Mr. Klein

I stand by my father’s bed. We never had much to say to each other and this is no exception.
– You want water?
– Sure.
I pour a glass. He takes a sip. I figure I should stay at least 15 minutes, then I should be able to leave. I told Marion I was going, hoping she would drop by. Instead, my sister was relieved and said, lightly, “Three’s a crowd.” That’s always been my line, and I could see now how she would have resented all my years of copping out. It was a shock to find our dad sprawled on the floor, in pain, his hip fractured though he’s not that old.
We look grimly at each other. I am eyeing the clock. It’s only been five minutes.
– Are you still in pain?
– Nah, painkillers.
– How’s the neighborhood?
I point at the curtain between the two beds. Dad has insisted on a semi-private room “for company.” He hates people, so I can only assume he’s been frightened out of his wits and fears another fall, another long wait. Dad frowns and pulls me close.
– I think he’s dying, he says in a low voice.
So much for company.
– Why do you say that? I reply in the same hushed tone.
– He’s hardly ever conscious. He moans and groans. The doctor comes and only talks to the nurse. He hasn’t gotten up at all.

Now I’m curious.
– Any visitors?
– Nope.
I suddenly feel righteous. At least Dad has me. Five more minutes.
-They should install the tv tomorrow. Do you want anything in the meantime?
He’s dozing off. I kiss his forehead lightly, as you would a child. His hair has thinned.

I stop by the nurses’ station and enquire about my dad’s roommate. He’s in the last stages of cancer. No family has claimed him. I hear myself say, “When’s the best time to visit? I mean, do you think it would be okay if I visited? Is he sometimes conscious?” The nurse’s features soften. “If you come around 7 pm, we can postpone his morphine until after you leave. Company will do him a lot of good. Thank you.” “His name?” “Mr. Klein.”

I visit Dad the next day. He’s back to his old self.
-The tv’s not working.
I try the remote.
– You have to press here.
– Give me that.
He finds the news channel and starts watching the news. I watch a little with him, then I head over next door.

– Hello, I’m Rick. I’m your neighbour’s son. He wants to watch the news. May I sit with you, Mr. Klein?
He looks at me, non-committal. I stay put. He ushers me in with his chin. We sit in silence. He has pleasant features, though etched in pain.
– May I sketch you?
He looks intrigued, motions at the pillows. I straighten the pillows. He runs the hand without the IV through his hair. I take out my sketchbook. He stays motionless, with a purpose. I draw him in broad strokes, the elongated forehead, the diminutive chin, the fine lips, the fiery eyes and bushy eyebrows.

I show him. He chuckles.
– “It’s good. Rick.” He nods. “It’s good,” he repeats.
– Thank you. It’s for you to keep. What shall we call it?
– The last hurrah.
I write ‘The last hurrah’ and hand it to him.
He points to the bedside table. I place it there, near a picture. I don’t ask. He’s looking at me, but his gaze is faltering.
– Time for your morphine?
He nods. I press for the nurse, who arrives promptly.
– Shall I come back tomorrow?
– Yes, Rick.
I go see Dad. He’s still riveted by the tv and mumbles his comments. I can tell he’s feeling better by the venom he projects.
– I’m off, Dad. Do you need anything?
He waves me away. He’s got his tv.

The next day, I make it earlier to the hospital and slip in to see Mr. Klein.
– Do you need help eating?
He looks up and smiles.
– You could eat my share. I’m just pushing the food around.
I am starving.
– At least eat the soup.
He complies and watches me down the pasta and bread. I look at him guiltily.
– I should have kept the bread for you.
– Eat, eat.
There’s applesauce and Arrowroot biscuits. I push it towards him. He says, “Take the cookies, they’re too dry.” His appetite is better. I tell him about desserts I liked as a kid. He says he could have applesauce everyday. I put the tray on the floor and push the table out of the way. I can hear the tv sounds from Dad’s side.
– Does the sound bother you?
He answers, “He’s got it running all day, all night.”
It’s loud. I suspect they took out his hearing aids.

– Hi, Dad.
– Rick, you’re early. Aren’t you working?
– I wanted to see how you were doing. The tv’s pretty loud. Let’s get you set up with the earphones and see if we can get the volume down.
I fiddle with it until he’s comfortable. He’s eaten all his food, so I get rid of his tray as well. He’s absorbed by the tv. I leave him to it.

Mr. Klein doesn’t ask me about Dad.
– Better? I ask.
– Yes, thank you.
He’s pretty lively for a dying man.
– How’s the lighting? Are you managing to sleep?
– I would do better with my cap, but I can’t get to it.
I rummage and come back with it. He puts on the cap. He looks dapper.
– Do you want to pose with the cap?
His eyes are softer. They are no longer fighting the harsh light. I push the cap a bit to the side. This time, I draw the boy in him. He gasps when I show him.
– What shall we call it?
– Springtime.
I title it, date and sign. I notice the first one is gone. It’s been a long visit. I bring it to a close. We shake hands.
– See you tomorrow, Mr. Klein.
– Goodbye, Son.

Dad doesn’t hear me leave. He’s got the baseball going.
I come the next day with flowers. Mr. Klein is heavily sedated. A forbidding woman is sitting by his side, her back very straight. I introduce myself and hand her the flowers. She seems to need them. I go and see Dad.
– The tv’s too small. I could hardly see the ball yesterday. I’m ready to leave. They say I have to do physio. I’ve been getting up and exercising but I’m supposed to always wait for help. They’re afraid I’ll break something
– Did Marion come by?
– Marion? Yes, she says hi. She missed you yesterday. She says to wait for her today.
I start sketching him.
– When are you going to get a real job? None of that doodling.
I put my pad away. We stare at each other.

I hear the woman getting up next door. She stops at the foot of my father’s bed. “You have a good son.” She leaves with the bouquet. I catch up with her in the hall.
– You drew those pictures, yes? You have made him so happy. He is dying, you know. But now, he is lighter. Your visits make him happy.
– He’s in pain today?
– Yes, they had to increase his dose.
– I will sit with him until my sister comes.
– Thank you, I must leave now. For work.
I take out my pad and sketch his dreams. He is playing the fiddle in a field. People are dancing. Dogs are trying to get a bite from a table full of food. I leave the drawing on his bedside.
Marion has arrived, and Dad and she are arguing. She wants him to turn off the tv so they can talk. I intervene.
– Dad, you’ve got a better tv at home. Maybe we can discuss ways to get you there sooner.
I’ve got his attention. We agree on a plan that Marion will discuss with his medical team tomorrow. If they agree, we can take him back home. We leave Dad to his tv.

During the night, I get a phone call from the nurse. “Mr. Klein is asking for you. I think it may be time. Will you come?” I hurry to the hospital. They’ve moved Mr. Klein to a private room. His breathing is laboured. He relaxes a bit as I take a seat by him. I take his hand. It is cold but firm.
– How did you know about the dream?
I look at his blue eyes, the child, the dream, the old man.
– My hand knew.
– Draw again, please.
I look into his eyes and see death. I draw a beautiful woman with a peaceful smile. She has long curly dark hair and tiny feet. I feel music around her. I change the curls to notes. I am immersed in my vision, drawing quickly. I show Mr. Klein the drawing. His eyes are focused and clear. He seems to recognize the woman. “Ah,” he sighs. He takes a deep breath. After a pause, another breath. I have stopped breathing and I am holding his hand. His grip relaxes, his breathing stops. We sit in silence, the drawing on his silent chest.

Dad went home today too.

No Words

I scream but my cries are lost in the general mayhem. I listen and wait. I remember nightmares when I was a child. My screams would wake me up, but no one would come. I would scream again, with less conviction, and listen some more. Nobody stirred. Uneasily, I would fall back to sleep. I was a poor sleeper, in my early years. The family moved around the country, my father unable to settle down, and I would sleepwalk, fall out of bed, and generally have sleeping issues. Nevertheless, I was always full of whim and vigour when morning came, the night terrors forgotten, eager to face a new day.

These days, the dislocation is internal. I am not so much moved as unmoored from my familiar signposts. I scream to express my desire to be heard. If I don’t scream, how will they know I am alive? I remember getting Sparky from the kennel, his vocal cords all used up from the incessant barking. We never left him there after that traumatic experience. Will someone rescue me too? Will I have to stay in this hellhole? The noise is deafening, but it’s also a blessing. I am not alone in my fight. We are tied to the bed, not enough helpers for our lot.

I am wet. Wet and hungry. I can no longer talk, but I can still remember when my Marjorie was in hospital to get her tonsils out. She was so agitated that they had tied her down. I was shocked and had them untie my child. She cried in my arms as I fed her Jell-O. I hope I get green Jell-O. It’s my favourite. The nurses’ aid is changing my nappy. I don’t really care who sees my bottom. I only care to be dry. She tells me we will be fed soon and wipes the drool off my chin. What a mess.

The effort to eat is enough to tire me out. I fall asleep only to be woken up by screams. It is night, but you wouldn’t know it. The lights in the corridor are not even dimmed. They hurt my eyes. I close them again and will away the sound. When I was a young mother, I took meditation classes. We were shown how to integrate the ambient noise into our meditation. I have always found this approach the best one for me. If you can’t beat them, join them. The bars of the bed are raised, in effect preventing me from getting up and going to the bathroom. I press the red button for help but soil myself before the overworked aid arrives. He smiles to say he’s sorry, dries me gently and moves me around. I am getting bedsores.

It is morning. I hear distant cries. The person seems to be in pain. I feel okay this morning. My head is clear; I slept well without a sleeping aid. My nurse stops by, all smiles. I want to ask her about her new sweetheart. I smile what I hope is a conspirational smile. She only needs that nudge to spill out the beans. She shoves a ringed finger under my nose. “He proposed!” I beam at her. She beams back. “You’re the first one I’ve told. Here. I mean, outside of my family.” I love that she is so precise, so eager to be truthful. I touch my chest to show I am moved. She hugs me and tends to my needs. I hear whimpering. She stops in alarm. “Did I hurt you? Those bedsores are nasty. I will put a note on your chart, so you will be moved more often. Would you like to be wheeled to the common room?” I nod. She calls an aid and gives her order. “Move her to the common room an hour before lunch and wheel her by the window, will you? With a blanket because of the drafts. And feed her there if she is not too tired.” She winks at me and heads to her next charge. The aid grumbles but complies.

The mobile ones come to the common room, but the neglected ones stay in bed. The aid actually brushes my hair and changes my gown after bathing me. I feel alive. I watch the birds, their cries distant and joyous. I don’t feel like screaming today. I will give my vocal cords a rest. There is so much life out there, beyond the window. Cars, and clouds, and birds. People hurrying and people sitting. Someone speaking on the phone, another eating a sandwich. I eat too. They wheel me to a table with three other residents. We don’t look at each other. We are intent on not spilling the grub and getting it down our throats without choking. It’s a task that takes focus and determination. I am spent. I am wheeled back to my room for the afternoon. Marjorie comes while I am sleeping. The nurse says I’ve had a good day. I smile in my sleep and she leaves. Later, I see a bouquet of lilies of the valley, my favourites. I hope she comes back.