Title is shamelessly stolen from Denis Johnson’s short story, “Emergency” – so mind-blowing, anyone who hasn’t experienced it, abandon this post immediately, click on the link below, or Google it.
Now really, isn’t that an astonishing work?
Back to my own “Emergency,” which pales in comparison to Denis Johnson’s brilliance.
I’ll settle for coherence here. I’m watching my father die. Most of us have or will. Much has been written about this universal, but profoundly unique loss.
I write, using humor to deflect emotion (a strategy picked up from Dad) and because writing and reading is the only thing I do to stay sane.
I read, not to be entertained, but to know that I’m not alone. I hope someone may read this and find comfort, or a laugh to avoid it.
Thursday morning, May 29
“I’m dying. I want out of all this,” my father says, waking in a prized hospital bed, his reward for enduring seven sadistic hours in a rickety ER wheel chair yesterday.
Amazed that he survived that, I don’t blame him. He’s 89 years old and some change. Three back fractures, infections and constant pain – who wouldn’t want out? I’ve longed to desert life’s battle, even with a fighting chance. I don’t buy into obituaries, such as “Ima Pureheart, 98, after a valiant fight, blah blah blah.” The elderly aren’t warriors – they’re cannon fodder. Old age is a massacre.
His body shakes and sinks into the bed. His face is blotched red. I hold his right hand, with the needle and tubes that lead to a skeletal pole, where plastic bags droop like dying organs.
His palm is as warm and soft as a baby’s. Under the bruises of age, the olive skin and long fingers are the original blueprints for my own hands.
“Want you to have a life,” he says. His Adam’s Apple, sharp as an arrowhead, shoots up and down his neck when he speaks, from the side of his drooping mouth. “I want to die now.”
I believe him. Two years ago, my mother, in this very hospital, said that she was dying, and by God, she meant it. She was gone in two days.
I didn’t see her die, and felt guilty for that. But I’ll pay that penance now. This is real, not a movie and I’ll witness it, alone in this room. And what will I do then? There’s no script here.
Time passes in moments or hours. I focus only on the rise and fall of his body, on this breath and the next and the next. I remember my white ballerina music box. Winding down to an exact, unpredictable note, mid-song, then empty silence.
I look up at the dripping skeleton pole. A thought bubbles in. He hasn’t eaten in 48 hours. They said he was dehydrated, malnourished. Are they doing this on purpose? Is euthanasia legal now?
In the fluorescent hall, I grab the first dark blue scrubbed figure I see. “My Dad,” I say. “Nobody’s been in. Room 1118. Is he not supposed to be not eating?”
She looks up from a beeping shopping cart. Her brown eyes are wide and blank. I can’t read her name tag – “Jai-Ang,” or something like that. She launches into the mantra of modern medical care.
“I just came in. It’s shift change, I don’t usually work this floor and I’ve been off three days.”
“Well, can you check and find the right nurse?”
“You need to go to the nurses station.”
Behind the desk, a woman in cat-eye glasses looks up from her “O” magazine. I say it all again.
“Room number, date of birth, name? I don’t know who’s on 18 now. We’re on shift change.”
“Can you find out and send them in?”
She raises her eyebrows, swivels her chair to a computer and says nothing.
I go back to my death vigil. He’s still breathing so I didn’t miss anything.
The door opens. I scream.
“You have a question?” She squirts hand sanitizer from the wall unit and rubs her hands..
“Oh, lots,” I think. “Is he supposed be on fluids only?”
“On a real diet.” She writes her name on the whiteboard: “Daiquiri.”
Daiquiri? You can’t make this up.
“Real diet?” “What is real?” I’ll ask that question in more philosophical terms over the next weeks.
“How do I get some normal food around here?”
“You’ll have to call concierge. There’s a menu somewhere in here.” Her phone rings. “21. I’m coming,” she answers and leaves.
I find the menu wedged under the bed. I call and wait three hours, still counting breaths.
Nearly 3 hours later, after a monumental concierge screw-up that got the manager up here to apologize, Dad’s devouring soup & cornbread. Either this is a last meal, or his death was highly over rated.
He sits up, puts on his glasses for the first time and reads.
“Oh yummy,” he says. “Chastity Menu. Break Foot menu.”
“No DAD, it’s ‘CLASSIC Menu and BREAKFAST menu.”
“Well, tonight, I’m having Tilapia. What is Tilapia?
“I don’t know what that is, but I’ve heard sophisticated big-shot women like it.”
So Dad, are you retracting your death sentence?
“What? Oh. I still don’t understand why I didn’t die. You were trying to starve me. Now you’re disappointed.”
Okay. Cracking jokes is a tip-top vital sign for him.
“Oh, while you were gone, I almost ate the phone.” By his bed, the one-piece unit ends in a round headpiece. “I thought it was a sugar cookie.”
“Well, make a note of it – don’t eat the phone.”
“Alright, but If I’m not dying anymore, I’m going to start tweeting.”
“Tweet away,” I say. He’s never used a computer in his life.
“Tweet means to fart, right?”