Monday, September 3, 2012
The weather is still hot, though on my early morning walks, the breeze has gotten cooler. The sun rises soon enough, so the neighbor's AC can resume its endless hums and the pool can be spilled over with wet swim suits and the smell of Coppertone sunscreen. Autumn is ready to steal the stage, you can feel it, but summer hasn't given up the fight yet.
School has started. The little lane just outside my window is once again filled with the clatters of children at eight the dot. My own class schedule fills up the once blank calendar, and I can't help but wondering where did all the time go? I have barely had a summer day off, and I've not made it to the beach even once yet.
Memories of the end of the spring came back then. The rush of exams and semester ending parties did not fill my mind as I learned of my father's terminal diagnosis. I rushed to the hospital but I would've rather run away, not facing that moment's terrible truth -- one that I didn't feel equipped to face. I put on a smile and listen to the treatment options, or lack thereof, somehow finding ways to believe things will work out, letting hope and fear have their turns with me, twisting and choking me inside and out.
I ran when I could, to cry in solitude, to let the tears out of their prison of pretense. I held it together in public for the most part. But there was a guilt, for every smile smiled, and for every tear shed. A door closed inside, slowly at first, rapidly shut soon, whenever I walked into the audience of the world. I did not want that, but I did not know how else to walk so it became a new habit in a way.
I spent the summer, alone but not, in hospital rooms. For a while I focused on his face, one that I knew for years as a symbol of strength and character. But then all I saw was tubes, jaundice, and fatigue. He saw me cry once. He let me go on until I was done. Then he told me he was fighting but he was also ready. Be logical, he said. You tend to look at things too emotionally, don't be. He was ready to fight or die and he was not afraid. I nodded when he said this, I believed him and wanted to fight with him.
It was almost Father's Day when I visited one Saturday, perhaps a week or two from it. I caught him listening to music on TV with a picturesque background of the ocean. I want to take you to the beach, I said. Get better soon, at least get rid of these wires so I could take you to the beach. We will go on Father's day, I said. You need to eat something and keep it down, then we could get rid of these wires and go to the beach together, I will push your wheel chair and walk with you.
I won't need you to push me, he replied. I will be better before then and I will walk there myself and walk faster then you. You are a slow poke. He looked at me when he said it, eyes full of mischief. Eyes full of spirit like I remembered.
That night he refused the "pain management" medications and got up five times to feed himself the alternative medicines I got him. The medicine promised to remove the pressure on his stomach from the tumors and allow him to digest something. He ate a small meal or two the next day without throwing up and I started to cross off the days on the calendar.
But the relief was short lived. The next two weeks were as long as two years. As doctors confirmed repeatedly the extent of his cancer and pushed harder for his move to the hospice, his condition deteriorated rapidly. The hospice allowed an extra bed for family to stay overnight, so I stayed there and realized one morning when I woke up it was Father's day. I went to the garden below his room to gather some fresh blooms and sprigs of herbs to replace the faded ones by his bed side. He woke in good spirits, and once more seemed the father I knew. The room overlooked a beautiful stretch of the city, with a golf course on one side and a bustling cluster of shops on the other. Bands of highway overpasses were filled with endless streams of cars, dazzling with purpose as they ran busily from one place to another.
Can you see the beach? He asked once I finished describing his "fantastic view". His words choked me, as I remembered my promise and his once fighting spirit before "pain management" took over. He seemed to be remembering also, propping himself up for the first time in an eternity, stretching his neck toward the window, and peered from those once distant and then once familiar eyes. I took a few moments to compose myself, to come up with an answer, to peer as far as I could see, to smell and inhale as heavily as I could muster, for a scant scent of the ocean..., but failed in the end of all my efforts.
No, I shook as I told him. The ocean is just beyond the golf courses and the buildings of the shops though, do you recognize them? We had lunch there once. Perhaps if you squinted towards the lowest and farthest blue lines of the sky, you could see the edge of the ocean. Of all these I told him.
He fell back down on his back at once, and asked for more pain medication. It was as if the few moments of stretching and hoping and wanting for something raw and fresh and real from a world that had been shut out to him for over a month had cost him all the strength and endurance he had saved up for that morning. I offered to move his bed toward his window, to talk to him some more about the family that still lived in China, the sister he missed, the time we spent there, but it was no use. The light that shone in his eyes for a few moments earlier that morning was gone, and I would later found out that I would never see it again. I sat by his side as the nurse administered the drug that put him back to a quiet haze, wishing and wanting to say something, to offer to take him to the ocean again. To say the hell with the wires and tubes and all the other gadgets that had tethered him to that god forsaken place, and let's go to the beach, one more time. But I was as afraid to admit all that would be worth it because it may as well be the final time as I was to say anything more at that moment, afraid that his frail bones might actually break if we moved him, afraid he may not make it on the way, afraid that his hours, however brief, will be shortened even further if I went with my foolish, overly emotional ideas.
So I watched him sleep, occasionally soundly, often fitfully, altogether wretched and accompanied by pain and a choking cough now and again. I watched him until that day, when his final sleep arrived, in a morning just like any other, without fan fair, with no more tears, or the sound of the waves to keep him safe. The summer had left me with much and little, thankful and sad, afraid of nothing and everything.
I wonder where has all the time gone this summer, occasionally when I wake to the strange yet familiar sound and smell of fall. I wonder why I have not made it to the beach even once, then I would remember, afresh.
* * * * *
Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,