“We’re running out of time,” the nurse muttered as she recorded my father’s vitals in her folder. She finished scribbling her notes, clicked the pen with a satisfied nod, and then, remembering that I stood across the bed from her, offered, “I suggest if you have anything you’d like to say to him before he passes, you do it soon. Otherwise, you might be too late.”
I watched as she waited for my response, her eyes bulging at my placid expression. I nodded to release her from her state of indignation. Now freed, she raised her eyebrows and spun back into the hallway, leaving me alone with my fading father.
I had arrived at the hospital two days earlier, after a doctor had passed along that same message – we’re running out of time – to me over the phone. I had been traveling at the time, on the road somewhere in the southwest; I can’t remember now exactly where. The doctor stated that my father might only have a conscious minute or two a day, but these windows to say goodbye would likely close in a matter of days. I thanked her for her concern.
Under a gas pump canopy, I leaned against the car and sensed my surroundings. The wind from the desert blew warm air and sand under the shade and around my ankles. Tractor-trailers pulled in and out of the fueling station like some post-industrial watering hole, an oasis in the southwest wasteland for these motorized beasts to recover and resupply. The trucks come and go, feral cats scurrying around the tires, bare-headed vultures dipping to the road in lulls in the traffic to pick at a less fortunate stray among the carcasses of ruined tires.
I looked down at my phone and wondered what to do with the information I had received. My mother had made it clear she did not want updates on my father’s condition. “I’m sure I’ll sense when his spirit has left this world for the next, and that’s enough for me.” I thought it best not to trouble her.
I called my oldest brother, away with the military overseas. He expressed his condolences, as if I brought news of an old friend’s failing health. I asked if he would come back from abroad to bid farewell or to pay his respects. He hesitated to admit that a channel did exist to recall him back to the country in the event of a close family member’s death, but he did not feel that was necessary at this point. We wished each other well and agreed to speak again soon.
I called my younger brother but hung up after the first ring. I hadn’t heard from him in years, and he and my father had run out of love for one another long before then.
I called my youngest brother, but the call went to voicemail. He messaged me a couple of hours later; he had been in a meeting and would be tied up for the rest of the week.
Finally, I called my sister, youngest of us all. She paused, considering. I checked to see if she was still on the line; she was. She spoke slowly. She regretted that she had been busy lately and probably would not have time to visit in the week ahead. I waited to see if she had more to say. She asked if I would be going. I realized that I hadn’t decided for myself yet, caught up in the process of notifying the others. Given the responses I had received so far, I answered that I would. Someone needed to be there, I told her. She told me to call if I needed anything. I assured her I would, although I hoped to avoid troubling her further. Hanging up the phone, I stood a while longer in the bleaching heat and white noise of the southwest interstate.
When I arrived alone at the hospital two days earlier, the nurses described my father as having “a bad day” – he had not had any conscious moments. His eyes opened only to crawl around the room, sweeping across the bedside medical equipment, the empty armchair, the vertical blinds allowing slants of light, the television with its daytime courtrooms ruffling the otherwise silent room, the unmoving door to the hallway, the bedside table with unread magazines. Next to the magazines stood a vase of withering flowers, refilled by his former secretary, who replaced them once a week as a misplaced act of piety. Having completed their survey of the room, his watery eyes closed in an unbreathed sigh.
On my second day at the hospital, I decided to embrace the experience of witnessing a parent at the limits of his mortality. Beginning at six in the morning, I sat in the unused armchair and swept my eyes around the room, much as I learned my father had in his final days, a ruined lighthouse on a forgotten coast. The sterility of the hospital seemed appropriate for a man who received cards and flowers only from professional associates. In the vacant spaces around the bed, I saw the shadows of my mother, my siblings, our partners and children. Their phantom expressions varied from pity to indifference. I imagined that he likely saw them as well on his surveys of the room. He opened his eyes twice that day. They swept in their path across the room, flickering as they passed by the now-occupied armchair and continuing to their watery blink closed. I ended my shift around nine in the evening, noting two silent eye sweeps around the room amidst the tides of daily hospital activity.
By the time I arrived at the hospital today, again around six in the morning, my father had already had three eye sweeps since midnight, the nurses told me. They assured me that this indicated that he should have “a good day” – he might have the capacity to interact. I resumed my post and awaited such a lucid moment. An eye sweep came and went around half past eight in the morning.
Shortly thereafter, at her check around nine in the morning, the nurse warned about running out of time and advised me to share any final thoughts with my father. When she walked out of the room, leaving me alone with my father, I remained uncertain about whether she meant I should speak to his sleeping body or wait for the potential opening, a tenuous bridge into his ebbing awareness.
I waited, as much because talking to my unresponsive father on the brink of death seemed pointless as because I had no words to say. I cycled through the words I had often heard in similar situations, statements of love, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, but none seemed to fit the moment. We had spoken the words, all the words, over and again. We repeated the cycle so many times through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood; each time, the anger came with less vitriol, the grief with less depth, and the reconciliation with less hope of redemption.
Around two in the afternoon, his eyes broke open. His eyes traced along the bedside medical equipment, the occupied armchair, the vertical blinds—and back to the occupied armchair. His gauzy gaze lingered on me in that chair, his eyes moving from mine to the edges of my body and the reaches of my limbs, weighing the likelihood of my presence in the confined reality of the hospital room. Apparently acknowledging I was real and not an illusion, he tilted his chin in the hint of a nod. I gently nodded back, moving little more than my face. He seemed satisfied by this response, holding my eyes a minute longer before resuming his sweep of the room. Reaching the bedside table with its wilting flowers and unopened magazines, he paused a moment longer before closing his eyes.
He died later that night. Four days later, a large gathering watched his casket lower into the ground. My mother and siblings, all of them, stood graveside and threw handfuls of soil into the opening in the grass. We spoke the words and thanked fellow mourners. We left flowers on the turned earth.
But although we observed the rituals, I knew that, even in his last days, we weren’t running out of time; we had run out of time years ago.