Frozen air rushes in as the back door opens. Little Gertrude falls in her cage. Panic makes the room hot again. Her shiny black body is twitching sporadically. Moments pass before she jerks upright. Relief calms us. Without knowing, we admire her presence for the last time. “Some food will save her,” hopes my eight-year old mind. Nibbling. Nibbling. She drops again.
When my father died, I wasn’t there. Mom looked on alone as it happened in a nursing home down the street. We usually visited him together, but I hadn’t gone with her that day. I was twelve. Moving him to the nursing home was really tough for him, but none of us thought to question it. We knew that the doctors were right; his cancer was getting worse. With everyone staying in the house this solution seemed all the more necessary. No one could take the odor of filled colostomy bags. That smell lingered in the room even after my father was cleaned. By this time, my mom slept in my sister’s bed. I retreated to the pull-out couch in the living room; my eldest brother and I had to share. My father’s remaining health was at risk, too. My mother was patient, but she wasn’t a doctor. With her budget the nurse wasn’t around for long enough to do an efficient job. He needed someone to always be there to help him. Things were not always this bad. There was a time when his presence was bearable.
After the first wave of health issues were stabilized, mom felt obligated to take him in. They had been separated on and off for years now, for reasons that his children knew all too well. A high school dropout with no skills naturally did not enjoy any of the work he found. He wouldn’t tolerate those jobs. Even for his kids. Mom never said anything bad about him, but whatever caused her to have four kids with him till this day she cannot articulate. He had always managed to live nearby without being close to us at all. Now that he was in the house, he just became the missing father who happened to live with us. We would be sitting in the living room watching the television and hear his slow footsteps start down the stairs. We would give each other looks and faces, grimacing, because he was coming down. Once he was in the living room, we took on faces of indifference. He noticed. He headed toward the kitchen. We mimicked his walk, how he carried his cane. He would talk to himself, asking what he had come down here for. No one spoke; no one looked in that direction. He got what he wanted and walked back up. We mocked the way he talked.
Other people called him our father, but we never recognized him as our “dad.” When we spoke of him we said, “he” or “him.” If we spoke to him directly we made sure he was already listening. He was an alien to his children; he did not have our trust or our sympathy. All he had earned was our disdain.
But he was sick, he could barely walk, and I was the youngest; he needed me. The sound of my name rang in the air, days, weeks, and months upon his return. “DAN-YOHHL!” “DAN-EEE!!” One day I happened to stay home while everyone was out. “DAN-YOHHL! DAN-YOHHL!!” he called. I brought my keyboard up the stairs with me. He wanted some water. I went down the stairs, came back up, and gave him the drink. While I waited to take the cup back down, he said, “Play this song.” He broke out into the first few lines of the classic “Stranded” by Red Hot Chili Peppers. I broke out into uncontrollable laughter. He finished the song. We both laughed. I attempted to play it while he sang. He went on to sing other music. I listened and attempted to play along. This went on for hours. Repeatedly, in the days following, I found myself with him in our room talking, joking, and watching TV. He taught me to play all of these card games. Sundays, he would turn down the TV during the football games and give me his live commentary. He could never finish a game of baseball. Some weekends, I would stay home with him just because he was interesting and needed the help. We talked. We genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. But I still wanted to align myself with my brothers and sister. I never told them about my relationship with him. I could only anticipate what their responses would be. It would have been the same cold indifference they gave to him, apathy. To be my siblings’ brother, I could not be my father’s son. They deserved my loyalty; therefore, he could not receive my sympathy. I knew this, yet I could not abandon him immediately—though I tried to. I still made fun of him when he called me and they were around, but then I would stay to watch the end of a game with him. I still reluctantly brought his dinner up the stairs, only to sit with him while he ate.
Lunch-time comes. I remembered not to order food today. The skinniest boy in class pretends to read. Mom is pulled away from her kindergarteners down the hall. She remembers her promise to take me back home. I run into the house first, and peer into the metal cage. Gertrude is there; her shiny black body is still. One eye is visible, open. Looking up at me. Stomachache.
As the years went by, I successfully convinced myself to be sickened by him. My own aging must have caused me to more easily see the hurt he had caused to our family. Knowing that I had been there for him for a time gave me more justification in expanding the distance between us. Now when he called for something, I would drop in and leave. When he spoke to me enthusiastically, I would not muster a matching tone of voice. He could walk better now, so he began get his own things. We didn’t make fun of him walking around the house anymore. The indifference didn’t have to be forced; it was real. He called me to help him change his bags. I could not; too much burden for me to handle. I was glad to move out of our room for the pull-out couch downstairs. As his health worsened, we were powerless, but we had always felt that way when it came to him. The year he died I remember asking him if he was going to watch the Superbowl. He told me he had no one to watch it with. He knew that he did not even have me anymore.
Those were some of his last words to me. He died weeks later. Often, I do not think of his death as the saddest thing that ever happened to me. That would be the day my rabbit died. I grieved for her more than I have grieved for any other being since; maybe because at the time I naively felt responsible for her death. I did not weep for my father. My eldest brother was silent for days; I knew he was struggling to maintain. My other brother was coping more easily, but sometimes I saw him tearing up. My sister was a wreck, the worst out of us four. The black shades they wore at his funeral could not hide their true emotions. I only wore mine that day because I didn’t want to look out of place among them. During the service, my sister spoke to the crowd. “I did not have the best relationship with my father, but I knew that he loved me,” she said. Then, I could not communicate how I actually felt. But I know that I was sad for them most of all. But why did they take it so hard?
Later in the week, Mom told me that my siblings had gone together to visit my father in the nursing home one last time before he passed away. They each individually told him that they no longer held any animosity against him for his failings as a father. They forgave him. I was not there. That may be the reason why walking up to his casket all I could do was look down at my dad—wanting to cry.
A cardboard box sits idle outdoors. Purple crayon colors a message on the outer flap. The men will soon come and take her away. A young boy wishes he had done better.