Thick layers of smoke and tobacco cloud my earliest memories. I remember my father’s hand cutting through the wispy trails in a casino restaurant, back in the day when you could smoke in a restaurant. I also remember the week his body was loaded into a hearse – the years of cheap cigarettes and ubiquitous puffs of smoke invading his lungs finally caught up to him.
The day seemed as mundane as any other day. I rolled my eyes when I saw my mother calling. Couldn’t she just text me? I thought.
“Your father is sick,” she said in her accent. “Come to the hospital.”
I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived. Then I saw him. He was pale and gaunt – the color from his face drained, leaving a ghostly visage I barely recognized. The hospital bed engulfed him, a sea of white, sterile sheets made him appear fragile.
“I don’t want any more tests,” my father insisted to my mother. His voice matched his outward appearance.
I sat down by the window.
“I want you to find an article that I saved-” my father said.
“What article?” my mother interrupted.
“-it’s about how doctors die-”
“Doctors? Where? What doctors?”
“-it’s in my files-”
“Files? What files?”
“Just listen!” my father snapped.
I looked out the window. I tried to find my parents house, even though I knew it was impossible. A white bird flew overhead. A car had a dent in the passenger side door. A yellow piece of debris fluttering into the side of the hospital and fell. Two people in scrubs stood outside by a shrub and talked.
“There’s an article from Reader’s Digest in my files,” he instructed, each word said like a task given to Hercules from the king Eurystheus. “It’s about how doctors die. They die in their homes. I want you to look into care outside the hospital. Where Mom was before she died. I don’t want to be here. What’s the place Mom was before she died?”
“Hospice,” I answered, still trying to find something, anything else, to look at.
“Yes, that,” he said.
“Hospice?” my mother asked. “Kido, do you know what that is?”
“Yeah, it’s, um,” I hesitated, trying not to let my voice break. “They, um. They help with, um, sickness, I think. People who are sick.”
Their voices blurred together, but I knew they were talking. I just kept staring out the window. If I turned around, I would see him, and then I would have to admit he was dying. No matter how hard I stared at the cars, I still heard snippets of their conversation.
“I’m tired, Nee. I don’t want anymore tests.”
A doctor entered and spoke with us for fifteen to thirty minutes. It was lung cancer. They had some things they could try, but, at most, he only had two months left. Then she left.
He made the decision to refuse treatment. I wanted to ask him to try, to fight through it. To come out of cancer stronger than before. But I couldn’t. He taught me not to order people around and to respect the decisions that don’t directly affect you. I couldn’t tell him what to do, even if his decision created a knot of sadness, anger, and fear deep in the back of my throat.
Before I left, I said to my father, “I’d prefer it if you lived.”
On Thursday, my mother texted me that my father was moved to a hospice.
On Friday, I cried and prayed to a God that I doubt exists.
On Saturday, Jon and I arrived after the hospice workers moved my father home. He was in the middle of the living room, writhing on a bed. He wore a diaper and a shirt that kept coming up. His eyes were yellow and glazed, looking at nothing in particular. His distended chest was purple from the injection sites. He was wheezing and kicking at something that wasn’t there. A thin tube of liquid attached him to a machine that compressed and ticked. I smelled something strange and astringent, like rotting eggs, blood, and antiseptic. My mother and my uncle were watching the technician setting up the machine, asking him questions.
“Hey, Mick!” my mother called to my father. “Kido is here! With Jon!”
The technician told us that a night nurse was coming over later and, after he finished with the machine, he left. Then we sat in silence. Jon held my hand and I just watched my father fling his arms at his sides and snore. He was in the home he purchased, hopped up on drugs, struggling to breathe, and wearing a diaper.
I looked around. At my mother’s yard sale nicknacks, at the things that were shoved against the wall to make room for the bed, at the family photos, at my mother’s sewing machine, at my shoes that had goddamn skulls on them.
“The blood is tainted,” my uncle broke the silence. “The liver isn’t cleaning the blood. It’s going to his brain. That’s why his eyes are yellow.”
“I thought it was lung cancer,” I asked.
“It spread to his liver,” my mother said.
We were silent again. I looked at a hospital bill. The single visit from the doctor was five hundred dollars. The hospital room was a thousand. That’s what my mom owed immediately. That was the first of many bills.
However, the hospice care was covered by Medicare. A small relief.
After a few hours of sparse moments of talking, Jon and I contemplated leaving, but the hospice van stopped in front of the house. Carol was a rotund woman with a big smile and curly red hair to match. When she took his diagnostics, she moved with him, instead of trying to get him to move the way she wanted. She smiled the whole time and told us everything she was doing, and I nodded along, even though I had no idea what she was saying.
“It’s wonderful that he has a family,” she said.
“There’s another one coming,” my mother said to her. “She lives in Washington, D.C. We’re a small family, but we’re close. There’s more, but they’re in the Philippines.”
Carol’s eyes lit up, “My daughter’s husband’s family is Filipino!”
“The Little One has been there. This one,” she pointed at me, “not yet.”
“We’ll go, someday,” I insisted. “Alyssa is just Alyssa. I motioned between Jon and me, “We are double the people and double the money. We’d like to go. Jon needs to leave the country at least once.”
“I’ve been outside the country,” he insisted.
“An American resort in Mexico doesn’t count,” I retorted.
“I learned ‘un cerveza, por favor,’” he said devoid of any Spanish accent and with a big smile on his face.
My mother pointed at my father. “He’s been quiet.”
The moment of levity made me brave. I picked up his wrist between my thumb and my index and middle fingers. “I feel a pulse, but something’s weird.” I looked at Carol and she opened her satchel of medical supplies.
I dropped his wrist. His eyes were wide open. Yellow and black pointed toward the ceiling. His body was stiff, his extremities were pointed out, and his skinny limbs looked alien. Dread punched me in the gut and I stumbled backwards. I realized what I had done. It wasn’t his pulse I felt – it was my thumb’s pulse through his wrist.
She didn’t have to say anything – I knew. Tears inundated my eyes. I stormed out of the house and sat on the tailgate of my mother’s pick-up truck. Jon followed me and squeezed my shoulders. I refused to go back into the house, so Jon went back in to get my phone. I called my sister. We cried together on the phone and she moved her flight for a later date. The hearse arrived after I hung up. My eyes hurt so much I couldn’t see the men who said, “I’m sorry,” and pushed the gurney. But my eyes focused on the white sheet – the only way I could look at him was as a body shaped space under a sheet on the way to an autopsy.
I haven’t smoked in years.