The Good Fight
I lost my father between dusk and summer.
Perhaps he left me long before I care to admit, long before he refused his last meals, long before his spent eyes flickered like candles behind cracked panes of some forlorn, abandoned house. Before his neglected muscles jellied into the folds of his stark white hospital sheet, and the rise of his chest grew shallow and weak. Maybe it was plain selfishness on my behalf; sitting at his bedside all those times, soothing his ears with encouragement as I squeezed his hand, desperate to impart the very courage and determination he had infused into me over my years. Even as he relied on me to raise a flimsy plastic cup of ice water to his parched lips. Had I become too scared to realize or just too blinded to ask: whose fight did this now become?
“…find me… from Tolten…”
I could have dismissed the words from his cracked lips as merely disoriented chatter, but his mouth pursed them too purposely, his tone too firm. Still, my father’s words jolted me from my bedside vigil. I bent over his thinning form, promptly taking his hand into mine.
“…go… now,” he croaked, his strength fading.
I held my breath, dared not speak. Gently, I massaged his fingers, marveling how thick and calloused they remained; my own always a child’s within their clasp. Typical blue collar hands, fearless of toil and grime. My father squeezed back, eyes widening. His candlelight flared, sparked brilliantly a moment before blinking away. I knew then I had been wrong. Someone remained home inside that deteriorating body after all. My father hung on, refusing to surrender. But what little had spilled from his lips now hung heavy between us. The message became clear. My father would not leave me.
Not until I finished his business.
My throat constricted as a terrible heat swelled within my chest. I gritted my teeth, blinked furiously and choked back the tears best as I could. Eventually, I eased him into continuing. A corner of his mouth curled. It gained momentum, spreading across his lips, his smile warming me. From within his cocoon of pillows, my father nodded his approval.
I leaned close, carefully straightening the air tube dangling from his nose. Caressed his cheek, returning his smile as his short, white stubble tickled my palm. Swallowed another blistering lump deeper into my throat. “Tell me what you want me to do, Pops,” I whispered.
I listened very intently to the scarce words my father pushed from his lips. Go. 141 Sea Cargo Drive. Manasquan. You’ll know. Go now. He did not tell me what I would find or even what I needed to do. He held the obvious trust that I would just as soon figure it out, and I was not about to question or let him down. I kissed his forehead, told him I would leave, that I would see him later. From the moment my father became sick, goodbyes no longer existed. Only see you laters. As I forced myself from his sallow room, he cleared his throat. Must find me… she… come back from Tolten. I froze, deluged with fear and for the very first time a sense of hopelessness as I questioned, but for a moment, the sanity of his words, the tenuous grip he maintained upon his own reality. No; I would have none of that. I squared my jaw, turned and measured my father. I did not see a sick and dying man. The matted wisps of white hair that returned after his last bout of chemotherapy were gone, transformed into thick, luxurious curls of chestnut locks brushed back in heaps. The sagging skin of his arms now tight, bulging with muscle, the tattoos acquired while stationed in the Air Force as crisp and fresh as the day they were etched. Shoulders squared, again capable of carrying the world as he had done so many times before. Chest, wide and broad—within, the power of a Titan, the pride of a lion. Skin so vibrant and pure. His sickness did not diminish his stature. My father grew before my eyes, every day becoming more the man I had known. I nodded, determined to accomplish what he needed of me.
I nearly collided with the nurse as I left his room. “Oh, I’m so sorry!” she exclaimed.
“No, it was me. I should’ve watched where I was going.”
Her thoughtful eyes washed over me. “How are you holding up?”
My father’s nurse was one of the better ones and tended to him with sincere compassion. Painfully, I had encountered too many who believed my father was just another room number. I regarded her nameplate, my gaze lingering. Dawn. Normally I would have little difficulty remembering. I had seen enough of her—every day for the past week, too many, many times over the past months. All that while, I found it easier to address her with simple hellos, with downcast, fleeting glances. I disassociated myself from the moment she entered his room. For my own self-preservation, I could not bear to voice her name. I had no choice. To do so would have thrown me under the remorseless incandescent glare of reality and I liked it where I was, alone, lost within ignorant shadows. There I could disguise life; the curtained obscurity made things not so real. It took all I could do from dropping my head upon her shoulder and weep. The shrug I managed in response drained all that remained of me.
Hesitantly, Dawn lifted her hand, carefully rested it along my arm. Gave me a soft but reassuring stroke, then slowly pulled away. “The morphine drip you requested is working as well as it could right now. Your dad has been unbelievable, you know. Joking nonstop, up until…”
My features shifted. She read it well. No luxury of morphine existed to mask my own pain. Dawn stole a look down the hall. No one approached. “Has the doctor seen you recently?”
“No more than he needs to, I guess.”
She offered a sad smile. “You should know your father’s kidneys are failing. His… the truth is his entire body will eventually shut down. That’s why his arms… they flop when he tries to raise them. His speech—”
“Incoherent,” I interrupted. Tolten. Tolten. Come back from Tolten. “That is, when he can speak.”
An uncomfortable moment passed. An eternity gutted my soul. “We’ve done all we can. But this is… you need to know this is the last stage. We’re keeping him as comfortable as we can right now.”
She must have believed I was strong enough to handle it. Wise enough to see the writing upon the wall. She knew little of my father’s resolve however, nor of the spirit I lent him all these months, and I was not about to quit.
Eventually, even a fool must realize when one’s own hand cannot bend fate. No matter how hard you try. “I appreciate all you’ve done. I really do.” I gritted my teeth. “That’s a tough sonofabitch in there.”
She nodded. “And a good son out here.”
Tolten. Come back from Tolten. My father’s words haunted me. It was time for me to go. “Can I ask a favor of you?” I said.
“You have my cell phone number in your contact list. Call me first should… should you need to. But not my mother. Please, spare my mother.”
“Of course,” she answered slowly.
Shuffling away, I whispered, “Thank you, Dawn.” It was at that moment I was dragged from the shadows. Things suddenly became all too real.