I still remember the book I was reading at the hospital; I never finished it. I remember the position of the chairs in the room. Leatherette. I wore combat boots for most of the time Dad was in the hospital; if I couldn't actually combat death I could at least look as angry as I felt.
Part of me will always be twenty-five, bracing my current spot in A Confederacy of Dunces with my left thumb while I reached out to Dad with my right hand. Knowing that a touch or a voice would soothe him. Knowing that it didn't matter a damn how uncomfortable I was; I had to do what was necessary.
I hated touching Dad in the hospital. It felt…wrong. At least around me, Dad was not the kind of person to reach out and touch people. Only after his aneurysm surgery did he ever reach out to hug me; he probably had the same unusually-large sense of personal space that I have.
Even today, I do not reach out and touch other people casually. When I do, it has meaning.
In the hospital, at night, I would reach out and touch Dad's hand when he was restless. At first, he knew voices, and once he asked for Sis and I. First the coherency went away, and then the words themselves. We were never certain of his level of consciousness, but it reminded me of the sleep of someone locked in a terrifying but fading dream. He would not recognize our touch or our voices, but their existence calmed him.
With time, the calmness went away, and there was only the pain. We chose to intervene, with an ever-changing cocktail of pain medication that allowed him to sleep.
The deepening of the sleep served only to transfer the coin of the nightmares to us.
I'd understood for some time that Dad was going to die. We'd had plenty of warning, even if we couldn't bring ourselves to say the words. A couple of weeks before Dad went into the hospital, he looked at me and said, "You realize how serious this is, don't you?"
I nodded, but all I could say was, "You're in a lot of trouble, Dad."
But the gulf between understanding and knowledge is filled with tears. I understood that Dad was going to die when I heard the diagnosis, but I knew that he was going to die when his hands no longer responded when we clasped them in ours.
When that happened, I took the first available moment and walked down the end of the hall, to stare down from the tenth-floor window down onto the parking lot. A parking lot filled with normal people, living normal lives, most of whom perceived the hospital as a way station, a temporary layover. Not dénouement, not finishing point.
When we gathered around his bed and held his hands in ours, my knowledge of 'soon' was redefined by the slowly-dropping temperature of Dad's hands.
The moment before the cessation of breath had little difference from the moment after, except for the semantics between 'going' and 'gone,' semantics which are going to take me years to come to terms with.
Touch. A husband to wife, a parent to child, a friend to a friend, all permutations on the same need: for love, for acceptance, for banishment of the solitary. For refutation of the finality of death. For proof that we still contain the capacity to feel, to give affection, to register impressions of the world.
Touch. The weight of the laminated paper sign on the door, a sketch of a dove bearing an olive branch.
No matter how old I become, part of me will always still be twenty-five.