Prologue from the novel This Sweet Intercourse
I’ve never been here before. The building is steeped in cold, dimly-lighted and with few windows, all tinted. Corridors starfish in every direction like a labyrinth inward, seeking a center that isn’t there: the biggest building in the world. Given instructions I take the next right and find myself in a culdesac where three rooms cluster next to two nurses’ stations, one on either side of the hallway. I nod hello to the woman in white seated there skimming a magazine, then walk into the stuffy airless room where my father lies sleeping. Dying.
Someone has taken out his teeth so the lower jaw sinks into his throat, giving his face the awful caved-in look of a corpse. His skin is completely drained of color, lurid and pale as the sheets under which a shriveling body is gathered, his white hair disheveled and unwashed while whiskers not fit for an adolescent dust his cheeks and—being chinless—throat: no one wants to shave him. The backs of his hands are blued from bloodletting, both arms stained by bruises from all the false starts, and screwed into his side a colostomybag is bared for all to see. Immediately, instinctively, I begin to cry like a little boy . . . Don’t go, Daddy, please don’t go. My legs feel weak at once, quivery, and in a second’s time I realize what an insulated life I’ve been living despite all supposed reminders to the contrary. But with the help of a healthy body one can forget anything until real life comes around once more to assert itself, prove it’s just as powerful as the imagined one. Already well aware that there are numerous ways to die, to relinquish one’s soul to Whatever, what I’m now witnessing seems to me the worst: withering away in this impersonal place where everything is monitored by machines when instead one could be hurling himself into Oblivion by choice, using whatever means are at his disposal. We should be forced to confront this sooner, I find myself thinking...take first-graders on field trips to the hospital so they can see for themselves what it is they’re up against.
The bed is on wheels, bars line both sides and red buttons read PUSH and UP with accompanying arrows pointed in all directions to define the ways in which the miracle mattress can be moved. TV-sound issues from a square handsized speaker gripped by the bedridden—or else lying uselessly on a belly, as in my father’s case—the picture-box itself perched high up in a corner and aimed down ominously at the patient like the crucifix over a Catholic altar. I reach to take the remote so as to switch it off but his eyes open suddenly, startling me. “Hey buddy,” I say, hoping he doesn’t notice the tears on my face. Without a sound he stretches a shaking open hand I take gingerly, afraid of his frailty, and once we’re joined his eyes shut slowly and he lets out a long sad sigh. We’re here, now.
When he speaks it’s with the hushed lowvoiced tenor of one who at last has been scared into humility by his surroundings, and I have to lean in close to hear him, close enough to feel funny about it. Needing to urinate, he awkwardly rolls onto his right side with a wide-mouthed plastic urinal while I stare at the television, goofy commercials jump-cutting like crazy as if fashioned for epileptics but my eyes nailed to it nonetheless, avoiding the other, and after a few fruitless moments he says, “The good Lord didn’t make me for this.” He confesses that in the past three hours he has attempted to relieve himself in this manner four times to no avail, so now since I’m there decides he’ll try standing. In order to stand he must first sit (something the healthy never take notice of), and this costs him nearly five full minutes to achieve, even with me helping . . . the soft-looking mattress seeming to have swallowed his strengthless body. But at last he’s upright on the edge of the bed, his legs hanging down twig-thin and straight as plumb-lines. I’m wondering how these wasplike appendages are going to support him when, without a word, he makes it clear that he needs more help, so I hug him from the front and lift, my bad back searing while he groans his way up and grips his surgery-sutured chest as if to clamp it together where the doctors broke it open—quadruple bypass. Once we’re standing I steady him with every ounce of strength I possess for fear of us both falling while he does his business, terrified he’ll miss his target and soak me or that I’ll break the wastebag, all the while staring at the wall over his shoulder trying to forget how heavy he feels and wondering what all the switches and buttons are for, marveling at my deep ignorance of the ways of medicine. “Oh come on,” he complains to a bloated bladder refusing to release, me realizing with some shame that this is the first time I’ve hugged my father in more years than I can recall. I’m counting seconds for the sound of success but still haven’t heard even a trickle when he says to me, “Alright,” and begins leaning back to the bed-edge. Once he’s seated I take from him the urinal in which—to my surprise—two inches of cloudy fulvous fluid sloshes, asking stupidly, “Do they need this?” before flushing it down the toilet for him.
Being mattress-bound his back and bottom have become envictimed to bedsores, red and raw, so when a nurse checks in we get him into a wheelchair so she can put some sort of padding beneath the sheets. He’s easier to lift with the help of another, but moans like a mantra the entire time, “Ohh . . . ohhh . . . ” me worried we’re breaking his chest open—I gauge my concern against the nurse’s apparent lack thereof and tailor it accordingly. Onto the mattress she unrolls this thick foam-rubber cushion with craters in it that are supposed to allow his skin to breathe better, then remakes the bed while I sit doing nothing and feeling bad about it. After, she dusts his stinging sore-speckled back with talcum powder, and together we hoist him back into bed but this time he panics completely, “Ohhh . . . ohhh . . .” me afraid for him while the undaunted nurse singlehandedly heaves him onto the mattress, his face buried in her chest. Once in place he starts shaking uncontrollably. “I shouldn’t have my face in your breasts,” he says shaky-voiced to the nurse, causing me to cringe, but angelically she takes it in stride and consoles him not to worry about it.
In a short while he falls into a fitful sleep. I pull all of the covers up around him but still he shivers ridiculously, the whole bed vibrating with it, his brows furrowed to show no relief from his stress even in slumber, gasping periodically in a panic, sometimes another “Ohhh . . .” from whatever awful world he is in. I remind myself that he alone is responsible for all this, that his body has suffered years of abuse and neglect despite countless cautions from Fate to clean up his act and listen to the needs of his spirit before it became corrupted by the bad choices he’d made, but in fact this doesn’t make me feel the least bit better because he’s still just a man and therefore as worthy of sympathy as any of us. I lay my hand gingerly on the lumpy sheetcovered shape of him, then touch his whiskered face with more delicacy than I have shown him in all my life—a futile effort supposed to send him some small silent reassurance. “I forgive you,” I say to my sleeping father—the saddest man I’ve ever known—then add, “I hope you’ll forgive me,” and tell myself that I can let go...that this is happening whether I’m ready or not so now what will I make of it? Waves of regret rush through me for failing to have made better use of the moments I’ve spent with my father, sorry I didn’t insist that he share his secrets with me, his hopes and fears and his own regrets . . . sorry that I was too scared to practice what I’d spent the past five years preaching and now once more might be forced to learn the lesson the hard way. I sit for another full hour with my hand resting on him before deciding to head home, just trying to send to him my sympathy and concern however I can, but he doesn’t wake up and the shaking never stops.
It takes forever to find my way out of the building but once I pass through the doors into the parkinglot I feel so happy it shames me, the sun beating down brightly and the sky a cerulean blue having nothing to do with the suffering inside a hospital. I walk to where my mom’s car is parked but don’t get in, not yet—I simply lean back on the sun-hot hood to soak up some of that light kept at bay by tinted windows. I’m here, I think, reminding myself . . . right here . . . alive. Even though I should’ve known better I can see that life misled me into a false belief that these things always happen suddenly, and quickly, and it was this constant uncertainty that seemed unfair to me, even cruel. Clearly there are worse things. Climbing into the car I take a long last look at that enormous white-stoned edifice, trying in vain to select the one window beyond which my father convulses in stressful sleep. Then I make the short drive home to my mother’s, a sun-filled house with warm breezy windows, where she’ll ask about my dad only through concern for me (her twenty-five-year-old still struggling to make peace with the man, not to mention himself), and her husband Larry will fix for us a dinner fit for a king that leaves me feeling guilty for the great delicious luxury of it.
Which isn’t so bad as what happens later, when I head off to bed. Involuntarily, I conjure creeping to my father’s hospital room to kill him. It’s only a ten-minute drive to get there, through darkened streets devoid of daytime traffic (though the Paulsen Street signal stays red so long I’m granted the terrible opportunity to reconsider), and with a murderous meticulousness that’s strategic enough to scare me I’m actually able to map-out every move that will lead straight to his bedside, where I’ll take control of the world in a way he never believed possible and mercifully smother that poor man with a pillow until his shaking stops forever.
Copyright © 2013 by Michael Joseph Hanson