Reprinted from Litragger
I was in the hospital the other week waiting for my father to die. That sounds unfeeling, but it’s just accurate. My father was diagnosed with lung cancer last September. As the cancer spread to the tissue surrounding his lungs and heart, fluid built up. This fluid hindered the beating of his heart, which made it more difficult for blood to reach his kidneys, which meant toxins gradually built up in his blood. We spent one day in the hospital waiting for the doctors to decide if there was anything they could do (there wasn’t; the fluid around his heart was in exactly the wrong spot to be drained). We spent another day in the hospital waiting for my father to die.
My father was conscious until the last two hours or so of his life. My understanding of how things should go, gleaned from stories I’d read and watched, was that this was my last chance to reconcile with my father, to say all those things that had gone unsaid. But my father and I had a very good relationship. I always enjoyed spending time with him. He was supportive and loving. So I had very little to say in the way of unfinished business, and I know I am very lucky in that. I told my father I didn’t regret anything about our relationship, that I loved him and would miss him terribly, but that he had done very well and we had nothing to resolve. He said that made things easier.
That took about two minutes. What then?
My family didn’t have time to prepare for this. We didn’t know how advanced the cancer was until we got to the hospital two nights before my father died. We hadn’t read any books or received any counseling. Perhaps those who have read the books and received the counseling know what to do when sitting next to a dying man. There were questions I might have asked my father. There were stories I might have asked him to tell. But if they hadn’t been important enough to ask before, they didn’t seem important enough to bring up now. I didn’t want to look at old photographs or revisit old times. I didn’t want to remind my father of his life. Maybe that was only for my sake.
My family is not actively or particularly religious. If we found comfort in scripture and clergy, perhaps we would have known how to structure our time in the hospital room. But I have no faith, no clear idea of divinity, no concept of an afterlife. Sitting next to my father, I didn’t want to talk about life because it would only remind me that he would soon be out of mine (as a person, a living being. Of course he continues in memory, and we could get metaphysical and contemplate how much of a person exists in matter and how much more of a person exists in the minds of those who know that person, if this were that kind of essay).
So a more mundane problem: what to talk about? It would be rude to sit silent next to a dying man who is awake and knows he is dying.
My father was a reader, loved books. I asked if there were any books he wanted with him, anything he wanted to hear. “I can’t think of anything,” he said. I can’t think of anything that will change this, make this easier or harder, more mysterious or more comprehensible.
Sitting by my father’s bed, holding his hand, listening to him breathing through the oxygen mask, I thought of a story I’d read earlier in the year, David Ebenbach’s “We’ll Finish When We’re Done,” originally published as an AGNI web exclusive. It’s a short short story about a barber giving a haircut. It’s narrated by the barber in a conversational—at times folksy—voice, and the narrator explains his personal business philosophy and describes a remarkable haircut he recently gave. If you haven’t read it, you should. I can wait.
I had read this story only twice before. My father had never read the story. I don’t know any other work by David Ebenbach. So why is this what I wanted to read to my dying father?
Part of it is practical. I was stuck in a hospital with limited reading material at hand, and I knew I could easily find “We’ll Finish When We’re Done” with my phone. But so could I have found any one of the millions of stories, poems, and essays in the public domain and available online. I could have read my father Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Dickens, Cervantes, Austen, Homer, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Laozi, the Dhammapada, the Quran, the Bible. In short, almost any text produced and preserved by humanity outside of the last 90 years was available to me in that room. But I chose Ebenbach’s 1,600-word story.
It helped that the story is so self-contained. I knew that I could share the whole thing with my father in only a few minutes, rather than picking and choosing passages from a longer work. The tone of the story helped, the casual first-person narrator. The story reads like a friendly chat, and I thought that bit of levity would be nice in a hospital room. It helped, too, that I knew my father hadn’t read it before. The story wouldn’t call attention to itself in that way, and I might avoid drawing too much attention to the moment. If I had read “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” for example, then I would have really been trying to say something, and it would have been the wrong something. Ebenbach’s story—so unassuming—allowed me to pretend I was just sharing something I found interesting and a little amusing.
But I did want to say something. I wanted to say something about dying and about the body and about our hope for an eternal whatever that moves past us and continues when we’re done in the flesh. And I think Ebenbach wants to say something about those things, too. He dwells on the body: the layers of hair under the barber’s scissors, the skin beneath the hair, the bone beneath the skin, the brain beneath the bone, all of it cut and shed away and lying on the floor of the barbershop. Then he shows us the soul, glowing, beautiful, and real, floating out of the barbershop and down the street, leaving the body behind. I wanted to tell my father he had a beautiful soul. That he, like the man in Ebenbach’s story, had “taken good care of the thing.” That he would be mourned and missed but stay with us. I wanted to tell him what we want to tell all the sick and dying; that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
I don’t know if Ebenbach’s story helped my father in any way. I know I felt better having shared it; having articulated, in someone else’s words, some of the things I thought needed to be said. There was real comfort in the story, for at least one of us.
Mike Anderson Campbell’s stories and essays have been published in Litragger, PANK, BULL, Eclectica, and Microchondria: 42 Short Short Stories Collected by Harvard Book Store. He lives in Boston with his wife and dog. He occasionally blogs at mandercamp.com (updated 7/2014)