On this Sunday in February we stare at the paper sign taped to the ugly concrete wall above my father’s bed in this huge hospital and can’t for the life of us figure it out. H O H it says in large primitive letters. He’s over here? Hates our hospital? We ask nurses, doctors, orderlies for the meaning, but no one knows either. We settle on He’s Our Hero, which makes my father smile. We are the entertainment committee and we will do anything to make him smile. A smart laconic man with a dry wit, he often answers with a nod, a shrug of a shoulder, or the lifting of an eyebrow. On the talking continuum my mother and I lean toward the blabbermouth end and my aunts, my father’s two younger sisters both widowed, are close to it but land at just chatty. We are his harem.
My father’s bunioned feet, encased in purple slipper socks with rubber skid strips on the bottom, stick out from his blankets. He received them for Chanukah, or no doubt Christmas, when “Santa Claus” went around the rooms handing over presents to the patients. My father is a gray, brown, navy sort of man, so he looks ridiculous with his big purple feet, attached to his white scrawny legs. More like the legs and feet of Daffy Duck.
“Wish I thought up this slipper sock idea,” he says, wiggling his toes. “ Must have made some guy a bundle.” The soles of the socks are spotless. I try not to think about it.
Betty, the aunt who was once so pretty and is now considering electroshock treatments to help with her depression, sits next to my father on his hospital bed, her arm draped around his shoulder. Helen, the short, sometimes blunt one, who got along great with my mom, the other Helen, sits on the other side, knitting an elegant blue blanket for me, and occasionally puts down her needles to pat his hand.
“You had to pick the expensive yarn, didn’t you? The others are half the price,” she scolds me.
My mother sits on the large, brown chair with the footrest, the one she sometimes sleeps in overnight or falls into when she gets tired from being with him on her 12-hour shift. My mother is still so beautiful but her eyes are flat, her spirit deflated. She wears the same dark sweaters each day, which lie shapeless on her thin frame. “Don’t you think I’d get all dolled up everyday if it would make him better?” she once told me, the words piercing through my heart.
I stand next to his bed and pick up the phone when it rings. His hands were big and strong, they built boats for the Navy during World War II, cut through hundreds of layers of cloth with an electric cutter contraption when he owned a manufacturing business, and could hold a piece of chalk and unlock the world of quantum physics or advanced calculus when he was a teacher. But now, unless I hold the phone next to his ear, it slides down and winds up settling on his stomach, or what was his stomach when he had one. Actually he is missing two stomachs. The organ he put an inordinate amount of salami and Zenobia pistachio nuts in, riddled with cancer, was removed, and the nice convex poof that he used to rest the Wall Street Journal on, while sitting in his favorite club chair smoking a pipe filled with cherry tobacco, is now gone too.
A different nurse comes in. “Hard of hearing,” she declares, staring at the sign. We all laugh. We should have guessed it. My father lost most of his hearing in one ear from a childhood infection and some of his hearing in his good ear when he got older. Not that anyone ever knew –he was so adept at looking at you when you spoke that he got every word. But on the phone, missing visual cues, you would have to yell or he would just make an excuse and get off. For many years I thought he didn’t want to talk to me, but I was wrong. Sometimes, I thought my mother, who at 22 married my father after a three-month whirlwind courtship, got stuck with him. But then I grew up and witnessed life. I saw her dance with him cheek to cheek in the hospital while he was in a wheelchair. I saw them kiss and heard her whisper, “Please don’t leave me now. We still have to have some more fun. I need more time with you.” I was wrong about a lot of things.
On March 15th a blizzard blankets NYC and the Denton Avenue Elementary School where I teach is closed for a snow day. No one can get out and come visit my dad except for me since I live only two miles from the hospital. I arrive stomping the snow off my feet and peel off layers and layers of clothing like I’m peeling an onion.
“Ricki,” he says, with enthusiasm. “Isn’t it too early for you to be here? Why aren’t you teaching? I may have to report you for playing hooky.” He wags a finger at me, one of the few body parts he can move. I explain about the storm, and my mother not being able to drive and me having a snow day.
“I feel so much better when I see you,” he says. I bend down and he kisses my forehead.
I remember when he came to my apartment alone last year after going to the brokerage house near where I live.
“Dad, what a good surprise! You never visit without mom. Come inside,” I say as I hug him. “Want anything to eat?”
“A soda might be nice. With a little ice.”
I sit across from him at my round butcher-block table, so pleased he came to visit me alone. “How is the market doing?” I ask.
“It goes up. It comes down.” He laughs. “You know me. I’m into holding.” He has a wealthy widow friend Sidelle. They are stock market friends. Each day they speak on the phone to talk and discuss the market. My mom is not too crazy about Sidelle, who calls my father every single day for the six months he is in the hospital. When he is no longer here she calls my mom every day. My mom changes her mind about Sidelle. Now my dad finishes his glass of soda and stands up to leave.
“No, no. Stay longer, dad,” I plead.
“Just seeing you makes me feel better,” he says. “If I’m nervous, somehow you make me feel calm,” he adds, kissing me on the forehead, and then walks out the door. A moment later the doorbell rings and it’s him. He kisses me on the forehead again. “I forgot to do this,” he explains.
“Dad you kissed me goodbye already.”
“But not twice! I forgot to kiss you the second time.” Then he leaves for real.
* * *
He’s leaving me now too, but this time for good. I pull over a chair to his bed, and hold his bony, knobby hand. It is nice and warm. I do not know that the wheezing sound he is making is called a death rattle. I do not know that this will be the last day I will ever hold his hand still warm, here on earth.
I had trouble talking to my father. I wanted words from him, but like telepathy, he always thought I just knew how he felt and what he was thinking. But I wanted more. Holding his hand while sitting next to him in silence in this hospital, which I have grown to hate intensely, is the most content feeling I have ever had. I don’t want it to end. But I’m not dumb.
“You know dad, I was thinking that maybe we might want to say some things to each other. Now when we’re alone might be a good time. Just in case something should happen.” My eyes brim up, but we do not look at each other. There is no point in it. I have learned and seen and felt everything from him already while looking in his kind brown eyes. Let me do this thing right.
He nods. “A perfect time.” He adds, “ You start.” I start. Much later I finish. My voice sounds like I am talking about the weather. I do not let it waver. I am grateful that the universe has conspired and I have this day with him, this last day with him. My eyes look at the sign above his bed. I understand that it means He’s Our Hero, the hard of hearing part being so incidental.