Eye Contact

It had been a tiring two months and at times it seemed as if every third day or so we’d made the drive to the hospital on unassuming Beverly Boulevard in Montebello and rush up to the floor where my father laid in bed after his very last episode at home.

Every time the phone rang during those weeks a rush of sensations would shoot like a bolt of lighting down my back. Why my mother’s number appeared on the tiny grayish screen of my phone I always wondered for half a second if it had finally happened. After the first four or five calls and hurried trips the calls started to become a nuisance and took a back seat to a few other pressing matters before me.

The holidays were now soon just before us. My wife and I were expecting our first child. The economy was quickly beginning to show the signs of a radical change. Things were moving in all sorts of different directions and now my father’s possible demise was becoming just “another issue to deal with”.

Our near identical temperament had kept us away for many years. Soon after my 15th birthday my father and I had quietly come to the understanding that we were not mean to be friends. At least, not for a long while. He had many demons. The alcohol, the rabid temper, his need for women other than my mother. I felt short of his ideal for a son. I was too sensitive, meek to the world and shied away from verbal or physical confrontations.

Things did not get better as I aged. My college years expanded my range of questions and I felt his frustration when he had to admit a lack of answers. He was an intelligent man who had not been well educated. He was proud of his son’s achievements but was troubled to see him pulling away. Fights and threats were frequent. I think I felt his fists on my chin, shoulders and ribs more during those times.

Then I met someone special. Someone different than the usual young ladies they had learned about throughout my first eight quarters of college. The woman I met was spirited, rational, traveled and no-nonsense. She sparked the idea of a life outside of our university and the real life tools we’d need to begin it. My time with her was magical but as we became closer life at home deteriorated at a quicker pace.

By the time the decision was made to move in together, my father and I hardly spoke. On the day I left for home and just before he closed the door behind me I heard his sendoff. “Good look to you and your whore. You are never welcomed here again.”

I made a life with Nicole. We continued to date, we struggled together, we built careers, we almost broke apart, we figured it out, we bought our first home, we planned our wedding and eventually announced that we had created a new life. The process took years of course and in that time, while my life progressed in leaps and bounds, the relationship with my father only moved in the smallest of positive increments.

It was with this history that my father and I met on that cloudy December day. The night before, I was informed by the nursing staff, he had lost the ability to speak and his weakness prevented movement. The man was trapped within his own body. My sisters and mother waited in the hall. They were exhausted, eyes red, shoulders slumped, clothes rumpled. They were also at odds with one another. Two thought he should continue fighting while one ambivalently argued that he needed to go and end the suffering.

I was briefed with options as his next of kin and the only person legally capable of deciding.

His hospital room was surprisingly well lit. He was laying on the bed nearly flat, a white thin blanket shrouded his body and his legs were apart some. It was in this moment that I came to understand how much his body had wasted away. The hulk of a man I had known as a child had imploded to skin and bones. The heavy hands with thick sausage-like fingers that had struck or held me as a baby were thin, veiny and lacked human warmth.

Then I came upon his face. His hearty cheeks were gone. Lips dry, cracked and had lost the full redness I remember my mother boasting about when I was younger. Interestingly, his hair was full and thick. It had grown fast since I had seen him last and it’s waviness caught me by surprise. I had an urge to touch it and I did. Stroking his mane back and remembering when he’d come home late and run his warm fingers through my hair as he muttered “buenas noches Hugo.”

It was in mid-stroke that his eyes opened and we made eye contact. It took half-a-second for him to focus and recognize me. I believe he did because I felt his gaze “leap” when I think he finally saw me. It seemed a long time passed before I spoke to him. It wasn’t a poignant speech and I don’t care to remember what was actually said. I do remember telling him that I wish I had made him proud. That the grandchild to come would be a boy. That I had made a decision and that I wished him the best. After that, he blinked twice and I saw his chest take in as much air as he could muster and then deflate quickly.

I stepped out of the room, signed awaiting paperwork and took a short walk.

When I returned, his body was cold. My father was gone.