The weak, dry sound of Dad’s breath faded and his chest stopped moving. He lay on the narrow bed, the sheet pulled up to his neck, his head uncovered, his eyes closed. He was 83. His hair wasn’t mussed, but he needed a shave, a little under his nose and at the sides of his mouth. A nurse entered the room, took the wires and tubes off him, and wheeled the equipment out. Her shoes squeaked.
“I didn’t know he would eat it!” Mom sobbed. Maxie put her arms around her, rocked her, moaned “Oh, oh” in her ear. It looked awkward because they were sitting side by side. My sister Maxine, she was always closer to Mom. Maybe it was a woman thing, or because she was the first-born. Since Dad got sick I let her take care of Mom while my guts twisted and I handled the insurance papers.
He used to throw me on his shoulder and run around the yard. I was already in kindergarten then. I must have weighed fifty pounds. Stout, he called me. “A strong, stout, little man.”
Another nurse glanced in and kept walking down the hall. Soon they’d ask us to leave, put new sheets on Dad’s bed, assign it to someone else.
My hands itched to find the shaver. Make him look better, protect his dignity. Maxie was too quick. She’d packed his things in her matching, designer shopping bags. Flowers and cats. Cheerful artwork. They stood by the door. I could stick my hands in and feel around for his toiletry kit. But I couldn’t move.
Mom twisted toward me. She startled me and I flinched. My turn. She grabbed my arm. “I killed him.”
“Mom! Cancer.” Maxie’s face, behind Mom, was gray and exhausted.
“I made him lasagna with delicata squash in it, like he likes, but I forgot to skin the squash. It was too rough for him.”
“He ate it?” I asked. He hadn’t swallowed a thing in the last two weeks. He had intravenous.
“He asked Mom to put it on his tongue,” Maxie said.
“He wanted to taste it,” I said.
“I killed him.” Mom repeated, her head hanging down, her chin on her bulging chest. She must have doubled in size in the last six months. As he stopped eating, she kept cooking and she ate his portion. Feeding him by proxy.
I touched her cheek. Her green blouse with the oak leaf pattern that Dad liked so much had pulled open in front, uncovering the white skin over her stomach. I gestured to Maxie. She buttoned Mom up, sat back in her chair, closed her eyes. Mom let go of me and sank into herself.
I reached under the sheet and took Dad’s hand in mine. It weighed nothing. I held it anyway. I didn’t want his life to be over. He was still part of me.
Then it was like waking up after a meditation. There was an emptiness around me. The room was too quiet. I slipped Dad’s hand under the sheet. Mom was leaning forward, looking at her knees. Maxie was leaning back, her eyes closed, yoga breathing.
I called Karen and muttered, “Dad passed.” Would she gain weight if I couldn’t eat, and find some way to blame herself when I died? Our marriage was close like my parents’.
“Should I come to the hospital? You’re still there, right?” she asked.
“Hold on,” I said.
“Come to my house,” I invited Mom and Maxie. “Karen will make us dinner.”
Mom’s eyes turned to me but I couldn’t tell if she saw me. Maxie nodded yes.
“Broccoli lasagna,” Karen said. “I just put it in the oven. I’ll make a salad.”
Mom let me help her up. She cried down the hall, into the elevator, and out to the parking lot. I couldn’t see to open the car door. I noticed I was crying with her.
Maxie drove. Mom collapsed into a huge lump beside her. I took the back seat.
Last week he weighed 92 pounds. With six pallbearers it would feel like the casket was empty.
He wanted to taste her cooking one more time.
Did he care if his shave needed a touch-up?
Karen had set the table in the kitchen. Mom spilled red sauce down her blouse. Maxie tried to wipe it off with a wet paper towel. Mom pushed her away and kept forcing in another loaded fork, like it wasn’t too late to change what happened.
Karen stroked Mom’s head and said, “You must be tired. Do you want me to help you to bed? Here, in our guest room?”
Mom didn’t answer. Karen and Maxie cleared the table and whispered to each other at the sink. They left together and took Mom to Maxie’s.
I stood in the shower for a long time. Put on fresh pajamas. I wanted to hold Dad’s hand. The spirit hangs around, and maybe he missed me. We shouldn’t have left him so soon. I went down to the kitchen, ate the rest of the lasagna. Four portions. Fell asleep with my face on the table.
He used to carry me upstairs and tuck me in.