by Kent Jacobson
The hospital half-light, a single table-lamp, you sit slumped in bed and glance grimly at me, and glance away, your hazel eyes blank. Is it me or the morning at 6 a.m. when they slice into your chest, a staph infection eating at your heart?
Five floors down, cars whoosh home through the New Haven night rain. I’ve driven two hours after work. “Traffic’s bad,” I say.
You growl something I barely hear. “. . . screwballs running wild.”
You can’t end like this, not here. Not in this place.
Mom wants me to make peace, me the tough son you had to have and I didn’t qualify. You said I’d “turn into a softie.”
I was too much like your “high and mighty librarian sister,” the one who read French classics, the favorite of your father. You . . . he didn’t talk to you, the child who wobbled from polio on one good leg, the other bone. You were soiled underpants to your immigrant father.
A nurse nudges me, me still in the door. “Everything alright?”
You quit school to do factory piecework. “Real work you do with your hands,” you said. You were another dumb Swede to your father.
I step into the room, gray everywhere⸻walls, worn linoleum, the overwashed bedcover, your tired face. “What do the doctors say?”
You don’t answer. You know it’s not good tomorrow.
I sent a Dylan Thomas poem years ago, when I saw you might fade. I was in grad school. “Do not go gentle into that good night. . . .” I rammed my new literary life down your throat. You didn’t respond. No letter, no phone. I heard you miles away: Your only problem is, you’ve got all the answers.
I was a kid. I couldn’t bear to watch you go.
“When’d Mom leave?”
You shake your head.
A voice inside, Find the right words, find the words.
I move closer to your bed. Whaddaya want, Mr. Big Pants? you’re thinking. You can’t stand pity.
Help me, Dad, the voice says, help me do something. Help me touch your arm, say there’s time, say we have time. Say a good surgeon is all we need, say all the bad history is forgotten, is forgiven.
I say nothing.
You stare at the empty wall, fists at your sides, the thick hands, the gnarled fists. I’m the problem, the oldest son, the one that didn’t listen. I may accuse you⸻The infection is payment, old man. You ate and drank like a fool. No, I can’t say that. I wouldn’t say that. What good would it do?
You deserve a better son.
You became a forester during the Depression and with a .32 and a Pulaski axe you hunted “those dirty sons-a-bitches” that set the woods on fire. The heat, the smoke, the ash, no sleep, you saved lives, you saved homes, you saved Colorado blues and birch, beech and shagbark, the sycamores, the oak, their names your hymn. “Good work. It was good work,” you said. “Life has to be about more than yourself.”
Horns from the traffic below, the rain, the hurry for home even this late. Mom’s outside in the hall.
The nurse: “Visiting hours close in minutes. Time for your goodbyes.”
No place to ask about Webster's Third New International, the dictionary at my elbow when I write. Your idea, Mom said. I didn’t believe her. I want to say, Was that you, Dad?
Was that you saying, I get it, Teacher Man, I get it. Do what I couldn’t. Be what I’m not.
The wall clock clicks.
You said to me years after my early medical diagnosis, “You live like you do because you know you’re going to die.” No, that wasn’t so: I bit into the world like you. Don’t you know that? Don’t you understand?
I’m your boy, I am, yours and no one else’s.
The cars below on the street don’t slow.
I murmur, “I’ll see you in the morning.”
I walk out into the too bright hall, eyes blinking. Mom’s gone. I’ll have to find my way out alone.
Kent Jacobson has taught for nearly thirty years in prisons and one Massachusetts inner-city. His nonfiction appears in The Dewdrop, Hobart, Talking Writing, Lucky Jefferson, Punctuate, Under the Sun, and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.