~This essay was first published in The Gettysburg Review (2012).
Early one morning in mid-May, my ninety-two-year-old father swallows three pills--two for his heart and one for anxiety brought on by his declining condition. He insists on taking the pills all at once, so my mother places them in his large, outstretched hand. In his other hand a glass of water trembles, the surface as troubled as if a small storm is brewing. He tosses the pills back, pouring the water after, then he gasps, inhales, and aspirates one, two, or perhaps all three into his lungs. We will never know for certain, and in the end it matters little. The sparse bedroom in their senior-citizen apartment already feels like a small stage, the tall rhododendrons outside the window a shadowy green backdrop.
Agitato--in an agitated manner
Within minutes my father shouts that his chest is on fire. “Call someone!” he tells my mother.
Taped to the kitchen wall is a large sign: Do Not Resuscitate. My father has signed the papers assuring the State of North Carolina that he wishes to forego any heroic measures. His body is worn; his mind wanders distant corridors. His heart malfunctions. Basic daily activities, like getting out of his chair to go to the bathroom, thoroughly exhaust him. A hospice nurse has been visiting for the past three months, providing support for my mother and comfort and pain relief for my father.
Several months ago as my mother was helping my father get ready for bed, he asked her, “Will I always be like this?”
In my family we veer down the nearest side road when such questions loom. My mother smiled and patted his arm. “Let’s get those teeth brushed,” she replied.
Another evening during their bedtime preparations, he stopped her to ask, “Will it be Wednesday?”
“What?” she asked, confused.
“When I die. Will it be on a Wednesday?”
She kissed his forehead and went back to helping him out of his T-shirt and into his pajama top.
He held his arms up for her like a compliant five-year-old. “I love you, you know,” he told her as she hooked up his oxygen and buttoned him in for the night.