed, I don’t think I even recognized my mother snoring or my little brother’s heavy breathing. I slept.
In the middle of the night, I could feel something holding my hand, and I heard whispers: I am at peace and happy. I have no pain; don’t worry about me. I love you beyond what you will ever realize. I bolted upright, unable to distinguish anything in the dark. Was my father in the room? Was he healed? Is my mother awake?
“What just happened to me?” I mumbled.
Nurse Betty called from the bottom of the stairs; “Mrs. Jones, are you awake?” I woke my mother.
“Your husband has passed.”
I ran down the stairs or maybe I flew, but I slid into my father’s room convinced he would be breathing. He wasn’t. The wrinkles of pain had diminished and the torque of agony no longer twisted his mouth. There existed no life in that emaciated body. I felt nothing, nothing. I wanted to wake him up, to convince myself he was not dead. I couldn’t wake him up. I couldn’t even touch him. I had such an odd sense of his restful sleeping that the long-lasting truth of his death seemed absent from my thoughts. A paradox I struggle to explain even to myself.
Leaving his room, I met my mother in the hallway. She glared at me and jabbed, “You are the reason your father died. You were such an awful daughter who disappointed him and destroyed his heart.”
She glided past me as if I were invisible. She had dismissed me. She had reduced me to her whipping post and had taken out her anger on me again. Speechless, I don’t know what happened next. My memories of the subsequent months are insignificant, disconnected, and fragmented preventing me from piecing them together. As bizarre as it sounds, I could not admit that he was dead because then I would have to admit I had killed him. I would not allow myself to cry, fearing I would give into this lie. Forty-five years later, some scenes of his struggle to survive remain etched in my memory, while others are like fog, dense yet disappearing.
I watched as rain poured off the porch overhang. Some days rain seemed to cleanse the crusty crevices of my mind and leave room for invigorating, inspiring thoughts. Other days rain seemed to open the rusty iron grate and to release the dreaded nightmares of the past. Memories I struggled to keep under lock and key in the dark crypt of my mind, resolving to put an end to the pain they inflicted. I wondered if the wound would double me over in pain again. What if I gave into the pain and permitted the gash to suck me in, swallow me up, and scab over my existence? More heavy clouds gathered, and the raindrops dampened my t-shirt or was I crying again?