by Jacqueline Ledoux
The clock ticks as seconds go by. Seconds turn to minutes and minutes to hours as I sit here, waiting. The chair I’m seated in is uncomfortable and the room smells sterile, like strong cleaning solution and chemicals. Perhaps the purpose of these nocuous agents is to mask the looming scent of death that pervades the hospital’s halls, but I don’t think it’s fooling anyone. It sure hasn’t fooled me.
It’s around hour three when a nurse comes in to ask me if I’d like some food. She offers me a tray holding what looks like an old cheese sandwich, a juice box, and a pudding cup. I laugh to myself, remembering these types of lunches from grade school. Disgusting. I politely decline and she’s quick to dismiss me, pulling a cigarette from one of her pockets.
“It’s almost time for my break anyway.” she says.
I watch the cigarette dangle from her lips as she turns on her heel and waddles back into the hall. She should be looking after my father, not wandering the unit in search of hungry visitors to give handouts to. But nobody really cares here and by that, I’m not surprised. I mean, it’s not their friend or family member who’s lying in bed half-alive and rapidly deteriorating. They’re here to work for a paycheck and then they go home. I do it at my own job, but at least life and death doesn’t depend on me editing other people’s writing. Agitated, I let out a deep sigh.
By now I’ve counted every ceiling tile in the room at least three times and have exhausted my fair share of crossword puzzles and games of Angry Bird. My cell phone battery is running low, so I decide to study the off-white colored walls instead. I wonder if they’ve always been that way or if, at some point in time, they were once a bright, luminous white – the shade of a princess’ wedding gown; pure white, like freshly fallen snow. I consider this for a moment, but the thought goes as quickly as it had come. I can’t focus on one topic for very long and I’m amazed that I’ve managed to sit still this whole time.
It’s approximately 4:37 when my father wakes up. Per usual, he’s confused and his icy, blue eyes grow wide with fear when he notices the oxygen tube and IVs that keep him shackled to his bed. He appears particularly frail today and his face is gaunt, like he hasn’t eaten in a couple of days. Transfixed on the bag of liquid dripping into his IV, I’m transported back into reality by the loud beeping of a monitor as his heart rate increases. It’s not until he looks over and sees me that he begins to calm down. His face softens and he holds out his bare, spindly arms letting me know that he wants a hug.
“Hi, Dad.” I say, trying to seem cool and collected, “I’m glad you’re awake.”
It doesn’t work though. When the words come out, they’re both distant and foreign; my voice sounds as if it belongs to someone else.
“It’s nice to see you here,” my father manages through quivering lips, “Now why don’t you come give your dad a hug?”
In his healthier days, I would’ve avoided that at all costs. I had never been particularly close with him and I didn’t enjoy being touched by anyone at all. But now that he’s sick, I feel obligated to fulfill whatever it is he asks of me. Estranged throughout my childhood, it’s the least I can do. So I get up from my chair, straighten my skirt, and allow him to embrace me the way he did before he abandoned my mom and me. Though it feels somewhat strange, I bask in the warmth of his arms.
“That a girl.” he says in a half-whisper, “I knew you’d come around.”
Head buried deep into his shoulder, I smile, feeling guilty that it’s taken me this long to forgive him. He’s had no one since he and my mom got divorced and for whatever reason, he never got remarried. The only two occasions in which I’ve had any contact with him throughout the years were on Christmas and his birthday. Though the conversations were short and I wasn’t particularly sweet, not a single holiday went by where I didn’t receive a gift from him – hand wrapped in colorful paper, topped with a ribbon, always signed, “Love, Dad.”
“So,” he starts, as I take the seat beside his bed, “How’s life been treating you?”
I stare at him for a second, dumbfounded that he’d rather talk about me than about the fact that he’s lying in a hospital bed. I scan his body from head to toe taking careful notice of each bruise, IV, and tube connected to a nearby machine and decide that, if I were him, I probably wouldn’t want to talk about it either. I focus on his face in an attempt to make him feel less self-conscious and tell him about my life. We talk about my new internship at a magazine company, the ups and downs I’ve had with my friends, and how I’m destined to remain single because I’m too independent for a man to call me his. That part makes him chuckle.
“You’re just like your mother.”
I’m not sure how to respond – I don’t know if it’s meant to be an insult or not, so instead I just smile and nod my head. I’m nervous now and I’m sure he can tell because I’m picking at my skin. It’s a bad habit I’ve harbored ever since I was a little girl, but behind every scar is a story, and I’ve got a lot of little scars. My brain is racing a mile a minute and my nails have no trouble keeping up. I think about the day he left, the way he and my mother cried, and how she threw a screaming fit demanding him to go. I remember the way he kissed my forehead and gave me a pat on the shoulder before walking out the door. I’ve been waiting to reconcile with him for years, but I didn’t think it’d happen like this. Finally, he speaks again and I regain my sense of self.
“I think about her a lot, you know.” he smiles weakly before it fades to a frown.
My initial reaction is venomous. I want to tell him to stop talking, that I don’t want to hear it or talk about my mom. I want to tell him that it’s his fault he lost her and scream at him for giving up on us. I’m tempted to scoff and ask him why he didn’t just marry the “other woman” and move on, but he’s my father and he’s dying, so instead, I murmur, “Me too.”
“We always wanted what was best for you,” he continues, “Your mother and I. We didn’t always see eye to eye, I know, but we wanted to give you a good childhood.”
Memories flood my mind and my brain goes into overdrive. I’m no longer a 22 year old woman sitting in her dying father’s hospital room. Instead, I’m a curly haired 5 year old clinging onto a dingy stuffed animal while her parents have at it right in front of her. I cry and scream and cover my ears, but they don’t stop arguing and it continues until my mother threatens to call the police.
“Get out of my house!” she finally barks.
And with that, my father gives me a kiss on the forehead and marches out the door, suitcase in hand. I hear the sound of his car sputtering to life and taking off down the road and I collapse onto the floor and cry myself to sleep for the next few weeks. The pain is overwhelming and I need to let it out. Without thinking, I speak and can’t seem to process my words until after I’ve said them.
“Why are you telling me this?” I ask, face hot and tears welling up in my eyes.
My father looks at me, pained. I see him searching for words and sit on the edge of my seat, impatiently waiting for what he’ll say next. He reaches for my hand and I let him take it.
“I just needed you to know,” he says, “That it was for the best. Your mother kept the house and I had nothing but my car. Her family was wealthy and all I could offer you was petty income from a factory job. That’s no way for a child to live.”
He looks off into the distance before continuing to speak.
“I wish she never met him, I really do. If she hadn’t, maybe we’d all still be living together in that house. It would’ve been grand old time, I reckon.”
He smiles to himself again, before breaking into a fit of coughs. He removes his trembling hand from mine so he can cover his mouth and my own hand falls limply to my armrest. I grip it hard to make sure I don’t fall over. I feel as if time has stopped, like everything’s in slow motion and I can’t seem to process his words correctly. I try to convince myself that I’ve misheard him, that I’ve made some kind of mistake, but I know that I heard right. All these years of hatred and bitterness were all for nothing at all. The person who’d betrayed us is the very person I’d been living with and my father suffered for my mother’s infidelity. I notice that my father’s stopped coughing, but I still can’t manage to think straight.
“I need a glass of water,” I stammer, forcing the words to come out, “Do you want one?”
He shakes his head and I excuse myself. I turn my back and the tears begin to fall as soon as I reach the hallway, but luckily I make it to the ladies’ room before the sobbing starts. I lock the door behind me and cry, breathing heavily, as childhood memories replay in my head. My 7th birthday. Christmas. Easter at Aunt Kathy’s. My senior prom. I lean against the wall for support and when I finally feel well enough, I splash some cold water onto my face and dab at my eyes with a flimsy, brown paper towel.
I return to my father’s room with a fresh face and a smile and suggest that I tell him a story. He agrees to this, so I tell him the tale of The Princess and the Frog, the one story I always demanded he tell me before bed as a kid. I’m about 2/3 of the way through when that same cantankerous nurse trots in to alert me that visiting hours are over.
“Okay,” I reply, grabbing my bag and getting up from my chair, “Same time tomorrow?” I ask.
My father’s saddened eyes light up and he seems to grin from ear to ear.
“If you’re not busy.” he answers with a tinge of giddiness in his voice. I smile to myself.
“Sounds good,” I say.
And with that, I lean over him and plant a kiss on his forehead.
“I love you, Dad.” I whisper as I collect my belongings and head for the door.
Category: Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing