La La How The Life Goes On

Juicy Fruit Absolution

Posted on: January 24, 2015

My father died on.a dazzlingly sunny February afternoon. The kind that if you close your eyes and focus only on the sensation of the sun’s heat and light touching you through the window, you can almost convince yourself it is in fact July, even the kind of unrelentingly hot July my father loved. Standing at the window of his now-monastically-silent hospital room, I did just that; wishful-thinking myself into a blisteringly hot summer’s future where I’d open my eyes and my father would be alive.

But my eyes opened and my dad was still very much dead.
And I was pretty sure I had killed him.

As my dad’s lungs had ever so inexorably failed, I sat with him through the long, sodium-lit night.  He wore an oxygen mask, cranked to full saturation.  It made his mouth dry and his face itch. He’d lift the mask to scratch the mask’s indentations on his face with his square, calloused fingertips.

The dryness was driving him to distraction.
I called the nurse asking for relief.
She had no relief to give.

He’d lift the mask to feverishly rub his parched, cracked lips.
The dryness was driving him to distraction, discomfort.
I called the nurse asking for relief.
She had no relief to give..

He lifted the mask to gulp at the ambient oxygen in the room, hoping that it would somehow ease the cottonmouth of the mask-blown O2.
The dryness was driving him to distraction, discomfort. Worse, despair.
I called the nurse again asking for relief.
She again had no relief to give.

My father pleaded with me at 4am for a drink of water or a piece of my gum. Please.
He said he couldn’t stand it.
I couldn’t stand to hear him say he couldn’t stand it.
Never in my life had he been unable to stand anything.
His entire raison d’etre was saying F You to obstacles.
Giving hardship The Finger.
Providing a daily show-and-tell of mental badassery in the face of physical frailty.
He was strong enough to tell me that he couldn’t stand it.
I was barely strong enough to hear the words.

He needed relief, and gum was my relief to give.
I gingerly lifted his mask and put a “half-slice” as he called it, into his mouth.
Never a full slice.

My dad was Scottish. Full slices of gum were for wasters. Even–especially–in desperate times.

I took the other half slice and together we chewed those hardtack rectangles into gooey deliciousness, reveling in the culinary sorcery that could create such delight from such a small, pedestrian non-edible confection.  The slice was Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit; not his usual flavor, him usually opting for some cheap store brand of low-price mint. Or random Mexican chicle (Que Sabrosa!) from the corner bodega. But tonight he was in heaven. Sweet, juicy, indeterminate-fruit flavored gum heaven.

I didn’t know at that moment, as the sun was beginning to break through the black night, refracting the dark light into every shade of purple and blue and orange, that this gum heaven would be a short waystation on his way to the real thing. I figured he’d chew his gum, gather his strength, and then we’d all go home and laugh together about the superhuman powers of Juicy Fruit. (Que poderosa!)  But as he eagerly chewed, his oxygen stats began dropping, setting off the buzzers that inevitably bring the nurses from their hive in a rush of dramatic purpose.

The Nurse of No Relief once again came in, this time wagging her finger at me like an old schoolmarm.

Wagging it at my dad.

Wagging it at the gum.

As the buzzers and beepers and medical noise threatened to overtake the tiny room, I felt myself retreat into the muffled distance, looking at the nurse–now apparently exceedingly interested in my father– as I thought,
“Fuck you.”
Fuck you and that fucking wagging finger.
Fuck you and your anemic, hypoxic performance of duty.
Fuck you and your barely disguised irritation at a sick man’s desperation.
Fuck you and every other fucking person in here who cannot make this man, this living testament to a life lived honorably and courageously in spite of discomfort, comfortable.
And fuck you for what you are about to say to me.

I rushed back to the full sound and fury of the room in time to hear the doctor say to no one and everyone, “We need to intubate. He’s at full sat with no response.” And to hear the nurse say to me in particular, “Don’t feel bad. You giving him gum didn’t cause this.”

I gasped so hard I swallowed that gum. Full-slice in, every molecule of breath out. Sucker punched in the face by the finger-wagger.

What?!

I hear your words.
I hear your implication louder.
Me giving him gum did cause this.

Me ignoring your brusque admonitions to prevent him scratching under the mask caused this.
Me ignoring your declarations that Nothing Can Be Done to ease his discomfort caused this.
Me ignoring your increasingly irritated airs of absentee authority caused this.
Your authority that took no notice of the human man who was suffering.
Your authority that took no notice of the human man who simply wanted that suffering acknowledged rather than chastised.
Your authority that took no notice of the human man who, as I replay his words and expressions and mannerisms in the looking glass of my mind, seemed to understand that we would not be going home to laugh about Juicy Fruit.
He knew better than I that the word, “intubate” rarely indicated a temporary and improving state of affairs.

“Tell your mother I love her.”
“You can tell her yourself when this is over.”
“NO! YOU TELL HER. You tell her. Your brother and sister too.”
“Of course I will. Of course I will. Then you can tell them again when you see them.”

They replaced the mask on his mouth as I kissed him on the forehead.
“Everyone is on their way. We will all see you soon.”

He sped away to the ICU while I nursed my anger, my sudden guilt that he had to be intubated so rapidly that they couldn’t await my mom’s arrival 10 minutes hence.

I gave him the gum. I caused this.

Night became day, and the clear light of it reflected the inevitable outcome its end would bring. So we held his hands and assured him in quiet voices that he could let go, that his work here on earth was done, that we release him to rest now because he had fought long and hard enough. My lips were saying these words quietly but my mind was maniacally screaming, “I’m sorry I gave you gum! I’m sorry I didn’t save you! I’m sorry I failed you! Open your eyes and forgive me! Open your eyes and forgive me!”

After his heartbeats slowly counted down to zero and he breathed his last, the doctor came to sit with us. Seeking absolution I was certain could not come, I nonetheless confessed to him my sins: I let him lift his mask to rub his face. I let him lift his mask to speak. I gave him gum to ease his pain. At best, I had irretrievably destroyed all hope of his recovery. At worst, I had actively hastened his demise.

The warm gaze of the doctor mirrored the sun’s rays streaming in the window. The soft lilt of his Indian accent and the musical cadence of his words strangely comforting. Lamenting the inexorable nature of my father’s decline, his personal regret that he had no more tools at his disposal, his sympathy for us in the face of this unavoidable and unpreventable outcome. His sadness that my father’s passing was so foregone that twelve sticks of gum– full slices, even—could neither have saved nor doomed him. His regret that my father’s illness had proven greater than all of us, be we physician or family.

I gazed past the doctor, out the window as he spoke, imagining that July day in the future, in the world to come, where my sweet, weary father would be weary no more. Sick no more. Struggling for breath no more. He would be laughing in that hot sun, between hearty gulps of fresh, clear air, holding court, poking fun. He would need no mask. He would need to receive no relief nor offer any forgiveness because his entire soul would emanate the lightness of being that comes from having both. I thought of him in that world to come, a barrel full of cheap-ass chicle by his side, and smiled through salty tears as the doctor said, “The man needed gum. You gave him some gum.”

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1 Response to "Juicy Fruit Absolution"

So poignant. I was tearing up in the waiting room of the dentist.

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