(I know its long but its under 7000 words. If anyone has the inclination, I'd love some feedback on this--thank you in advance)
Certain sounds and images resonate beyond the immediate moment. The siren of a speeding ambulance…the final rays of the sun dipping beneath the horizon…a train pulling away from the station.
For me, it was the ring of the telephone.
“CC Xander, please?”
“Your father would like you to come to Roper Hospital in South Carolina. He is dying.”
Like my father had once done with me, I placed the phone receiver gently back into its cradle, letting the soft earpiece settle onto the base, a child’s head finding its pillow for the evening. I had not seen the man in twenty years and the thought of his imminent death launched a swirling stream of feelings, some which floated away gently, and others which crashed upon the ragged rocks of my insecurity. When I was eighteen, we'd had a falling out over an issue of morality, and we’d stopped speaking. Somehow, as the days turned into months, the phone got heavier. I'd reach my hand out to make the call, and the weight of forgiveness was simply too large a burden for my arms to bear. I never made that call. Now, twenty years later, like a dutiful son, I booked a ticket, headed off for the East Coast. and walked into the hospital to say my final words to the man that raised me, then disappeared from my life when I hit the legal age of independence.
Arriving in Room 104, I saw the powerful man I'd called “Daddy” lying beneath the white sheets, now dangling on the edge of death like the last leaf on a tree in the closing days of autumn, an IV drip hooked into his arm. As I walked through the door, he lay still, lost in that world between consciousness and purgatory. This was going to be a tough week, one I would hold in memory for the rest of my life.
The nurses said he'd been sleeping through most of the days and would only be strong enough for short conversations, something I was grateful for since I had no intention of staying long. I stood over him, waiting for him to awaken. When he opened his eyes and spoke, everything changed.
“Hello, my son.”
Perhaps it is the way the words fight their way past the tongue and drop gently over the lips, scraping themselves against the teeth on the way out, or the way the uvula blocks the sounds, like a nearly impassable rock overhang which cuts short the trembling air, but the voice of a dying man is distinguishable from all others.
With curiosity on my brow, I stared down at him, detailing the bald head, the grey eyebrows, the deep wrinkles lining his cheeks, as though a poorly folded T-shirt brought to life after a cross country flight.
“Would you please stay for a while. I'd like to discuss some things.”
I heard the little voice inside my head screaming “All aboard!” and I took a step towards the door, once again a seven year-old running away from the suffocation of reality. Then I looked back at the man beneath the sheets. This was really it, the last time.
For me, opportunity has always been challenging. The pursuit of success goes against my general inclination towards failure, towards martyrdom. My overt attempts at humility often serve as a personal insurgency campaign against my ability to achieve. I am the type of person that wins a gold medal and has it bronzed. Tempered with this personality flaw, I listened to my father's request and faltered, frozen between the emotional terror of remembrance and prophetic regret of the future. These were the last days with my father and I searched for the strength to stay in that hospital, feeling the overwhelming pull of sanctuary from beyond the doors to room 104. And then, a minor breakthrough. Somewhere between my brain and my mouth, the words “Sorry Dad I have to go,” transformed into “Of course…I'm here.”
“Would you tell me about your life?”
Over the next few weeks, my father and I talked about the memories of childhood, teenage angst, and the beginnings of my adult life. With trepidation, I noted the corners of my father's mouth as I recounted the chapters of my life. A slight tautening or downturn, and I'd go down to the hospital cafeteria feeling as if the world had collapsed. Of course, there were other days when he'd do his best to smile, the sour expression sweetening for just a moment, a glisten appearing in his eyes, and I'd walk out of his hospital room to tap dance the checkered floor in the lobby. If only for a day, I had won approval. It was a momentary reprieve from the inner feelings of ineptitude and failure that haunted me throughout my life.
Though I did not take any pictures during that stay in Room 104, the images of his expressions are indelibly imprinted upon my brain, to be recalled in those nostalgic moments when I am wandering down a foreign street and see an old man put his arm around his son. Or, maybe it’s at a ball game, where a father purchases a baseball cap and places it on the hat of his boy as they sit eating hot dogs and trying to catch a foul ball while taking in America's pastime. It is a testament to his power, even in his dying moments that my father could say more with the tiny muscles of his mouth than I could with a laptop and twenty years of soulful exploration. When I think back to those moments, it is like a primitive animation, the pages flipping as the character’s mouth wavers from down to up to down. The metaphor permeates all facets of my existence, and I spend my days trying to enjoy the laborious climbs and terrifying descents on this roller coaster called life.
I'd gotten up to the college years when my father started having tremors. At some point the nurses came in and asked if I'd step outside. It is a strange feeling to wonder whether you'll ever see someone again. When I travel around the world, I meet fascinating people and there is always an assumption that I'll be back to visit in the future. We say our farewells with a smile and hope that someday, somewhere we will meet again. They watch me get on the train, the plane, the boat, and we wave to each other as if going away for a short weekend. It is pleasant, happy, and leaves me with an appreciation for life's experience. In reality, I'll likely never return to the outer reaches of the Mongolian outback, where Tuguldar Choparmeeg will refill my mutton bowl one more time before we blow out the candles and hunker down underneath our sheepskin blankets.
When the nurses asked me to leave, I experienced much different emotions. The mortality of man lay fifteen feet away, behind the white curtains of my father's new home. Outside his room, I pressed my hand to the glass. This was not a wave and a farewell until another day. This was the end. This was please give me another moment to say everything I have ever wanted to say to a human being that I loved and hated and needed and despised and wanted to thank and punch and scream at, while giving a hug. This was massive inner conflict and a few days by a bedside wasn't enough to let it all go. As I leaned against that thin glass window between my father and I, waiting to see if the nurses would pull the white sheet over his head or open the door to let me have another shot at expression and catharsis, I saw the doctor turn fuzzy, the nurses ears begin to slide down her cheeks, and then everything went black.
I started to talk about the trial….
At eighteen, moral judgments are reserved for driving while buzzed, whether or not to sleep with the cheerleader on the first date, and whether to do homework or attend the Friday night football game. My dilemma came more intensely, and with the brute force of shotgun blasts. When I was eighteen, my best friend killed his parents and confessed to me. Unsure of my allegiance to law or friendship, I had reservations about turning him in. This was the hardest decision I'd made in my life and my father had given me an ultimatum. "IF YOU CAN'T FIGURE THIS OUT IN SIXTY SECONDS, YOU ARE NO LONGER MY SON." When the police showed up at my door, I kept my mouth shut.
Two months later, after much inner turmoil, I went to the police and told of the confession, sending my best friend to the electric chair, but by then, my father had thrown me out his life. Imagine that. Imagine the time spent between a man and a woman deciding to have a child. The nine months of anticipation as the child grows. The hours of emotional drama when the baby is sick or crying or needing food, and the months taking care of the infant. The toddler years, the first word the first steps, the first bike ride, the first time catching a ball. After that, the ball games, school events, sitting on the couch watching football, traveling on family vacations. The first kiss which was probably kept secret because of the slight embarrassment. The first family member to be accepted into a college. The thoughts of a grandchild. Imagine a sixty-second clock on life, and, as the buzzer rings, watching eighteen years be taken out to the curb, like unwanted refuse, and thrown away because of a difficult moral decision. Imagine taking an eraser to a lifetime of photographs simply because the person in focus was momentarily indecisive. Twenty years with no communication and now he was a few days from death.
I started to talk about the trial….
My soul, shredded by unreserved torment, hovered by his beside. He stared at me, and I stared back, no words being offered, no words possible. He shrugged his shoulders, turned his head and returned to his sleep. This topic was off limits for the rest of our lives, however short those might be.
Many times, while my father was asleep, I'd just sit and stare at him. I'd remember tossing the baseball in the backyard and toboggan rides down the grassy slopes of our New Jersey home. I'd recall those days when we'd grab a hot dog at the Phillies game or, during a family vacation, ride the jeep on the sandy beaches of Mexico. Of course, I'd also think back to the hitchhikes home after I missed a strike three fastball, or his booming criticism from the bleachers when a tennis shot went wide. Now, I witnessed the two sides of the man meeting in a gentle embrace, like his closed eyelids, hiding his real views on the world. I began to understand his desire to push his sons to greater achievements than his own. Undoubtedly, he had been successful in that. Yet, certainly he had failed in his ability to deliver the message in a way that transferred love. The result was two successful sons living independent lives, apart from the family, hating their creator for his weaknesses.
Now, just days away from the end of my father's life, I saw him differently. The once muscular body covered with rich olive skin, now cracking like an old weathered painting. The furrowed brow, now relaxed, lounging over soft eyes that searched the world for someone to love. The hands, which aided me as I climbed, supported me as I overcame, and beat me down as I rebelled, now struggled to pull up his blanket, two weakened warriors performing last maneuvers on their final battleground. Those powerful lungs, which used to bark out orders on the ball fields, in the yard, and from the living room, now barely strong enough to push the thin sheets from his chest. For the first time, I saw frailty in the man who represented power and strength, and those moments of staring always ended the same way. I'd drop my eyes to the floor, gently shake my head back and forth, put my hands in my pockets, and return to my seat by his bedside. And I'd continue to wait...
My brother Luke showed up at the door to my father’s hospital room. Luke, the one who would never forgive, never forget, never ever speak with the old man again.
Luke -“So, this is it eh?”
Luke never did tell me what happened. During his freshman year in high school, while my parent's went through a brutal divorce, Luke became disavowed with my father. I'm sure the strain of the relationship and the pain of the separation made things quite uncomfortable. I'm certain that Luke's entrance into alcohol and drug rehab programs stemmed from the impossibility of pleasing a harsh father and a bitter mother. Still, he would never talk about it. He simply said, “I have no interest in seeing him ever again.” Now he was standing at the door, a red baseball cap pulled down over his forehead, hands in the pockets of his jeans, his head huddled deeply into the folds of his favorite flannel.
“Yea,” I responded. “This is it.”
Luke smiled at me and slowly walked over to my father. He stood by his bedside for several moments, looking down at the man he had hated for most of his life. He showed no tears, no sadness, just the blank stare of emotional apathy. Then he lifted his hand from his pocket, and backhanded my father across the face.
I jumped up. “Luke what the hell are you…?”
Gently, he put his hands on his father's face, bent down and kissed his forehead. Although no sound came out, I saw the words on his lips as he whispered to the dying man.
“I forgive you.” Luke put his hand on my shoulder as he walked out of the room,
I thought to myself, “Christ there is a lot of pain in this family.
For several few weeks I'd revisited many details of my life, giving my father the summary of my experience, allowing him to feel my glory, my sadness, my failures and successes. Sometimes I'd take his hand, stare into the fading light of his eyes, and communicate my dreams. Though twenty years had passed with no contact, a bond exists between father and son, one in which the unspoken word reveals volumes, and we shared our silence together, letting our thoughts float above the white tiles of the hospital room, dropping tiny flecks of comprehension onto the strained bridge of our relationship.
Each night, before closing his eyes for the evening, he would say “thank you,” and then nod off to sleep, leaving me to wonder if those eyes would re-open in the morning. During those peaceful hours, when the moon stared at me through the window with that great glow of acknowledgement, that illuminating beam of recognition, that ray of light sent across the galaxy to commend my actions in my father's final days, I wondered what could have been. Would he have enjoyed my athletic achievements? Would he have attended my college graduation, stood proudly in the crowd as the first Xander family member earned his degree? Would he have been supportive at the trial, offering advice rather than silence? Would I have had my first beer with my Dad?
Without a doubt, the man had faced life with courage and established a set of principles that guided his every move, and though I disagreed with many of them, I learned the importance of a strong foundation. As dawn's light climbed its way to our floor, I'd see my father's eyes open, and as though the sun was tugging at his lips on its way to heaven, he'd greet me with a smile. All my life, I’ve experienced moments of brilliance framed by days of tedium. Although not a complete reconciliation, these tiny moments of joy confirmed my reasons for making this three-thousand mile journey. And then the waiting continued.
On my father's birthday in the hospital, my aunts and uncles came to visit. He would sit up for fifteen minutes or so and with sad eyes, look upon his brothers and sisters, then drift off to sleep. They said their good-byes from a distance, courteously, the way one would when attending the funeral ceremony of someone else's friend. The living descendants of the Xander family failed to inherit love from the genetic pool of human emotion. I imagine it was beaten out of them in some sort of twisted mutation of evolution - a Darwinian battle over who could go the longest without action as the newborn fetus struggled to understand nature versus nurture.
I left my relatives there, standing over my father, who wore a purple hat and drooped a party horn from his mouth, abandoning them, as they abandoned him, even in his presence. My father would have hated that image. The humiliation alone probably tempted him to pull out his own IV and succumb to hunger before suffering emotional starvation. In time, they would leave, and I'd return to the bedside, to sit waiting for those moments where we could reminisce about our separate lives. Time, like his breath, was getting short. There was only occasion for a few more conversations.
The brisk air put a thick layer of frost on the window of Room 104 and I struggled to make out the cars pulling into the parking lot on their way to say final farewells. Seeing my father on the precipice of death made me wonder about the content of our last conversation, and as the few remaining leaves of autumn dropped to the ground, I thought about our final words. Would they be about lost time, about missed opportunities, ending with a heartfelt “I love you” followed by a gentle embrace? Or would we laugh at our accomplishments, take sanctuary in new challenges, and finish with a pat on the back and a “see you on the other side?” As I moved the cloth-covered chair to his bedside, or as I laughingly termed it , my “fabric-ated” host for the past weeks, he began to speak.
“I think we could have done better, don't you?”
I nodded and gently lifted the corners of my mouth, a tiny smile of acknowledgment emerging from within.
“You should know that I already knew much of what we've spoken of these past few weeks. I've followed your life for twenty years.”
I raised my eyebrows, and with them, the pitch of my voice. “Really?”
“I'm proud of my life but I'm prouder of yours.”
Once again, I nodded and looked down in humility.
When a father gives approval, it touches the deepest part of a son's soul. I'd never truly felt compassion for the man, but my heart was literally wrenching with anguish at the little time that was left. After twenty years, APPROVAL. The words were like God pulling me up from the depths of hell. The entire foundation of my character, unstable and cracked, had just be re-enforced with the thick steel of sanction. As I wander through the vast expanse of my life, weary from trials and tribulations, these words would be the blood coursing through my veins, allowing me to press forward, a willing recipient of this parental oasis of endorsement.
My father looked up at me from that tilted bed, a gleam in his eye, the last intimations of a smile. He opened his hand, searching for mine in a final gesture of human bonding. I clasped his palm and watched him drift off to sleep.
And then I cried - for the loss of two decades, because I’d missed twenty years of a relationship that was supposed to be nurturing, supportive, at the very least, amicable; because I never had the chance to have what so many others had, a loving father. Sitting in my chair, I held my head in my hands, allowing my shoulders to ascend and drop with huge sobs of sadness. A nurse appeared at the door and looked in, then slowly moved away recognizing my need for solitude. I felt my tears sliding off my nose, as if a river of sadness leaving my soul on its journey towards to the ocean of regret. For twenty minutes I shuddered in tears. And then it was done, and I continued to wait.
“I have a question for you.”
“Yes, Dad? What is it?”
In a quiet voice he asked, “Why did you come?”
I raised my eyebrows slightly, then lifted the corner of my lips into a half-smile, exhaled a small breath of air through my nose, and slowly shook my head.
“I really don't know. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
“You have always been good at determining that.” The irony was killing me. After all, we created this twenty-year sabbatical over my inability to distinguish right and wrong.
“I'm not so sure.”
He reached his hand to mine, the desperate grasp of a man clinging to life, pulled me gently towards him and looked me directly in the eyes, “Son, you got it right, and you will continue to get it right, regardless of what the rest of the goddamn world thinks.”
I let that gaze linger, as if an invisible wire, transporting all of his confidence into me. Then I nodded, “I know.”
At that moment, I realized why I had made this journey. It wasn't forgiveness or desperation. It wasn't the feeling of generational responsibility or even some sadistic attempt to watch my father suffer pain. No, in that single moment of acknowledgement, twenty years of personal doubt disappeared. I'd never told anyone I did the right thing, never accepted the morality of my own act. For too long, I'd been searching for an answer to my own moral foundation because I'd failed to admit my own righteousness, and though my father offered his support, I needed to hear myself speak those words. As my eyes rolled around the room, landing back upon my father's gaze, I repeated them once again, this time with the silly smile of resignation, of acceptance, “I know.”
On several occasions, I'd brought little gifts to my father's bedside, a bright red apple, a humorous get well card, an entertaining tale about the creation of the Federal Reserve, but in this moment, he'd given me the gift of freedom - from past sins, from questioning my character, from a life of shame and regret. I'd come to his bedside because there didn't seem to be a choice. Now, I realized there wasn't. For years, the conflict inside me wrought havoc on my soul, but I'd established a foundation, and here in this hospital room, I recognized it. Finally, I'd walk through life with the confidence of decision, trusting myself with the art of determination.
Mr. Xander, your father has just slipped into a coma and we need to talk with you about the next steps.”
“He is now being kept alive with a machine and we need to know how long you'd like that to continue. He has no chance of overcoming his illness, but it is possible he will awaken from the coma. At best, he has a few more weeks in his current state.”
“You want to know if I want to pull the plug?”
“That is not how we say it here, but essentially that is what we are asking.”
I stare at the nurse, my palms up in front of me as if I’m holding a book, my lips pursed and eyes squinted, releasing that small laugh of disbelief, the one that starts in the stomach and shoots out between the teeth sounding like a steam engine as it passes the lips, to crash into the blank canvas of the medical establishment. I remember a line from an old Vietnam vet whom I encountered on the streets of Washington DC during my college years. He said “war was hours of boredom infused with moments of terror,” an observation which resonates with me, like a grenade, in this moment.
The most destructive thing that ever happened to me during my life, the incident that tore me apart emotionally, ripped at my moral foundation, destroyed my future, wrecked my relationships, and ruined any chance of a normal life, was when my best friend killed his parents. Now, here I am, standing in a hospital room with three doctors and a nurse, waiting to see if I'll kill mine.
I am truly uncertain about my God, but if he is up there listening right now, I have a message - “You are one sick ironic bastard.” I have no idea if life is just a series of odd coincidences. I have no clue whether someone upstairs is writing a script and poking fun at my character struggles. I don't know if free will and destiny can co-exist. I don’t know where reality ends and irony begins. All my life I've expressed myself with words, using metaphors and analogies to illustrate my thoughts, protecting myself from having to shout out to the world. And yet, at this moment, words elude me. My silence dangles over the white tiles like a trail of smoke, spreading slowly, choking the doctors and nurses in its midst. I stand there, watching the tendrils curl into images, then fade into nothingness, a holographic sampling of the ideas inside my own head.
“I'm going to need a while to figure this out.”
“Take your time.”
And then I hear my father's words return, like a well-hurled boomerang taking aim at the world, then curving back at me with the sharp edges of acrimony and vengeance, transmitting death with every turn.
From those taut lips, his orders escape. “If you can't figure this out in sixty seconds, you are no longer my son.”
I begin to walk the hallway, the walls closing in around me, squeezing my very soul for a decision. With each tick, the clock inside my head releases a triphammer on my thoughts. At fifty seconds, my body is still numb, my mind a swirling mass of blended confusion. I hear the arguments for life and death, pain and comfort, legality and crime, like two protesting crowds outside the courtroom of my intelligence, their voices screaming for understanding. I return to his room.
By forty, I am clear. The journey of my life has come upon a sheer cliff of granite, impossible to navigate, and yet I must continue, my only weapons those lessons I’ve collected in my knapsack of experiences. I think back on morality, on culture, on friendship. So few of these apply, rather this is a lesson of the heart, a place where logic fails to educate. Nearly halfway done with what could be the final moment of my father’s life, I move to the bedside, staring at the remaining embodiment of my history, a breathing corpse representing nearly forty years of resentment and animosity. I touch his still hand, five flesh needles enter my heart, tearing at my compassion, slicing my sympathy like the claws of Hell’s gargoyles pulling me into their depths.
Thirty seconds left to make a life-changing decision. Do they honestly expect me to kill my own father? He is still breathing, his chest rising with the final gasps of a proud beast gathering strength for one last stand against his conqueror, lifting the cotton sheets up a mere two inches, the shining achievement of a sedated sovereign. He gave me life, and although much of it was hell, there were days of bonding, hours of enjoyment, moments of tenderness. Lessons I despised in my youth endow me with tools to combat the brutality of the world. For this I owe my father. And then there are seconds of profound sadness, the realization that life is ending, that the remains of the masculine side of my history are disappearing, that along with Luke, I am the final carrier of my family name. The heaviness in my heart presses into my stomach, and though I cannot cry, the pain is intense. I touch the morphine drip, imagining the freedom of a quick dose, then drop my hands to my sides and continue the internal debate.
Twenty. How does one define courage? Does a man fight until his last breath, or look death in the eye and go willingly? I answer for him. He should complete his life, live out his final days, stand before his maker with the courage and integrity of a man who fought until the end. My father would never give up. He never saw challenges as difficult, but rather, difficulties as challenging. He would want to go out on his own terms. Yes, that would be his choice. That is what men do. There is certainty in this, that when weighed against the embarrassing struggle for life, the inability to cleanse, to feed, to change oneself, my father would choose to suffer indignity rather than quit.
Then again, the choice was now mine.
The tic-toc countdown becomes a thunderous pulse, slamming the drums of my inner ears, a deafening clamor to the voices of my thoughts. I walk slowly towards the nurse, the weight of the ticking watch on my arm, an unstoppable circling of time representing the burden of life. With a quick glance back, I see him surrounded by machines, pumping life into an otherwise lifeless body.
“Mr. Xander, why don’t you go home and rest tonite and we can discuss things in the morning.
I gather my coat and gloves.
“Pull the plug.”
The time with my father inspired me to write this story. Over the course of those days together, I discovered a lot about myself, about the emotional creature I truly am. His final breaths were peaceful, as if I was holding them for him, softly in my mouth, releasing the air slowly, enjoying every bit of the life passing my lips. I held his hand as he faded away, and, as his fingers fell from mine, I felt the final release of life. I watched the strong roots of my heritage stop taking nutrients and succumb to the cold winter of death.
I did not cry. Instead, I sat down to write and created this story. As his life ended, mine was halfway done. I like to think the tale of his life might have had a different title than mine, one using the words… “complete” or “ultimately” or “in due course”…though I believe he would have wanted it to say something very simple, like the words on his tombstone…THE END.