She hit the t.v. remote volume button thinking she heard a faint sound from the hallway and jumped up from the couch. Her instinct proved true.
“Hey, Tea! Tea, come here!” Her father sat atop the toilet, bluejeans pooled around his ankles, his right arm in a sling. His voice was low-pitched and barely audible, so she was glad she had heard it.
Marty lived on her own but stayed overnight on weekends at her parents’ home to help keep an eye on things when her mom had to work. Make sure he didn’t burn the house down with an errant cigarette, a lit match on short-shag kindling. Smoking had started it all, so his lungs were the impetus but inoperable by that point.
Phillip called her “Tea Bag” ever since she was a baby with tiny drooping eyelids he claimed looked like saturated linen packets. Her father’s pet name for the youngest girl seemed to fit, so the moniker stuck.
Her birth certificate read Martha in honor of her paternal grandmother, but it was days before they settled on calling the baby Marty instead. By age 13 her mother insisted he use the diminutive instead of Phil’s pet name for her. “Come on, Phil. Other kids are going to tease her about it at school if they hear that. I’m surprised they haven’t already done it,” Mom practically begged.
“I can’t reach the holder there. Grab me some t.p., would ya kid?” Phillip scratched out the question and jerked his head sideways to point toward the wall. Its close proximity meant nothing without a working appendage, the ulna vulnerable from a childhood break and recent radiation that rendered the arm useless. It hung limp without support, the now brown skin turned to leather, as if burned by 1000 suns.
His voice sounded like it dragged through gravel. Doctors blamed an electrolyte imbalance, so she almost hadn’t heard his weak call from the other room. Guilt feelings rose up from Marty’s imagined shirking of duties. Mother counted on her diligence. Somebody had to pay the bills. Dad’s early retirement sprang out of disability and employer insistence. He’d never work again.
“No problem, Daddy,” Marty answered and tore a strip of tissue from the roll dispenser while looking elsewhere. “That had to be embarrassing,” she thought. “Adds insult to injury, as if everything else wasn’t enough.”
Having cancer must be humbling.
Marty left him to finish business with tissue in his non-dominant hand in private. She stared out the living room window at dried Johnson grass rimming an adjacent field in a singular row that a mower must’ve missed. Its pale yellow hue resembled her father’s skin color, his liver affected among sundry body parts. The row, lit by a bright full moon, waved lazily in an early Spring breeze. Its motion lulled Marty’s anxiety. She couldn’t help mentally ruminating. “I’m glad Grandma doesn’t have to see her son like this.”
His mother came to see Phillip a day before he passed when his body resembled that of an Auschwitz prisoner, cheeks sunken and sallow, the disease having ravaged his body. When a mother outlives her child, an image of her beloved on his deathbed stays emblazoned on her mind’s eye until she reaches her own. The figurative retina remains forever scarred.
Noisy static and the television test pattern buzz disturbed Marty’s reverie. She followed the breaking story all night of a terrorist car bombing in an underground parking garage at the World Trade Center, what seemed millions of miles away from their farm but with damage relatively close to her aching heart. That national catastrophe seemed to parallel Daddy’s medical tragedy, personal calamity mirroring a relatively bigger catastrophe. The news day’s end meant she had to finally shut off the set and resolve herself to restless slumber on the couch.
When the Twin Towers’ fell in 2011, longer after he was gone, she’d reminisce how that night spent with her father seemed so prescient in retrospect. The two NYC events co-mingled in a way that almost felt identical. She’d even later muse, “Was that in ‘93 or the “9-11” bombings?” Memory blurred by then.
Days later, loud barking outside startled Marty back to reality. Their beagle usually warned if someone pulled in the driveway, but she found no one there upon inspection. “Hush, Tyrone,” she admonished. “Daddy’s asleep. He needs his rest.” An epiphany later convinced her that had been when Phillip’s spirit took a last tour of his beloved farm and said goodbye to his dogs as he left. They bellowed in reply, bidding their master, “Salut … we’ll see you over the rainbow bridge, friend.”
All his kids called Phillip “Daddy,” at the risk of their peers thinking it weird and razzing them about it. Maybe it was a southern endearment or simple country slang. Marty thought how pride over the likes of that seemed so unimportant when her father asked for help with such an intimate task that night.
But the previous undertaking paled in comparison to a chore Mother demanded she assist with doing later when Phillip became comatose. A dying person’s body expels its last bit of waste before the lungs perform final functions.
“I can’t do it,” Marty begged her through tears and sniffed-back snot. “Don’t make me. His pants … I don’t want to see him that way.” The smell didn’t bother her as much as seeing her father’s nakedness.
Mother replied, “Well, we can’t clean him with his pajamas on. You don’t have to look. Just get over here and help me lift. Brace up, girl!” Daddy would’ve been mortified to know Marty helped with that job.
Tough love is a bitch. Dying is worse. Being there when to witness her father takes his last breath proved more personal than either of those duties.
He’d wanted to die at home, though, on the farm for which he still owed the bank, but in the house he’d helped build. His home, nonetheless. He died the next day on a hospital bed hospice workers set up in the dining room. A nurse warned it was just a matter of time, maybe hours.
Marty remembered the raspy, “Hey, Tea. Come here a minute.” But Daddy wasn’t in the bathroom any more, and he’d never call for her help again. He’d never again sleep in front of the VCR tape’s 100th-plus “Smokey and The Bandit” viewing with “Eastbound and Down” lyrics blasting but never rousing him.
Sometime prior she recalled learning about a “death rattle,” but had never heard one before. The nurse informed her, “That’s just his last breath being expelled, honey.” The elucidation didn’t soothe her.
The prognosis had been six months, but Phillip lived for only six weeks. His son was on one coast following in Phillip’s military footsteps while the oldest daughter lived on the opposite coast when he slipped into death. All his children had visited as he rested in that makeshift hospital room in the last month, though. They spent very few family meals in that room except at a birthday or Christmastime. The kids staged a dance party for him with James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” trying to coax the lyrical into becoming truth. A self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.
“Turn that off, girls. You’re making him nervous,” Mother admonished.
They kissed him as he lay on those sterile sheets where he’d withered away to nothing, cancer having eaten away at his already slim frame. He died in that house as he’d wished, the hospital bed soon afterward removed from the dining room.
Phillip’s family never ate in there again.