Before enlightenment, Chop wood
After enlightenment, Chop wood
I returned to
He arrived in his usual state, hypertensive and impatient, saying nothing to me in the way of a greeting. He handed me the plastic shopping bag that held the things he brought with him everywhere, his water bottle and his Depends, his red and white pinwheel mints and the blue plastic container for his dentures. I took this bag and carried it with me to the waiting room of the Short Procedures Unit where I sat. It was the same routine every time.
Not even an hour went by and the doctor appeared in bright blue scrubs, his surgical mask pushed down around his neck. He leaned against the frame of the waiting room door. When he asked, I confirmed that I was in fact my father’s daughter.
“The procedure went like clockwork. We didn’t see any abnormalities,” he said. “For a man whose had a massive stroke, that is.”
“He’s gonna outlive us all,” I said, half smiling.
“The nurse will come out to get you soon. He’s in recovery.”
I waited for another twenty minutes until they called me back to be with him. I held onto his bag as the nurse led me down the corridor to the recovery room. My father was already alert and bragging to the nurses, telling them I had a Ph.D. and a well-paying job as an English Professor. He’d done this before. I just smiled when they sounded impressed. What he’d told them was not completely true, but I did not correct him.
Standing there in the room with him, aware of my distance from his bedside, I recalled the only advice he had ever given me as a teenager: Learn shorthand; girls don’t need to go to college. My father’s expectations of me were finite, a small box from which he had banished the idea of possibility. He had not gone to college. His entire world fit inside a
And instead of wanting more for me, my father was content to perpetuate the mediocrity of his own life. Yet there he was, bragging about Ph.D. I didn’t have. A heartbeat began pulsing in my temples. The bright light in the room made my eyes squint. I counted twelve square linoleum tiles separating us.
As the nurses continued to dress my father and he continued to brag, I imagined my father was someone else, someone I wanted him to be. I imagined he was a Professor at Harvard, and as his daughter, I had fulfilled the exceedingly high expectations he’d had of me. My mind continued to wander, envisioning what that life would have been like. Books stacked from floor to ceiling on mahogany bookshelves in our library, first editions signed and displayed prominently; dinner at five-star restaurants; piano and violin lessons; front-row seats at the Boston Symphony. I would have embraced such a life.
Instead, I looked over at my father who was still talking, his lips collapsed in on toothless gums, and I saw everything he was not. He had never read a novel or a poem or even a newspaper; he had never eaten lobster or caviar or even sushi; he had never played an instrument or listened to classical music or any music at all. My awareness of his limitations plagued me, but at the same time, simple childhood memories returned in flashes of silvery light, illuminating a time when I had not been ashamed of him:
The Sundays we’d spent together feeding the ducks at the park near our house; the evenings we’d stayed on the baseball field catching fly balls and fielding grounders until dark; the days when he’d taken me to work with him and let me sit at his light table and pretend I could draw diagrams of complicated things just like he did. I understood little of what he actually did yet thought back then that he was larger than life.
I glanced at my father again, seeing the feebleness of his body and the uncertainty in his eyes, and I felt sadness expand into every space inside me.
“You have my bag?” he yelled in my direction. “I need that little blue container. It’s got my teeth in it.”
I brought the bag over to his bedside and opened the container for him. He used his right hand to retrieve the rows of teeth and pop them back into the dry cavern of his mouth. The muscles in his paralyzed left arm had constricted, leaving it frozen tightly against his chest. His immobile left hand looked misshapen, swollen, the skin being stretched to look like the synthetic casing on sausage rather than soft, human flesh.
“While you’re over here, can I have one of my mints?”
“Sure, Dad.” I reached into the bag and pulled one out, untwisting the cellophane wrapper before he had a chance to remind me.
With the mint still clenched in his fist, he began to cough, his body convulsing on the narrow gurney. The congestion in his chest rattled and his face became red then a deep shade of violet. I turned and hurried toward the cooler in the corner of the room, carrying a cone-shaped cup of water back to his bedside. The nurses raised the top of the bed and I held the paper cup as he sipped from it. The blood drained slowly from his face and the coughing subsided.
I rested my hand on my father’s shoulder and kept it there.
KRISTINA MORICONI, who would almost always rather be in New York City, divides her time between there and suburban Philadelphia. Her work has most recently appeared in Big Ugly Review, Flashquake, and will appear in the forthcoming issue of apt.
"I have been thinking a lot lately about how long I have been in the role of caregiver for both my parents and how that has impacted my life. The Zen saying that became the epigraph and inspiration for the words that followed has become a source of strength to me, reminding me that no matter how much I may become enlightened, the people and circumstances around me will not change."