The House Of Cards
June 5, 2003:
My father died a few weeks after my 24th birthday, while I was at work. I had been advocating with a non-profit company that matched social services to clients with multiple sclerosis. As part of my duties, I sometimes interviewed clients out in the community. I drove to the North East Heights of Albuquerque, to speak to a woman who had recently been admitted into a nursing home. An hour into that interview, my co-worker, a tall noodle-like man with a physique like my father, and wild grey hair, walked in and told me that I needed to call home.
“I know,” I said, quietly, not sure who I was saying it to. “He went blind a few days ago.”
We were in the dining room, and a nursing assistant instinctively knew what happened, because that is what we do. As nursing assistants, we know with our gut when people have lost someone, and what they need. She put her hand on my shoulder, the way I had done for so many others, and I was grateful for her kindness.
My client didn’t guess what had happened and none of us told her. It was our duty, as those who cared for the sick professionally, to tell patients our own stories only when we believed those stories would be helpful. But it was also our duty to know when to be silent. My client was already drowning in death. It was the death of her spouse (who was her primary caregiver) that had forced her into the nursing home.
She had called me because she wished to go home, but she was unable to care for herself. Despite my best efforts, in the month to come, I would be unable to make the necessary arrangements. Like so many others, she would be trapped in that nursing home out of a desperate necessity.
I had forgotten my cell phone at the office, which my co-worker held out for me in his long wiry arms. How long had my mother been trying to get hold of me? I couldn’t and wouldn’t call her. I would just drive to her house.
I wouldn’t make her tell me what I already knew.
I gathered my things and told my client, “good-bye.” I thanked my co-worker and the nursing assistant, whose name I would never know, but whose sympathetic eyes I would never forget. Then I left quietly, out the service exit, to my old Ford Escort with the fading red paint.
I sucked in hot June air. The dining room of the nursing home had been dark. Outside, the sun was too bright. How could the sun shine at a time like this? Didn’t people die on rainy days? The day seemed inconceivably wrong— not at all like a movie where one expects someone else’s father to die.
A week earlier my father had been sent home on hospice care, but still I didn’t expect it. An ambulance picked him up at the University of New Mexico Hospital. Volunteers had delivered a hospital bed, which was waiting for him at my childhood home.
Three days before he died, he had awoken for a little while, and asked for a cigar that my mother had to hold in his mouth. He wanted to watch Catch Me if You Can. I sat with my father, who drifted in and out of sleep.
I hadn’t watched a movie with him since I was twelve.
My father’s kidneys had been shutting down, but when the movie was over the Foley catheter (urine bag) hanging from the foot of the bed had suddenly filled up. His kidneys had finally kicked into gear. I had to remind myself that it didn’t mean anything. My mother and I had to remember what the doctor said, that Dad might appear to get better for a little while, but that he wasn’t going to.
Still we hoped, knowing that it was a lie, foolishly, desperately.
Earlier that afternoon, he had become confused. He thought that he had killed someone and was taken to prison. He yelled out begging for mercy, begging to see his family. He needed to take care of his wife and three small children who he couldn’t leave alone. My brother, KC, went in to try to comfort him, but my father was inconsolable until my mother returned home from the store.
“I missed you,” he said, “I thought I’d never see you again.”
Like my brother, my mother explained to him that he didn’t do anything wrong, that we had brought him home from the hospital, on hospice care.
“Yes, you are in KC’s old room.”
“Well where’s KC?” he asked.
“He was just here, telling you everything was okay.”
“That was KC?!?”
My father had fallen out of time and space. He was living in a moment when we were still small children. It was the same time period my own mind would often wander to, when I became dangerously ill myself. I was his obnoxious 5-year-old. My sister still wore her angel costume with its silver halo and mesh wings. My brother was still his bouncing baby boy. All of us flawed, but with ten perfect fingers, and ten perfect toes, the first thing he always marveled at when each of us was born.
He couldn’t fathom that we had all grown up—that these strangers pausing at his bedside were once those children, but he tried to love us anyway.
By the time I arrived, later that day, he was more lucid. I stayed until late at night. I wanted to go home to do something that seemed so important at the time, but which was so petty, that now, I can’t even remember what it was.
I grabbed my red backpack from the corner of the smallest bedroom in my mother’s three-bedroom house. My brother’s old room, the one which my father didn’t recognize, was down a narrow hallway. At night, when we were small children, we used to creep down that hallway. We hid behind the corner it made with the living room, and watched my parents’ television shows until something funny would happen on TV. Then we’d accidentally giggle and my father would catch us, scoop us up in his arms, and carry us all to bed. A-hemming and A-holleren and pretending he was mad, but enjoying the opportunity to play with us, and secretly full of joy.
But that was a long time ago. And I had to work the next day.
My father woke up when I was leaving, and said that he loved me, and I didn’t want to know what that meant, or I wasn’t paying attention the way I should have, because a romantic relationship with a man, who doesn’t even matter anymore, was falling apart.
The last thing I said to my father before he died was, “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
June 5th, the day he died, was a lazy afternoon. My mother had sat with him all morning. She left, only for a minute, to answer the phone. When she came back he was gone. I’m not sure how my mother knew what death looked like. Maybe she just knew what my father looked like, and she knew he was no longer in his body.
I drove home in a panic, away from the sterile-lined sidewalks of the city streets— down past the bodegas where irrigation ditches still watered farmers’ fields, down the dirt paths of the South Valley’s winding roads, down to the dilapidated old house that was once my childhood home. I worried his body would be gone, but my mother had waited to call the mortuary. She waited for me, frozen in a moment that was about to melt.
He was heavy-looking, his pallor the color of the cadaver I once dissected, with reverence, back when I still thought I might like to be a doctor someday. All the wonders of the human body remained, but my father did not. The whole house seemed to be made of paper as if it would fold up and fall, like a house of playing cards.
A person had to be careful of her breath or she would blow the whole thing down.
The hospice nurse documented his passing, announced the time of death, and flushed all the morphine down the toilet. I signed the paper work, verifying that all the narcotics had been wasted properly. My aunt Debbie, my father’s sister, sat on the couch with my mother and they held each other and cried.
The mortuary team came—one man and one woman, in business-dress-black and sensible shoes. Dad’s skin had turned orange from liver failure, so the woman from the crematorium put on latex gloves. She and the man had brought a gurney, but it wouldn’t reach down the narrow hallway into my brother’s old room.
I found my brother and his friend in their bedrooms. I didn’t know how they felt about bodies, but there was no choice, my mother and my aunt were too upset. The three of us carried my father out to the gurney in our arms.
The last thing I said to my father was, “Dad we’re going to pick you up, so these people can take you now.” I’ve always been a logical person, but I didn’t realize that I only had one father. I didn’t know that I would never have one again, until I saw them take him away.