My father’s head swivels toward the sound of metal wheels on cracked linoleum. He sits on the side of the cranked up hospital bed, hands demurely in his lap.
“Dinner,” I announce.
He smiles at me, the vacant, resigned smile he’s adopted for rehab. The family calls this nursing home a rehab as if a euphemism can make him well. It’s beatific, my father’s rehab smile, his cherub, Zoloft, ‘look how good I’m behaving – get me the hell out of here’, smile. His easy smile. I don’t mean easy for him. These days I’m not a good judge of what is easy and what is hard for my father. I mean he’s trying to make himself look easy, compliant, a person easy to live with and care for.
And it is easier to sit with him and listen to the stop and go rattle of the food cart as it makes its way toward room 220. Easier than his morphine and Haldol rants in the ER. Easier, but less interesting. What kind of daughter finds her father’s pain and fury interesting? Well, break- your- heart interesting. Exhaustingly interesting. Terrifyingly interesting. And funny. Father’s glorious, funny rage.
He rubs his hands together.
“Cold?” I ask.
“Little bit.” He smiles. I drape his gray wool cardigan over his shoulders. The slack softness of it, the warmth without friction, comforts me. Right now it seems to comfort him. I’ve seen the same sweater clutched at his chest, tight as a straight jacket.
My father rages in two categories. The first is the “Old Bastard” rage. The “Old Bastard” is what he calls his body, as if his body were someone else, someone he can yell at like a school kid to make behave. It surprises me that when he yells he often takes the Lord’s name in vain, something he never did when he raised his voice to us as kids.
“Jesus Christ, give the Old Bastard something to stop the pain.”
His cursing against his back, his heart, his kidneys, his coccyx, don’t surprise me as much as his profanities against The Church. The man who taught me that the Pope is infallible and that a wafer on the tongue during communion really does become the actual flesh and blood body of Christ during communion rails like a condemned witch against Catholicism.
His most persistent complaint is The Church’s “piss poor” job of dealing with pedophilia. He is most troubled by the litany of French Canadian names associated with the abuse.
“Levigne, Pelletier, Dupre, Jesus Christ.”
It hurts him to spit out the names of his countrymen. It exhausts him to speak of, “These God damn hypocrites.” Before his illness he was not a man who had much practice ranting, certainly not against his beloved Church.
The food truck stops outside the room. The tray is placed on Dad’s bedside table by a sixteen year- old girl who doesn’t seem to like her after school job. I pour milk from a waxed container and am relieved beyond reason when he eats the whole meal.
He pushes the food tray away and lies back. As I crank down the bed he says, “I’m not going back to church until Priests can marry.” I don’t argue the implied cause and effect of this statement. There is no church in rehab.
The next day is not an easy day. My father lies at a forty-five degree angle in a hospital bed in an open cubicle in the ICU. We are all there. My mother, myself, my three siblings. The morphine, and the rant, and his bitter complaints, that the doctor won’t let him drink and the nurse has stolen his ginger ale, have knocked him out. His eyes are closed. He looks dead, mouth slack, lips slightly blue, tubes in his arms, tubes in his nose, oxygen, heart monitor, the whole shebang. I’m squeezed between the IV pole and the bed holding one of his hands. My mother is pinched between the heart monitor and the bed holding his other hand. My sisters and brother are at his feet.
The Priest walks in. The Priest, dressed in white collar, vestments, and prayer book, with his decanter of holy water swinging on a gold chain. It is time for extreme unction, the last rites, which, lately, we have been instructed to call the sacrament of the sick. But you can’t fool my family with a turn of phrase. We are gathered for the last rites
Daddy has had last rites how many times since January? So many times that when I catch my brother’s eye we grin and look away. It has become funny, this dying, this lack of dying. We’re starting to believe “The Old Bastard” will never leave us. What kind of children experience their own father’s last rites as a recurring punch line? We love him. There is no doubt we love him.
The Priest is a very black man with a Jamaican accent, probably not French Canadian. A serious, but smiling man, whose large eyes easily take in the six other bodies in the small room. My father is looking deader by the moment. The Priest hurries with his ministrations. The family of my youth hold hands around Daddy’s deathbed and the black priest in his black suit with his white collar and sash mumbles in Latin.
And I do feel the spirit. We all feel the spirit. And my daddy lies so still. And the priest shakes the water over his head, his throat, his solar plexus, his thighs and feet.
And again, up to his head, swinging the holy vessel. And I swear by the God of my childhood, my Daddy’s mouth pops open, like a new-born sparrow, and the holy water rains in and he grins and says,
“It’s about time you gave me something to drink.”
“Beau Pere,” Rock and Sling, Rock and Sling Press, edited by Susan Cowger and Kris Chritensen, volume 3 issue 2, Fall 2006.