A river of dark green bile flows into a receptacle as the gloom inside my heart drowns out the sunlight beaming in the window. The day is March 4, 2003, and it is my twentieth birthday. The familiar faces of family suggest such, but they aren’t here for me, and neither am I. We all sit, quiet and still, some contemplating the remainder of the day, while others strain to remember gentler times when the sterile hospital smells didn’t fill our lungs. As for me I hold my breath and watch the machines, which have come to dictate how the day will go. I am distracted by the discomfort of my chair, but still I watch and listen. For my family the constant beep and hum is somewhat of a bother, but it has been my only source of comfort in the past days. Beep, beep, pause. Shit. My heart beats faster to compensate for the lack of beeping. The beep means nothing has ended, or rather, that the end has not begun. The nurse saunters in, as if her apathy is acceptable, fiddles with the machine, and the beeping resumes. I sit back in my chair, and for a moment I can breathe again.
A moment later I am compelled to reach forward and hold the hand outstretched before me. I struggle to focus on the hand, which has remained constant and familiar, rather than the fragile body or emaciated jaw line which are both foreign and seemingly unrecognizable now. I take a moment to remember how they used to look, perhaps only days ago, but quickly return my focus to the hand for even in my dream world I know those days are long past me. His hand flinches and I worry he may be in pain. The doctor says he’s resting, but it isn’t restful for anyone. I push the morphine button and the tears start to fall.
“Dad, dad, wait for me!” I am running though the grass, tripping over my fishing rod, and loaded down with tackle I don’t even know how to use. Dad is almost to the pier now, using his walking stick as his eyes. I don’t know how he does it. I’m struggling to catch up and my little legs just can’t get me to his side fast enough. The sun is sparkling over the river, boats are cruising, and the neighbors are grilling. It’s a beautiful day in Edgemere. In just a few hours there will be lightening bugs to catch, but for now dad and I are fishing. We finally unload the equipment onto the pier and dad gets to work baiting the lines. I’m not scared to mess with the worms myself but I like him to do it for me. I am Daddy’s girl. The lines are in the water and as we trade stories and thoughts our game of who can hook the biggest fish, most fish, and most species of fish begins. I like to tease him when I win, but the truth is it isn’t about fishing at all.
Something startles me, and reality quickly surfaces and rears its ugly head, only now the room is empty except for dad and me and he is awake. “Happy Birthday, Karen,” he tells me. I try to remember if I jumped when I awoke. I must have; how else would he know I was awake? Focus. He apologizes that I am spending my birthday in the hospital and asks if I have any plans. I tell him mom wants to take me to dinner, but I don’t tell him how nauseous the thought of eating makes me. The container of bile catches my eye and I grimace. We sit in silence for a moment. It isn’t fair that I can eat and he can’t. Thinking back on my childhood, with all the low blood sugars, kidney problems, transplants, and infections, I always thought it would be the diabetes that did it. In fact, in all honesty, after watching him beat the odds time and time again I began to accept that he was invincible. However, this is not the case. The stomach cancer was detected only days ago, and the doctor’s keep using the words “final stages.” I am not sure what that means to them, but to me it means time is running out. Still, this can’t be happening. I can’t decide which feeling I like more: denial or anger. The family re-enters the room, and I drag myself to dinner. Happy Birthday to me.
At most a few days have passed now, but I swear I am years older. Dad is in a new room. The nurse calls it the Executive Suite; it is the Death Room. By now the family and I are living at the hospital. Today dad and I will ask everyone to leave the room. He tells me he is not scared, and that is comforting to me. We then share our plethora of memories to ensure neither of us will forget the other; I can hold it inside no longer. The tears come as he gives me his wisdom, attempting to instill his final hopes for me in a few short minutes. I hear the words. “Karen, don’t ever be afraid to mess up. Live your life the best way you know how, and do your best to make things right before you leave them. You will always have people who love you, and I will always be there.” I can’t see straight, or talk, and I feel like the little girl with too much to carry, struggling to catch up to dad all over again. He lets me have my moment, and as I regain my composure we say our “I love you’s” and the family returns to the Executive Suite.
Those were the last words dad and I ever spoke; later that day he fell into a coma. The doctors kept saying it would be any moment, but the next day they would still be saying the same thing. I kept vigil during the day, talking to him and taking short breaks for a cry or a cigarette. People would come and go, paying their respects. It felt as if he had left me, although he was still breathing, and there was a vast emptiness in my heart. The numbness had taken over. The family would try to comfort me with words and hugs, but I could not hear or comprehend, nor could I feel the warmth of any embrace. I could only sit and think. Think of a miracle, yes, but mostly I just wondered what he was still hanging on to. On March 14, 2003, at two in the morning, I left the hospital for the first time in a week to go home and get some sleep without the nurses’ morning rounds as an alarm clock. It was then that I got my answer. He was waiting for me to leave.
The weekend was filled with plans, flowers, viewings, “I’m so sorry’s,” and inevitably, the funeral. It was held on St. Patrick’s Day and it rained; even nature seemed to understand. Bagpipes paid tribute to my father and to our heritage as I spoke the eulogy as best I could. Then I laid him to rest and said goodbye to the face of the man who for most of my life could not see mine. What he did see in me is what is so hard to let go, for he is probably the only person who saw it. Our life together became a constant movie montage playing in my head, overtaking my thoughts, and for some reason the images of the bile became paramount. I will never forget the bile.
It has been almost a year since those days. Not much has changed; yet everything has changed. I have changed. Daily, he enters my thoughts. Every now and then I remember the hours at the hospital and all that went with it, but more often a stranger, or a smell, a song, or a place will remind me of happier days, days when he was by my side or a mere phone call away, and for a moment I almost forget that he is gone. I will never understand why. Some people find comfort in thinking it was so he would not suffer life’s blows any longer, while others seem to think it was God’s Will and his journey was complete. To a daughter, a father’s role is never done, so I do not try to understand. I simply remember, and now after a year of steps forward and backward, it is time to heed his words. So I am alive and living the best way I know how, and I am certain he is there as promised, waiting for me to catch up.