6/8/02 Saturday 7:44AM Calvary Hospital, The Bronx, NY
72º F says the Radio Shack clock on the wall.
Having skimmed through what is apparently Aunt Shireen’s journaling book, I pick up this book and pen as if I’m taking aim at Dad, the poor gurgling moaning pile of failing flesh in the bed next to me. I can’t bear to look at him, so I hear the constant dripping of the IV and series of plastic beakers hanging on the wall filled with fluid from his lungs. Every so often he makes phlegm noises like an evacuation tube in the dentist office, and these are punctuated by long “aaahhh…” moans and some coughs that make his whole body shake.
An annoying fly keeps pestering me, I don’t give a hoot if it’s bad yoga form, I bat it and feel it hit in midair, although it disappears. It reemerges later – I grab the sports section of one of the accumulating NY Times and SPLITCH! It’s distorted form sticks to the unnaturally clean beige white tiles. Then I have to check that dad is still breathing and hasn’t died because I killed a fly.
That bitchy Jamaican woman walks down the hall, the annoyance d’jour. She speaks English with the guy who cleans the floors. Sun streams through the jailcell venetian blinds as a weariness creeps in and out of my consciousness after morning Sadhana and the 1-1/2 to 2 hours of sleep that preceded it. The weariness is a given, and as unavoidable as gravity itself.
Aides chatter in Spanish in the hall and the tinkering of TVs in the other rooms is frequently punctuated by deafening PA calls for people to dial the operator. I suddenly realize the “Big Brother” voice to be the friendly African American security guard who opens the conference room for my yoga in the morning and seems to like the idea that I’m cooking chicken in the nuke.
Hosing wraps around Dad’s neck like a noose, then behind his ears and into his nose. Half snores, half gurgling breathing, occasionally his eyelids flutter open, almost seem to see, but sag and collapse closed again. Tufts of bushy black eyebrows have remained, in the face of baldness with the same stubborn tenacity that he has exhibited in the face of death. The rest of his thinned-out hair lies matted in sweat against his sticky head, and his mouth, perpetually agape, is like an Edward Gorey illustration.
The old Spanish lady across the hall has replaced the woman who might have been my EPRA classmate’s mother. She looks around like an amused and sometimes frustrated little chimpanzee. Down the hall; huge swollen stitched up elephant man legs. Ugh. Try to have compassion for the hospital staff, remembering they go home to the neighborhoods I drove fearfully through last night. But I don’t like them, harbingers of death, wearing masks of compassion. I know they probably bitch and swear about the patients when they leave. Last night, the unrelenting MOANING calls of another patient, “JIMMY!” “JIMMMMMMM-MY!” “JIMMY!” I realized my sleep was over.
Outside, blue sky, pollen, the “Old London” bakery smokestack next door, towers of Coop City on the horizon. The hairlip aide with the thick English hampered by her Spanish walks by, smiles, and “heeyyy…” slips through her lips. I hated her because she seemed bitchy but then she seemed nice. Dad can’t stand her. She chases me out when she comes to clean his bunghole with sterile stinky foam. I imagine her torturing him and contorting his frail thinning body into painful positions.
Beethoven’s 9th plays on the boombox as mom’s snores intermittently join in call and response with dad’s weakening breathing. I put on headphones, sometimes holding dad’s atrophied hand. I try to distract myself by feigning interest in the turgid script for Maxwell Anderson’s & Kurt Weill’s musical “Lost in the Stars” but I’m bored to death by it.
Apparently I’m not the only one. Dad’s breath stops, starts weakly again, stops, and…. doesn’t start again. I hold his unmoving hand, uncertain if the moment has finally really come.
I walk over and gently waken mom. “He’s gone.”
“What?” she groggily responds.
“Oh. No. Really?” She’s not quite awake. “We should call the Chaplain.” She leaves the room.
Alone with my father’s corpse, I remember my friend Chris Chang telling me how he’d heard the Buddhists believe the spirit can still hear you after the body dies; how he’d shouted to his grandmother after she passed, “WHAT’S IT LIKE ON THE OTHER SIDE?!!!?”
“DAD, WHAT’S IT LIKE ON THE OTHER SIDE?”
“Akaal!” I chant, somewhat quietly. Then louder, “AKAAL!” Nearly shouted, “AKAAL!”
The Sikhs believe that chanting Akaal – or undying – helps the spirit cross over to the next life.
A Catholic priest comes and administers last rites; peculiar ritual for a family of Methodists.
“Can I just sit with him for a while?” Mom asks the nurse and Chaplain.
They stare at her, uncertain if she’ll climb into the bed with his dead body.
“I’m sorry, but we’re required to have you vacate the room within 2 hours,” they respond.
Dazed, we pack up all the remnants of the last 4-1/2 month odyssey of living in the hospice hospital room with him, and they wheel in a dolly for us to load it all down to the car. Eventually, I wheel the overloaded dolly out, and after the door closes behind us, I hear the metal casket that the aides wheeled in, filled as they tilt the bed; his body slides into it with a heavy thump.
As I drive over the Throgs Neck bridge towards Long Island, the sun rises, colors more vibrant than ever, the chilly fresh air of morning blows through the open windows. It’s over. I’m overwhelmed by the beauty. I’m numb. I don’t know what’s next.