Pawing the Ground
The year I turn 9, my father hurls a telephone across the kitchen.
My dad has just received news of a friend’s death from brain cancer. I suspect he figures the receiver might as well die too, and wound the kitchen on its way out.
By the time he is shoved up against his own cancer diagnosis, 17 years later, my father is too weak to weaponize telephones. In fact, he does not visibly rage against much of anything. But when I tell him that I don’t want him to go, he peers over the half-moons of his reading glasses: “Don’t think for one moment this isn’t breaking my heart.”
When the doctor informs my father that treatment is suspended, he furrows his dark brow and asks, “What’s the plan?”
The plan is hospice. There’s no time for surgery, no point in putting him through chemo, so for four days, my 58-year-old father withers on a rented hospital bed in the dining room beneath a chandelier we hoist then secure with a fistful of twist ties.
On the first day, in anticipation of his arrival, two of Dad’s friends busy themselves yanking a fitted sheet across the flimsy mattress. They tuck, they smooth, they bicker over bed-making techniques, anxious to refine a task their wives likely have never asked them to perform.
If we can just make the bed, their hands seem to be saying, all will be well.
My father is a gregarious writer, teacher, and public speaker suddenly rendered speechless. He grasps a pencil, starts a list on a yellow legal pad, but can’t make his way past No. 1: “Plan your work and work your plan.” He forms the letters in an unsteady script, breaking off and leaving Nos. 2 and 3 to dribble down the page, his intentions a mystery. I keep vigil at his bedside with my own legal pad, writing, wielding a ballpoint pen as cancer dries up my father’s deep well of 50-cent words, jokes, stories, and borrowed accents.
The house is fragrant with the mingled scents of covered dishes. These are substantive meals for long journeys—lasagna, pierogi (someone even brings pierogi-lasagna)—that only my brother Michael can manage to cram into his mouth. This is food doubling as brick and mortar, designed to fill what can’t be filled, sate what can’t be sated. If only these heavy, donated dinners could make bulwarks of us all, tethering my parents, brothers, and me to the ground.
On the second day, Dad intermittently plays emcee as neighbors drift in and out. We listen to Ella Fitzgerald and toast him with his favorite Chianti, the good stuff he’s finally able to afford after years of quaffing screw-top jug wine the color of fresh bruises. We raise goblets like torches while he sucks herbal tea from a tiny sponge, attempting to deliver quips in grunts and bleats.
With our assistance, my father even manages to sit on the edge of the hospital bed, pissing into a plastic bottle and delivering a flurry of dry kisses to my mother’s cheek. The kisses seem more childlike than romantic, as if he’s attempting to leave an imprint. Or maybe it’s more like this: The chain of kisses stitches together a plea: Don’t let me go.
On the third day, Dad soils himself as my brothers, who refuse to see him in diapers, drag him from the portable commode to the bed. Michael and Billy steady him as I kneel down and get to work with a damp rag. A tranquility settles in as I reassure my father and wipe the thick trail of filth from his jaundiced calf.
As I clean him, I feel certain of only one thing: my refusal to appear ruffled. My father must understand that I respect him no matter what, even as he stands in his own filth.
Life divides in these moments: There’s the Before, and the After. I am 26 years old as liver cancer poisons my father’s quick, beautiful brain.
In the Before, I wonder if my art history degree is worthless now that I’ve opted not to pursue the PhD.
This moment launches me into the After. What have I given my father? I’ve never even bought him lunch. But I can wash him clean. This will have to suffice as my first and final offering.
But I also worry: How long can we last? Translation: Please die soon, I can’t believe you’re dying, don’t go, don’t stay, not like this.
On that same telephone that he whipped across the kitchen when I was 9 years old, my father and I played a game during my childhood: Calling Heaven. He dialed H-E-A-V-E-N-S looking to chat, and then cradled the receiver between us. There we were, suspended in a kind of carbonated expectation. I don’t care that no one ever answered. It doesn’t matter that a series of faithless beeps eventually punctured this kitchen sweetness with a terrestrial urgency. I only care that my father dialed and held that phone, eager to imagine the possibilities, to dip himself in mystery right alongside me, ear-to-ear, inclining toward wonder.
Sit beside your dying father. Open to Psalm 91. Recite the passage promising that if he makes the “Most High” his dwelling, disaster will bypass his tent. Read aloud in a firm voice, even though you’re both hounded by the stubborn truth—that disaster snorts through flared nostrils, paws this parcel of ground where you were born and raised, circles his tent, and come morning, will gain entry.
Perhaps I’m pawing at the ground too. I stalk meaning here in the muck, panting, scraping at the earth for something that will shine.
What I mean is: I’ve read all the wrong books, attempted to wring too much sustenance from the voices of art history professors exhorting me to interpret panel paintings and frescoes, prodding me to scour the surface for the depths. Look hard, and the object will reveal its secrets. The blazing lapis lazuli of Mary’s robe indicates royalty; the lily symbolizes piety.
But I know there’s a chance meaning will forsake me and fail to report back from the border of my father’s three-month illness, from the precipice of these four days.
When my father dies, our normally aloof cat reclines beside him, a single paw draped over his shin. The fruit flies circle gift baskets of pears and sharp cheddar. I’m down the hall beside my mother, tangled in half-sleep on his side of the bed, I’m wrung out like a filthy dishrag from a night spent listening hard for his jagged last breath. We take shifts in the wing chair all through the night with that corona of fruit flies for company. We behave as if our presence will stave off his absence, but that strategy fails us, fails him, because vigilance will always refuse to double as medicine. He dies on Billy’s watch, sometime after 7 in the morning on a rainy Monday in October.
And yet. And yet, these four days aren’t straight suffering and prayer, laid end-to-end. Something more jams itself into the space between the hospital bed and the pierogi-lasagna, the psalm recitation and the Chianti sloshing in my glass.
In the days before the fruit flies, the cat, and the jagged last breath, my father manages to sit on the edge of the hospital bed. He beckons and slips me beneath his left arm, while Billy’s head fills the space beneath his right. My father squeezes us toward him in a Half Nelson reminiscent of his days as a college wrestler.
He freezes, contorts his face into a wide, full-tilt Chiclets grin, then bleats a single syllable, at first incomprehensible: “EEE!”
After a few moments, my brain manages to fill in the consonants.
EEE. Yes, of course: “EEE!” I smile too.
I pose for an imaginary camera.
EEE. He’s saying, “Cheese!”
Laurie Granieri’s work has been broadcast on National Public Radio and has appeared on the “On Being” blog, as part of River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” series, in ELLE magazine, at Creative Nonfiction, Lunch Ticket, and at Image Journal, among others. She is the recipient of NELLE magazine’s 2023 nonfiction Three Sisters Award for “Leaving the Body.” She has kept a journal since she was 11 years old, and she does not regret the fact that she recently tossed most of them in the trash. www.lauriegranieri.com