Her father was still there. She watched as the wrinkled white sheets slowly rose with each breath — a movement so slight it seemed not to justify the word. Sometimes, she would place her head on his chest just to make sure, and then leave it there as his warmth rushed the right side of her face. When his chest went flat, she held in her breath, a gust of emotions waiting to pour out, but each time the sheets rose, she let out only air and relief. The rising of the sheets seemed to indicate not life but postponement. The room was bright and white and light, and as she saw the sheets rise up once again she remembered…
The soft soil like crumbled cake in her six-year-old hands. Digging. She was kneeling by her mustached father, classically Indian, whose gloved hands were grasping a little shovel. He let her feel the ant crawl along her skin and she watched the tiny insect create its own path on her long, naked arm. The backyard was her favorite place. Tomato vines held shiny red marbles and green peppers made the air smell with sweet spice. Her father took a tiny seed, hard and impenetrable, and stuck it in the broken earth. Then he let her, who had been watching the process intently, cup fresh soil in her toy doll hands. She smiled proudly as she patted the healed-up ground, her hands tan and rough, her white shirt only slightly stained. She looked up towards the red sun, and then over to the large, gloved hands.
Her father was still there.
She had been sitting in the chair for a long while now. Her lower back felt a strain, and her shoulders cramped. Her long legs fought for a comfortable position. She sighed, surrendered her position as sentinel, and got up from the green, metallic hospital chair. She glanced at the window, and somewhat reluctantly, walked towards the warmth of natural light. The sun was setting, streaks of color shooting across the sky. She looked down and watched a family gather into their sedan, and as she watched the little girl crying, holding a balloon, and the newborn wrapped in baby boy blue, she remembered…
Screaming. Sweating. Pushing. Heaving. In the end, there was a beauty in her arms. She looked at him in complete weariness and astonishment. Ben the dutiful, dear husband brought in their families to ooh and ahh. She noticed her father, standing far away, by the door. He looked uncomfortable, being around so many people, not knowing how to navigate such a tender moment. She called out to him, “Daddy.” And he came to her, as always. She gave him the boy, and he took him happily, gallantly. He walked over to the wide, tall window and said nothing, no ooh and no ahh. Her father loved in marvelous silence; she smiled. Her teary eyes began to struggle, seeking a deep rest. She glanced again at the tall, wide window.
Her father was still there.
She turned from the setting sun and walked across the room, thankful for the privacy. She leaned against the wall, glanced at her watch. The new shift of nurses and doctors would be arriving, getting ready to log in, check charts, count pills, give shots. She looked at her father, his face still youthful, glistening and resting. She could see him in the family bedroom upstairs, choosing a pale blue collared shirt, lightly lined, and tucking it tightly into his dark dress pants. She could see him sitting at the top of the steps, rolling up his dark socks and putting them on his calloused feet. She could see him grabbing the wooden banister, steadying himself, eyes not fully awake, walking down the carpeted stairs, almost surprised that his foot met something solid as he descended down into the living room. She could see all this, looking at her father in the hospital bed, resting after years of socks, shirts, and pants, steps and steps and steps.
Tears began to fall down her unwashed cheeks. The hospital bed held seventy years of life and one moment of death. The sheets had stopped rising. The waiting was over. And as the nurse came in, she remembered…
Hot chocolate milk with extra sugar before bed. Family vacations to Florida and the motherland. McDonalds after church. Drinking cardamom chai and eating greasy laddus. Watching the six o’clock evening news in his armchair. Teaching her how to change the oil in her first car. Playing peek-a-boo with her nine-month-old. Falling down the stairs. Ordering a cane, then a wheelchair. Struggling to eat. Struggling to talk. Struggling.
The nurse and doctor gave her time alone. She had thought that when her father died, everything would stop, as though the whole world would pause to quietly honor the passing of another living being. But she could hear light-hearted chatter outside the room and smell dinner from the hospital kitchen. Ambulance sirens continued to whirl. Nothing had really stopped except for the sheets rising up and down in that room. She placed her head on his chest just to make sure.
Her memories of her father would now include funeral arrangements, the burial, and graveyard visits with her growing children. They would be mixed together — her father in his youth, her father old and grey, her father sick — but always tinged with grief and gratefulness. It seemed the memories would only end at her own death, prolonging her father’s existence in the world if only for a little bit.
Till then, her father was still there.
Reena Thomas teaches college composition, fighting the good fight against unnecessary commas in California. She hopes to return to a land where subways exist.