I meant to share this with all of you lovely people a while ago, but never got around to it.
I wrote this short story for a contest about a year ago. I wrote it quickly, but I kind of like it. Looking at it now, I can see the flaws, so I'm going to call it a work in progress. But I'll share it anyway since I don't have the energy to produce an original thought.
I hated going home.
The house that had once been a haven had become a prison. I hated the way a ramp replaced the steps I used to leap from, trying to touch the awning. Now, I had to duck to keep from banging my head on that same overhang. The living room was rearranged with all the furniture crammed into one small space to allow easy access from the front door to the hallway. The scent of home, of carpet freshener and home cooked meals, had vanished. In its place was the astringent scent of antiseptic and sickness.
The dining room table, where many meals had been shared and much homework had been done, had been taken down; a hospital bed and a portable commode now occupied the space. The buffet no longer held knick knacks collected over a lifetime. Instead, it was decorated with medicine bottles and medical supplies. The china cabinet was the sole symbol of normalcy, still displaying the wedding china and good crystal that never got used any more.
I hated seeing him lying in that bed. I wanted to imagine him as the same man who walked down the hill to the playground with me and my tricycle, carrying both of us home when I inevitably fell and scraped up my knees. I wanted to see the same man who taught me to catch and throw a softball in the side yard and came to every one of my games. And I wanted him to be the same man who helped me move into my dorm just a few short years ago, trying and failing to hold back tears as he left me on my own for the first time.
But he wasn’t
Oh, I could search my memory and create an image of him sitting on the porch with me listening to a ballgame. He'd have a beer, I'd have an iced tea, and we'd share a bag of pretzels. We'd share bits of baseball trivia and analyze coaching decisions. Neighbors would stop by to listen to an inning or two. It would be that one perfect moment that everyone dreams of. But in truth, he was barely aware of the world around him. I tuned the radio to the opening day game, and he barely acknowledged it. He was asleep by the second inning. I hated the fact that this was our reality now.
I hated going home.
But I loved him.
I loved him enough that I hid my embarrassment the first time I helped him transfer from the bed to the wheelchair and saw his genitals, which I never had before. I forced myself to remember that this was the man who changed my diapers and bathed me when I was an infant, and I pretended I didn't notice his vulnerability. Had he been more alert, he would have been mortified.
I washed his hair in the kitchen sink, and as I poured water over his head, I remembered his patience as he taught me to swim. He supported me as I attempted to float, and I was fine as long as I felt his hands. The minute he'd let go, I'd stiffen up and start to flail. He'd just catch me, calm me down and start all over again. I remembered that as my patience is tried when he spasms involuntarily, causing me to spill water all over the floor.
I rubbed lotion into his papery skin, repeating his actions in cleaning my many wounds. I was both adventurous and clumsy as a child, which is a dangerous combination. Skinned elbows, cut-up knees, bruised hands and shins, he treated them all with a gentleness that was so contrary to his large, awkward hands and gruff voice. I tried to mirror the actions of my memory as I anointed the bald spot on his head, avoiding the scab that appeared since the last time I saw him.
As I made his breakfast, I recalled his efforts at meal preparation. He was of the opinion that everything was better the second day as long as it was fried with an egg, an attitude that was probably the result of growing up on a chicken farm during the Depression. That philosophy of cooking led to some interesting dishes, including the very memorable spaghetti omelet. It also led to my utter aversion to eggs. Still, I cooked them for him because he liked them, and they were one of the few foods he could digest easily.
I broke the toast into tiny pieces, small enough that he wouldn't choke, and mixed them in with the soft-boiled egg. I placed the bowl on his bedside table and elevated the head his bed. He used a specially adapted spoon to eat, but he still struggled. Every bite he took was a major effort, and he acted as if that one morsel was so important that it would sustain him forever. He could no longer hold a cup, so I held the glass of orange juice to his lips every now and then for him to drink.
It was hard, this meal time ritual. I was impatient, and I sometimes resented the fact that I was taking care of a parent when I should be out living my life and having fun. But then I would see the framed photograph hanging on the wall near his bed. It was a picture of me with him and my mother at my high school graduation, just before she died. Looking at their expressions, the love and pride they felt was a tangible thing, and I knew what I had to do. How could I not give everything to someone who gave everything for me and asked for nothing in return?
Sometimes, late at night, I'd hear him become restless. He'd move around as much as he could, and make small noises. I'd go and sit with him, smooth his hair and hold his hand. He sometimes called out with the one of the few words he still had: "Help."
An outsider would think he was suffering, that he wanted relief from his pain. But I knew better. That small utterance was prayer, in its most basic form. I can't count the number of times, when things were desperate, I heard him say, "Help me, Lord," with complete confidence, as if he knew that God couldn't ignore that simple prayer.
I never understood that. To my logical mind, it didn't make sense to believe that asking some unseen entity, who may or may not exist and who may or may not care, for assistance. It made even less sense to be confident that he, she, or it would respond. And now, as I watched my father, a fairly young man, deteriorate by the day, I wondered how any God could inflict so much pain on someone who had such profound faith and love. Not only was it illogical, it was unjust and hateful. Where was the God of Love now?
Still, late at night when I held is hand and smoothed his hair, something in me stirred. I found myself moved by the simple faith of this dying man. And even though I wasn't sure anyone would hear me, I joined my prayers to his.