Image: TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³ via Creative Commons
Early one morning in 2002, my brother picked me up from the airport and drove me to the hospital to see my dad. He had been unresponsive since the afternoon before. His rapid turn for the worse was what had prompted the previous night’s phone calls urging me to catch a cross-country flight if I ever wanted to see him alive again.
The second I walked into his room, I was devastated. So that’s what it looks like, I thought, with equal amounts of fear and awe. It was dehumanizing. Which made sense to me. What was happening to Dad is what sets our spirit free. And our spirit isn’t human.
I sensed that although he was still with us, he was gone nonetheless. But I was wrong. Dad came back to us later that very day. Shortly after he regained consciousness, he told Mom something she’ll never forget.
“I died last night, Martha Lee.” She believed him.
And so did I.
In the days that followed, his recovery was extraordinary. So much so that the doctors even contemplated his release. But after 10 days of steady improvement, his condition gradually started to decline, as evidenced by his erratic behavior.
One time, he rummaged through his bed covers for five continuous minutes, as if looking for something before seemingly finding it, scooping it up, and showing it to Mom. “Look, Martha Lee, a diamond,” he said proudly with cupped hands which contained nothing.
In spite of such episodes, that fiercely intelligent man fought hard to maintain control of his mind. You could actually see him willing it to perform like it was supposed to.
“What’s the date, Dr. Osborne?” one of his nurses had asked.
“Oh, c’mon, lady,” he said with disgust, if not embarrassment.
“What about the year? What year are we in?”
“1959,” he answered confidently.
“Not quite. Can you try again?”
“Look,” he began, his voice just on the cordial side of angry, “I may not know what year it is, but I sure as hell know this — the Vols play Miami this weekend.”
You’re damn right we do, Dad. You tell her.
I don’t think the nurse liked us very much. Not that I blame her. Generally speaking, shaking martinis in a hospital room is a no-no. But we didn’t care. Not because we’re raging alcoholics, but simply because that’s what we do. We drink martinis before dinner, and we had suspended that ritual for long enough.
With Dad withering away in his hospital bed, the task of shaking our drinks fell to yours truly. I brought in the ice needed via a large Styrofoam cup and smuggled the vodka, vermouth, olives, and glasses in a backpack. When the nurse caught me mid-shake, she gave me a look of admonishment, one that all but asked me to stop. But before she could put that look into words, I shot her one of my own.
He’s dying, I told her with my eyes while slowly nodding my head. So why don’t you let him live a little?
I wasn’t even sure if he’d be able to drink the martini. He wasn’t in good shape. His off-and-on dementia was even worse than before, though that night you couldn’t tell, at least not by anything he said. He was silent as a mouse. The sound of ice slamming against stainless steel felt good to me. Hearing something was better than hearing nothing. So I kept doing it. When I finally stopped and poured our drinks, the unwanted quiet came back. I broke it nervously by asking Dad a question which I didn’t expect him to have the energy, or perhaps even the capacity, to answer.
“Do you think I bruised the vodka by shaking it too much?”
“Es ball-shet. Yu kahnt bwooze vong-ka. Yu kahnt. Bwooze gin? Yus. Bwooze vong-ka? Nah.”
He took his glass with an unsteady hand and held it to his mouth which was opening and closing uncontrollably, spastically even. It wasn’t pretty, but after nearly a minute of trying, he managed to get a sip down. Without spilling even so much as a single drop.
“Ahh. Dots goood. So goood,” he said as he closed his eyes and put his head back on the pillow of his inclined bed.
How often, indeed, I’ve wondered whether or not our martini-fueled happy hour was, quite literally, heaven sent. Way back when, my dad had made me my very first one. And that night, I made him his very last. And while he drank it, my father taught his son one final lesson.
You can’t bruise vodka.
When asked what year we were in, Dad had thrown out 1959 — a year which represented the prime of his life. I finally get it. When you’re fighting as hard as he was, there’s nothing but now. Without it, both your past and your future cease to exist. So by default, each passing moment is the prime of your life. No matter how old or how sick you are.
His now, however, was about to draw to a close. With less than two weeks before Thanksgiving, we hoped and prayed it would extend just a little bit longer. But early the next morning, I was awakened by the call I’d been dreading, the one that prompted me to race to the hospital.
But I wasn’t quite fast enough.
My lifeless father lay eerily on his literal deathbed, his left eyebrow noticeably askew. Tears streamed down both of my cheeks as I smoothed it with my thumb.
How I wished Dad could have improved just a little more. You know, so the doctors could have released him. If they had, it would have only been so that he could die in the ivy-covered stone house on top of the hill. With the stereo on. Listening to opera. Near his books. Near us. No beeps from machines. No lukewarm cafeteria meals served upon brown plastic trays. No nurses whose last names we’d never know.
Though he never made it home, Dad’s valiant fight proves that there’s much magic in the melancholy, much beauty in the struggle. Which is why you bravely fight on, no matter what. Not for you. But for everyone else. So they can see that beauty. Beauty which will live long after you’re dead and gone. Beauty that looks like hope. And determination. And strength. And dignity.
And perhaps most notably, love.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. We love you, too.