Three Blind Mice
by Robyn Beisell
My naked father sat on the toilet, his shoulders slumped and his head bowed. A matted carpet of white hair covered his chest. He glanced up but looked back at the beige baseboard when I squeezed through the door. Sinewy calves that used to chase my errant football tosses could not raise him from his bathroom perch. He had shuffled to the bathroom independently, while my mother laid awake listening from the double bed they shared, in case he called out to her.
Cancer had robbed his legs of the strength needed to stand up one last time.
My mother’s voice on the phone in the 4AM darkness was thin and high, like a mosquito trapped under a screen. She had tried to lift him by herself but had failed. My husband and I grabbed shorts, t-shirts, and sandals, crossing the small distance between our condos with long strides. The Hawaiian air was feather light on our bare arms. Night-blooming jasmine scented the path.
A cascade of memories flashed like the old View Master reels that changed pictures with the click of a finger.
My father at 8, handing his mother the money he made hawking morning newspapers on the Baltimore streetcar.
At 13, the leftover son when his brother was killed in Okinawa.
The high school dropout.
The Army private.
Real estate broker.
Late life lawyer.
He always had a primary plan and several back-up strategies.
He had planned for cancer.
He had planned for vulnerability by relying on my mother and hospice to assist him in dying at home.
He had fired four hospice workers before settling on Lonnie, a woman who offered sound reasoning and allowed him to choose his own course. She warned him about smoking around the oxygen machine. He promised he would only light up in the living room, never in the bedroom where the machine beeped in the corner.
He had not planned to be mute and naked under the glare of fluorescent lights.
I probably said something silly like “Hey, the cavalry is here,” but I was looking at the shower curtain printed with faded orange bird of paradise flowers.
Jim followed me into the windowless space. It was too cramped for him to carry my father alone. “We’re going to get you back to bed,” and in his logical step-by-step way, my husband described how we would lift and rotate to cause my father the least amount of pain. With our palms supporting each armpit and Jim bracing my father’s waist, we wrestled 70 pounds past the towel rack, the grab bar, and the sink.
We shared an intimacy now that none of us wanted and it narrowed the space between my father’s grief and my own until they merged as one.
The skin draping his bare hip caught on the strike plate protruding from the door jamb, opening another wound and forcing us to back up.
First we were three abreast, then three in a line.
Three Blind Mice shuffling across the bathroom tile.
Me, trying to turn a blind eye from my father’s face.
He, in blinding pain.
My husband, blindsided by the situation.
My father had hoped to die anytime in January, so that my mother would enjoy a more advantageous tax benefit. It didn’t work out that way. He died in his own bed, with Lonnie attending. In his last moments, my mother, nearly 80, straddled his body with each knee resting just above his hips on top of the green cotton sheet. She cradled his head between her hands desperate that his last image on this earth be of her face.
I cannot extinguish my father’s loss of dignity or the swell of his unwanted vulnerability. I can only bear witness. I cannot carry the fullness of his humiliation, but I can remember it and in so doing, remember how to hold each other in the silent brutal moments; to understand at my core the true arc of a life. Not that he was born, that he lived and that he died. But that to humble ourselves in the weakest moments reveals our truest strength. It is only in the frailty of the human condition, that place where words fail, when presence and surrender abide alone.
Robyn Beisell usually follows the expected path in life. She has been a speech pathologist, third grade teacher, urban dweller, and CSA farmer. When the box of her life needs a jolt, she responds with small acts of risk. Robyn has been known to parachute out of a perfectly good airplane, relish a solo cross country road trip, and accidentally drove naked on Interstate 84. She has always been a closet writer.