By Saniya M
His body was a sinking battered boat, slowly submerging into his drowning lungs. With his eyelids slightly less than sealed, and his cracked, pale lips quivering, he silently hushed, “I love you too.” I desperately gripped his gaunt hands with defiance, released them, then quietly fled the room. That was the last time I heard his voice.
The young bladesmith on the TV of the dark ICU room confidently spun the sharpened knife he’d just made, aggressively slicing the air. The constant beeping of the heart rate monitor, the sickening scent of rubbing alcohol trapped in my mask, and the soft sound of my dad’s labored breathing from his bed made me want to curl up cowardly; to shut everything out.
I never imagined that I would be sitting here in the hospital, waiting for my dad to recover from a surgery where they extracted a large grapefruit-size tumor from his abdomen, and cut out multiple feet of his intestine. Eventually, we could promptly go on to live healthy lives, rejoicing over the miracle of surviving cancer. I knew it wouldn’t end that way, but I prevented that deplorable thought from overtaking me.
I stood anxiously over his figure, bringing myself to tentatively touch his hands. After a few moments of confusion, he successfully recognized me. “Why aren’t you crying?” he pitifully questioned. Frigid goosebumps appeared on my arms, I felt I was letting him down. “You only cry when it affects yourself; it’s selfish,” he persisted. I distracted myself by examining his thin calves; muscle disappearing from them, while repeating in my head, “It’s just the drugs making him speak this way.” It wasn’t true, what he’d said, I was petrified, barely able to breathe, much less cry, yet what I had felt painted a feeling immensely greater than the deepest desperation.
Three weeks later, my family and I left our home in Mexico behind and spontaneously got onto a plane to the US, frantically in need of, among many other problems, assistance with the foot-long infected incision on my dad’s stomach, held together with staples; the result of poor care and attention from the Mexican hospital. The whole trip had felt like a disguised blur; holding my breath throughout the hectic lines, scrutinizing security, and ultimately, a stomach-in-the-mouth sensation take-off. With the frightening possibility that his insides could rupture from the pressure on the plane, protecting him felt like sprinting over a tightrope, arduously carrying a delicate egg balancing atop a meager spoon, wary to avoid shattering it.
For the next few months, my dad was regularly switching hospitals and doctors in San Francisco who attempted to tackle his threatening disease. “When I’m better, we’ll have a party and roast a goat!” He’d eagerly exclaim on days when his friends came to visit while he comfortably sat in the sunlit backyard next to the giant rose bushes beaming radiant blends of cardinal red and jubilant yellow. The cruel reality of the situation would interrupt his relaxed daze once he noticed the growing bulge under his shirt. He’d cuss, swing his feet down, and dash inside to empty his bursting ileostomy bag. My dad thought if he neglected his disease, it could disappear. When he’d have to go to the hospital for a few nights as a result of heavy yard work or eating bread, he’d become impatiently exasperated when he realized his control over the unforgiving circumstances was slipping from his grasp like a slick bar of soap.
My family and I would visit him in his hospital room at Chomp with a flowing waterfall visible through the high window. A painting of lush floral fields hung in the corner, and ‘The Kite Runner’ lazily dangled atop his nightstand. He had undergone a second surgery that connected his intestines back and removed his ileostomy, creating a success that offered a second chance to recover. After three different Chemos, it seemed his rare cancer continued to persist, relentlessly returning after each grueling treatment that left fallen hair on his pillow.
Once he returned home, his determination persevered, but even without the ileostomy, his ravaged intestines prevented his body from absorbing nutrients. The numbers on the scale declined, yet his bravery never faltered.
I understood what Hospice meant when my family first decided to put him on it, but I could not accept the way it was supposed to end. Only a few weeks after he and I had gone for a walk through the neighborhood, where he’d pointed out the patch of wild beige mushrooms and asked me to take a picture of them, he was laying in bed at home on nutrition and hydration IV, unable to lift his head. His ankles swelled, he could not eat, and the pain escalated, so the wires were unplugged, the IVs ceased their flow, and we started counting down the days when cancer would win.
The beaded lamp shade covered the bedroom walls in a red veil of shadows, tangled with the harpist’s notes dancing around her. He enjoyed listening to the soothing music that flowed from the instrument, even if he could no longer tell me so. Enveloped in a fog, the arching pine trees outside the window that swayed to the harp’s melody were like ghosts wistfully calling for him to join them. “These are the final stages. The nurse told me it’ll only be a few more days,” my mom grievously revealed. “The sudden movements and twitching in his hands are a sign of sudden bursts of energy which are part of the dying process,” she explained.
His lungs began to scratch vehemently at his chest for a crucial grasp of air, but the fluid continued to rise briskly, creating a gurgle in his challenged breathing. I studied the wrinkles and crevices embedded in his skin; badges of integrity from the decades of selflessly driven hard work. I imagined him wearily positioned over the restaurant grill, cooking meat, smoke swirling around his squinting eyes, bringing together a charming wide grin that made my nine-year-old self scamper into his turmeric and cilantro juice-stained white chef’s coat, absorbing his comforting embrace.
When I had heard the creaking moan of the guest bedroom door in the night, I knew they were quietly placing his departed body onto the single guest bed. The next morning, I reluctantly peeked into my parent’s room at the tidily made bed where my dad had weakly taken his last breath the night before. “Your dad loved you very much, he was a wonderful man, but you already know that.” My uncle softly uttered.
“Yes, I know,” I whispered back as I sloshed sink water into the kettle for morning tea.
Gradually, I started opening the door for a steady stream of teary-eyed family members, my arms hanging emotionlessly limp at my sides as they tightly hugged me. “I’m fine.” I solemnly responded with a blank stare and a few firm blinks when they asked me how I was.
After the body was cleansed, an abundance of herbs and pure cotton fabric inscribed with Arabic prayers were prepared to tautly wrap his body. The fragrance of coriander, sage, rosemary, mint, and many other varieties of lavish herbs and flowers fused with the energy of suffocating grief in the air. “ Would you like to see him before we cover his body?” my mom questioned. On the wood-framed bed in the small candle-lit room, he lay with arms crossed at his rib-exposed chest, the white freesia flowers and greenery attentively placed around him, brightly uplifting the dull pigment of his skin, emanating a harmoniously tranquil aura.
A week later at the funeral, I noticed the wise owl perched up in the grand oak tree observing the ceremony from afar. I envisioned milky brown feathers weaving throughout the crowd surrounding the grave, spreading the memories created with the people he had loved. I gazed into the bird’s two humble honey-colored eyes and I saw the familiar altruistic glimmering smile of my dad.
About the Author
Saniya M grew up in Sayulita, Mexico, and the Bay Area, but now lives in Monterey, California. She is a creative writer, poet, and artist. (Photograph by Saniya M)