A version of this piece originally appeared on Nishta’s blog.
For months, the movie screen of my mind featured the same scene—my father’s face against a white hospital sheet—over and over and over again. Skin turns sallow and loses elasticity remarkably fast. Either a body is living or it is not.
My father was a hairy man, one of those hairy men. I think women who don’t mind hairy men had hairy men for dads. My dad’s back was pretty smooth, which helped, but his arms and legs were curly and crowded with hair. Each day he was in the hospital, I would put lotion on for him. First because he asked, then because I would suggest, finally because it was a continuation, a habit, an enactment of the belief that it mattered whether or not his skin was dry. His hair would become tangled and twisted as I tried to rub the lotion in, until I smoothed it in one direction with the inside of my palm, the way a vacuum cleaner shades carpet into even rows.
Tending to one’s parent is tricky. I remember when I stopped sleeping in the same bed as my mother—it wasn’t what we did every night, but maybe once a week or so. As I got older, less frequently. Once I started sleeping in beds with other people, I couldn’t sleep next to my mother anymore. The lines felt too blurry. I didn’t say this to her. I told her I felt like I had “grown out of it.” She had a hard time with that.
Someday, I will know what it feels like to delight completely in my grown child. I saw pride in my father’s face, even in that oddest of times. “I’ll need you to pay the bills online.” Far from the days of macaroni necklaces and tempera paint handprints, I was proving my salt.
It happened on a regular Saturday. Someone’s Sabbath, someone’s tailgate, someone’s first piano recital or first sushi or first time to watch On the Waterfront. My father’s first and only death. We had arranged for Saturday to be visitation day, something to placate everyone calling our house, calling my cell phone, “How is Subhash?” Our doctor had told us the Wednesday before that we didn’t have much time. On Friday, my day alone with him, I told him, “If you could just make it until Saturday, okay Papa? That’s when everyone’s coming to see you. After that, you just do what you need to do.” I was past the point of caring whether he could hear me or not.
I told the doctor, “We want to place a DNR,” just like I learned to do from the movies and from television shows. I even got the empathy and a silent nod that I hoped meant, “You’re doing the right thing.” One part surprised me, though. There was no paperwork to sign. All I had to do was say don’t bring my father back to life and they changed his wristband to a different color: orange, meaning no heroic measures.
Varsha somehow got away from her fancy New York law firm job to fly home for twenty-four hours. She is like my little sister; our families have known each other since before we were born. I remember her walking out into the lobby from the ICU and wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her blue Carolina Tarheels sweatshirt. There is so much of Varsha in my memory, the little fountain ponytail she used to sport on the top of her head as a toddler, her childhood and pre-teen obsession with miniature perfume bottles, the ups and downs of her relationship with the long-distance and long-term boyfriend she will soon marry.
But those tears, they caught me off guard. As if they proved what was happening, that someone, my father, was about to die for real. Varsha was promptly given a yellow legal pad and placed in charge of listing the visitors who showed up for the rest of the day, so that my mother and I might thank them later. One of death’s many, slightly perverse rituals: lots and lots of thank-you notes.
“But how can I write down their names if I don’t know their names?” Varsha protested with a half-sheepish, half-pleading face. It’s true, none of us kids do. That’s one of the hallmarks of our extended Indian immigrant community structure—everyone is “Uncle” or “Aunty,” even people you have known your whole life—leaving you clueless as to their actual first or last names. These titles are lovely and familiar, but not very helpful on a sign-in sheet. So whenever brown people appeared from the third-floor elevators, we figured they belonged to us, and Varsha would ask them to please sign in. By the end of the day, the top sheet was full. Word travels quickly, and even people who had pinched my cheeks the last time they saw me were showing up.
While my mother sat, balled up tight, at my father’s side, I stayed in the waiting room, trying to hide, reading fluffy magazines with my friend Kristen. She sat next to me and held my Starbucks cup every time I got up to hug someone, or let them hug me. As the hours passed, Kristen became my homing device, her body soft and round next to mine, the smell of her wet hair familiar. Even her nickname for me, “Nini,” began to sound like a wise and profound benediction. I could not bear the look she was giving me, the awfulness of the situation mirrored in her eyes, so I read aloud an article about a woman who was addicted to calling psychic hotlines, in the way that as victims we will inversely seek to comfort those who are there to comfort us, distract them, reassure them that we are alright. This woman in the article had written a book, Psychic Junkie, and its title made Kristen laugh like I knew it would, her unbelievably loud laugh startling the room, a belly laugh she inherited from her father.
A couple whom I knew by face but not by name approached. Kristen elbowed me subtly, and I got up. The woman reminded me a little bit of my mom, the way she looks in old pictures with long hair, light skin, and almond eyes. Her husband was wearing a denim shirt which pulled at his broad shoulders. His head was perfectly round and covered with thinning salt-and-pepper hair. Both of their faces betrayed the shock of having just seen my father, who just a few weeks before had shown no traces of illness. I braced myself for another exchange with well-meaning but frustrating people, the good girl in me ready to smile and cut them some slack, the angry woman in me tired of hugs, of useless comfort, of having to swallow platitudes. The usual blur of words occurred: “Oh, sweetheart… so sad… how are you?… take care of your mother,” etc. They asked questions about what the doctors were saying, as if I had the energy to go over details, and suggested various avenues of investigation, as if they were going to find the magic solution that dozens of experts had missed.
Before my face could betray my frustration, I issued the standard “Thank you for coming,” in a tone like the lights coming on in a bar at two a.m. Then the man looked at me gravely, nodding his head for emphasis and said, “We believe that miracles happen everyday. We pray for that.”
FOR THE RECORD: The only good things to say to someone experiencing a terrible loss are “I love you” and “I’m sorry.” Please do not tell them that things happen for a reason, that their loved one will now be an angel in heaven looking over them, that this experience will make them stronger, or that you understand how they feel. You don’t.
My mother and I fought. Of course we did. That is the thing no one ever seems to mention; she yelled and I pushed. Apparently it happens all the time. That part I hope my father couldn’t hear.
Around five o’clock on visiting day, after the crowds had come and gone, Gloria, my father’s day nurse came to me and said, “His blood pressure has been falling steadily all day. I don’t think he’s going to make it through the night.” I told Kristen, who left me reluctantly, with a big squeeze and a solemn face. My mother drove home and brought back her Sanskrit prayer books, my English copy of the Bhagavad Gita, and Charlotte’s Web. We sat on either side of the bed and I held my father’s hand while Mom read her prayers aloud. It occurred to me then that there was a part of my father I would never know, since I had not learned to speak to him in his first language. I sang along with my mother in the places I knew by heart.
First, we asked the nurses to stop increasing his Levophed, which regulates blood pressure: too much of the medicine and his kidneys would fail. We asked them to stop pricking his finger every hour to check his blood sugar. At our request, they took the pressure stockings off of his legs, and I could see how swollen his feet were. Finally, we asked Katie, who had the night shift, to stop giving him Levophed altogether. His blood pressure fell, but then leveled again. He had two weeks’ worth of heavy meds in his body.
Hours passed and the room grew dark. Charlotte had saved Wilbur, and then died. I decided that when I die, I want someone to say about me what is said of Charlotte at the very end: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” The respirator kept regular time, its electric blue tubing shaking slightly with each forced breath. My father had been attached to the thing, officially considered a heroic measure, for a week and three days. His doctor had told me, frankly, that there was no way he would last on his own without it. “A few minutes, maybe.”
My mother wasn’t prepared, that goes without saying. Because how do you really prepare for something like this? But we had discussed things, we had agreed that my father would want a dignified death. Not the drama of cardiac arrest, or the tragedy of kidney failure. This was our plan: failing all else, we would take my father off the respirator on Tuesday, an auspicious day for my family. Most Hindu families observe a holy day that corresponds with the god that the household primarily worships. My father, a man who so loved his food, even gave up meat once a week, every week, on that day. My mother and I felt that Tuesday would only be fitting. But that was in theory, on paper, and not in practice. So when it became clear that we did not have until Tuesday, my mother, who likes her plans, her color-coded files, her control, who passed on to me her habit of subdividing her grocery lists to match the layout of the store’s aisles, balled up again, tight and unwilling to budge. And so, I pushed.
I pushed because I was exhausted, waiting for my father to die. I pushed because I could not stand to watch him a minute longer, full of tubes and wires with his goddamn blood pressure alarm beeping every fifteen minutes. I pushed because I knew what he would want, and I wanted to give him that: if nothing else, a peaceful death. I pushed because I was not about to leave that room, was not about to go home and wait for a phone call, could not bear the thought of my father dying alone like Charlotte. I pushed because I knew my father was going to die, but you can’t start grieving for it until it happens. I pushed. I don’t regret it.
My mother said harsh things, things I wish I did not remember.
“Why are you being so impatient?”
“You just want to do what’s easier for you.”
“This is how you have always been—completely selfish.”
“So, what, you want him to die?”
I don’t think she has any memory of being this way, nor did her words wound me, her desperation was so clear. I held the party line as quietly as I could. It didn’t take long for her anger to push in and through and out the other side of her fear. “I can’t do it,” she wailed. “I know I should but I can’t.”
“It’s okay, Momma. You don’t have to.” I stepped out into the hall, where the nurse supervisor promised me again that morphine would ensure that my father felt no pain when his life left his body. How can anyone make a promise like that? Of course, it was the one I wanted. “Please,” I said to her. “Now.”
CONFESSION: My brain did not stop running, even when my father was dying. The one time you would think I wouldn’t have to scream to myself “Pay attention!” but there it all was, bad commercial jingles and song lyrics and even the question, “When is this going to end?” I felt the strangeness of time, and tried to will my father out of being.
The respiratory technician was a tall, thin man with lovely dark skin, much darker than mine, like a coffee bean. His fingers were long, I remember that. I watched him unhook the respirator tube and attach another, connected to an oxygen tank. I think it took about two minutes for my father to die, with me sitting on my mother’s lap, my face buried in my father’s side. “Let go, Papa, let go.”
Katie, our tiny nurse, had curly hair and a wedding ring. Her diamond surprised me, I guess because she looked like a sixteen-year-old. She turned off the alarms on the screen which monitored my father’s heartbeat, oxygen level, and blood pressure, and stood at the back of the room and cried while my father died. I loved her for crying. Her eyes were so red when I said goodbye to her. I don’t remember looking in the mirror at myself that night when I got home, but I imagine her face when I think about how I felt. Quiet and empty.
At the end, you do have to sign paperwork, a release form. I must say, I did it beautifully, no tears on the clipboard, no melodrama. The inside of my chest burned as if it had been scraped hollow with a soup spoon, like a pumpkin at Halloween. I went back to pick up my purse and kissed his forehead which was already so foreign and so cold. “My father is a body now,” I thought, and walked away.
Nishta Mehra is a writer, middle school English teacher, and enthusiastic home cook who blogs about food and life at www.bluejeangourmet.com. A graduate of the MFA program at the University of Arizona, her first book, a collection of essays entitled The Pomegranate King, was published in June 2013. She lives with her partner, Jill Carroll, and their son, Shiv, in a suburb of Houston, Texas.