“Promises You Can’t Keep”

Brigit’s Flame post Week 2, June
Prompt: Promises
Genre: Non-Fiction, Reminiscence
Word count: 1,962
Title: “Promises you can’t keep.”

The last time I saw my father…well the last time he saw me, I’m not one hundred percent sure he knew who I was. He’d been in the hospital for a week following an aggressive surgery to remove cancer from multiple organs. It took twelve hours, the surgery, and it was twenty four from the time they wheeled him off until we were able to speak to him again.


He had always been a terrible patient. Even on that first visit, after a surgery that had seriously reduced the length of his intestines and esophagus and had relocated his stomach to a spot just under his shoulder blade, he was asking when they’d let him go home. For three days our time with him was measured. Fifteen minutes per hour, twelve hours per day, only two people in the room at a time…


But it was only for three days and then he’d be in a regular room; a week after that he’d be home.


Nearing the end of the third day they decided to keep him in ICU just one more day. There was evidence of a small internal bleed that they hadn’t been able to track down. It was nothing really, but after such a major surgery – and since he only had one kidney – they thought it would be smarter to monitor him closely.


Dad insisted I leave. I had a job to get back to. My son was missing school. Everything would be fine. He promised. We packed up the car and spent the final seven hours of day three on the highway home. I spent day four at work with reports from my mother that Dad had a bad cough so they may not move him to a regular room just yet. Just after dawn of day six an ICU a nurse called me at home.


“If he was my dad,” she said in a furtive tone, “I’d want to be here.”


It was pneumonia.


Even though my brain quantified the news with words like ‘only’ and ‘just’, I called out to work and school. We headed back to the highway for another seven hour drive. The drive took closer to ten – accidents, pile-ups, the metropolis-style rush hour where traffic stands still. We arrived and had to wait an hour for the proper fifteen minutes on the clock.


What an hour. It was like hell. Not from the worry – just pneumonia, it’s like a bad cold – but from the company. My mother’s sister had arrived – Ione. Never have I met a more loathsome person. Ione is one of those that not only forcibly hugs you, she doesn’t stop until you are blue-lipped and tapping the mat. This is a woman so odious, my tender-hearted father couldn’t stand her; she’d been pole-vaulting over his tolerance bar for thirty years. But as my mother often said, “You can’t choose your family.”


Aunt Ione sat across from me and Adam in the family waiting room and said something like this:

“You both need to accept that Larry is not going to recover. Even now God is calling him home. All of the actions the doctors are taking are prolonging his pain, just like you are postponing your own pain by continuing to believe that he will live. The good news,” at this she smiled her version of beatifically and turned her palms up to the ceiling, “is that I’ve spoken with him and he has assured me that his love for God is real. Trust that Our Lord knows best and is taking him to a better place.”


I put my arm around my thirteen year-old’s shoulders and held tightly to one of his fists. The hug was a multi-purpose thing. I wanted to comfort him and myself, but I was also preventing someone from punching Aunt Ione in the face. It was a toss-up which one of us would have done it first. My mother always said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Seemed like an ideal time to apply that rule.


I looked passed the aunt barricade at my mother. “What’s changed since I got on the road this morning?”

(It was 2002, none of us had mobile phones).

Almost breezily my mother replied, “The pneumonia is bad and they’re not sure about giving your father stronger medicine to combat it because he only has one kidney and it’s working overtime. They still haven’t found where he’s bleeding from, but they’re worried that coughing might make that small hole a bigger tear. Also, the pneumonia has caused a relapse of his Malaria. You might not remember how sick that makes him – you were a toddler the last time he relapsed – he gets delirious. His fever is really high and they can’t bring it down.”


She was working on a jigsaw puzzle through the last half of the explanation. It was one I had bought a few days before when I thought I was leaving her alone for a few days until he could be moved to a normal ward and then released – a Thomas Kinkade. She held the box top in her hand as she sifted through for pieces of a lemon-chiffon sky striped with clouds the color of pink lemonade powder. A Country Time day over an English garden and the thatched roof of a cozy little cottage where no one was dying.


I was baffled. The medical information sounded negative, but not dire. My mother was acting like it was just another day and my aunt was already writing his eulogy. Ione forced her way into my personal space again for a strangling hug. She pressed her face against mine. My skin crawled at the feel her chill skin against my cheek as she tried to rock me like a baby. My mother snapped pieces of the sky together with a satisfied smile and Aunt Ione encouraged me to let go of something. My father? My tears? My anger?


Then she fed us the tidbit my mother had left out.


“The doctor is putting him in a coma today to ease his suffering. They waited this long to give you a chance to say goodbye.”


I wriggled until I got my hands on her shoulders and forcibly pushed her off me. “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?”


My mother nearly dropped her puzzle box and immediately shushed me, looking around to make sure I didn’t disturb the other families. “They are just giving him something so he can sleep for a few days and really rest. They think the pain and stress are causing him to move around too much. They want him to be completely still so the little perforations he could be bleeding from will heal themselves. There’s just too much going on and he’s so anxious to go home. The doctors have had him on kidney dialysis to help him process all of the medication. He’s having the Malaria dreams… I told you they make him delirious.”


I stood up as Aunt Ione reached out for me again. I was way too taut to be respectful and ignore her bullshit, but I was also in a large room full of people who had someone they loved in a boat similar to my father’s. Grinding millimeters off my back teeth to keep it together, and one more ‘praise God’ away from a full on meltdown, I sat in the chair next to my mother and pushed the puzzle box out of her line of sight.


“Why would we need to say goodbye over that?” I asked.

My mom’s eyes strayed from my face to the colored bits of cardboard strewn across the table. “The doctor said they could put him in the coma and they would wake him up, but if he gets worse instead of better they won’t. It would be cruel. The goodbye is just in case.”


When my fifteen minutes came around, Aunt Ione jumped up and said she’d just be real quick. She wanted to blah, blah, blah. I cut her off and told her no. Under no uncertain terms was she to be allowed back in that room. I looked at her husband, my mother, and the elderly Pink Lady in charge of the waiting room, nobody jumped to her defense. When she tried to protest and treat me, a 31 year old woman, like an unreasonable child I pointed out that we had just driven nine and half hours to get there. My son and I were going to spend the full fifteen minutes with him – we were his blood and she was too inflammatory to be around a man who the doctor was instructing to lie still. Ione made that comment again that he was going to a better place.


“Stop saying that!” I snarled. “He would be the first one to tell you that there is no better place than with his family. My father would choose us over ‘heaven’ any day of the week!”

The nurse in the ICU room was not the one who’d called me. This one was just coming on shift and taking his vitals. I was surprised to see that Dad already had a tube down his throat hooked to a respirator. When we walked up to the bed the nurse was saying something to him about his stats, he turned to us and met my eyes. There was some message in the look he gave me, but I don’t know what it was; not for sure. Seeing us upset him. I know that because the nurse was watching his vitals on the monitor and gave me a warning glare.


“Is this your daughter, Larry?” she asked in that tone people use to ask questions of dogs and the elderly. “And you grandson came to see you. What a handsome boy. Remember to stay calm, okay. We don’t want to raise your blood pressure.” This last she said to him, but was really for us. “No emotion,” her eyes said.


I looked back at my dad, the look was still there. He was waving his hand a bit, as if trying to shoo us out of the room.


Adam caught his hand and said, “Hey, Pop.”


Dad’s eyes softened as he looked at Adam for the first time since we entered the room. I was back to gritting my teeth again, but that time was to keep from crying. I was surprised by my son’s casual way of just sitting next to his grandfather, holding his hand, and talking to him about some school thing that had happened the day before. I knew Adam was just as confused and hurting as much as I was, maybe more because he’d never lost anyone this close before.


I don’t remember saying much of anything to my father in the last 15 minutes I really had with him. I told him that I loved him, but we never significantly exited each other’s company without saying so. That strain was still in his eyes. It may have been the Malaria or the pain, or maybe he didn’t want us to see him that way. Being who he was, it might have been as simple as he disapproved of our traveling all the way back after he sent us home. I belonged at work. Adam shouldn’t miss any more school. It was just like him to worry about us as he lay there unable to breathe and operate his own kidney without a machine.

Maybe he was thinking, “Everything could turn out fine, but your mother always says not to make promises you can’t keep.”


I don’t remember saying much of anything, but before I let go of his hand I did tell him this:

“Don’t listen to Aunt Ione. You’re not going anywhere.”


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