The moment I spoke the words, I wanted to reel them back.
“Anything you need, Dad?”
Was that the best I could offer my 72 year-old father as he lay in his hospital bed during the final hours of his two-year battle with cancer?
When I first walked in his room, his eyes were closed, allowing me the opportunity to pause and watch the rising and lowering of the thin, institutional blanket draped over his torso and legs. That was followed by the all-too-familiar hugging of other family members sitting by his side. That was followed by my all-too-familiar whispering to them asking how dad was doing.
“I’m fine,” hollered the guy we all thought was asleep. “I can hear everything you’re saying.”
Of course he could. Dad — especially this dad — had a special gift that transcended every situation. The good. The bad. The ugly. And now death.
I sat on the edge of his bed and took his hand in mine. My dad had stocky, meaty fingers. When I was a child they struck me as the hands of a laborer even though he was anything but.
“You didn’t need to come,” he said. “Are the kids here?”
I could feel the ridges of his fingerprints. The same ridges I felt every morning of my teen years when he woke me up with a quick back scratch. His hands were still rough. The same familiar dryness. He didn’t have great-looking fingernails. But he gave the best morning back scratches ever known by this 16 year-old boy.
I was his baby. Boy number five. This man took very good care of me as a child. After my mother died, when I was 14, he never missed a beat in filling the parental void in my life. He mastered cooking. He mastered laundry. He mastered scheduling. Most of all, he selflessly mastered my world.
“I left the kids with a sitter,” I explained. “Basketball. Gymnastics. Too many things.”
The part about the sitter was true. The rest of it was not. The kids had already said what would be their good-byes to Grandpa when he was healthier a couple weeks earlier. I knew it was the right decision. This trip was for me.
He still hadn’t opened his eyes. And I was aware that my thumb was stroking his hand. Probably a little too hard. But he didn’t flinch.
I regretted my question to him the second I said it.
“Anything you need, Dad?”
It was just a far too casual kind of question. Like I was running to the store and was offering to grab an extra gallon of milk. There were a million things I wanted to say. I wanted to tell him how much I had dreaded this moment since the day Mom died 22 years earlier. I wanted to tell him that I couldn’t imagine my world without him and that, even though I was a dad, myself, I still needed him. So many options of things to say. And I asked him if he needed something. What was he supposed to say?
“Get in the top drawer of my nightstand,” he said.
“Top drawer. Just open it.”
I did as I was told.
Inside was a bible. His dopp kit. And a pair of hospital socks.
“Get my electric razor out. I need you to shave my face. They do a crappy job here.”
His liver may have been shutting down. But his sense of humor was still intact.
“Sure, Dad. But I’m not sure how much better I’ll be…”
“Hush. Just start.”
And then I began the ritual for the first time. And the last.
With the buzzing of the electric razor in my right hand I proceeded to pull the skin of his face gently taut and carefully glided his Norelco in baby circles. It was like practicing my cursive “o”s. I could feel his jaw bone as I worked my way around his cheeks. I wondered how — while his body was dying — his whiskers could still grow.
I inspected the areas I had shaved with a feather-touch from the flats of my fingers. Slowly. Exploring. His old, familiar face.
As I moved to his upper lip, I remembered hating how he chewed gum when I was a kid. I spent a lot of time in the car with him as a boy. Road trips. The Nebraska countryside. My dad chewed gum in the car. With vigor. And intent.
He was now perfectly still.
Some people have a last meal. My dad wanted a last shave.
When I was a little child, my dad would lay on the couch. Sideways. He’d bend his legs in a way to create a little space between himself and the back of the couch. It was a place he reserved for me. He called it a helicopter. I loved hanging out there. In the protected world of my dad.
Now I was the dad. Playing “helicopter” countless times over the years with my three children. In fact, two of them were now too old to play helicopter with me.
“That feels good,” my dad said as I rounded his chin and flicked the razor off.
I wondered what felt good. I knew what felt good to me.
“Do I get a tip, Dad?”
“Hell, no,” he said. Eyes still closed.
Dad eventually fell asleep. At least I think he did. It was hard to tell. The tips of my fingers rested on his cheeks until I eventually heard my brother clear his throat behind me. I had forgotten I wasn’t alone.
Expressing my feelings has never been a stumbling block for me. Snotty, messy crying comes quite easily, if that is what I’m feeling. But that moment, that spot on the edge of Dad’s bed was absolutely not the place to express those emotions.
That place was 42 steps away. Down the hall. Past the nurse’s station and the waiting room. Beyond the supply closet and a stone’s throw past the vending area. It was behind a door that said “Stairs.” Under a wall mounted fluorescent light.
And I couldn’t run there fast enough.
Anyone walking past that door in the following minutes might hear what they thought to be a wounded animal on the other side — announcing its pain to the world.
But pain wasn’t my primary emotion. Nor was it fear over what the next 24 hours would likely bring. It wasn’t regret. It wasn’t anger. It wasn’t a desire to recapture lost moments.
The emotion came from Dad’s unexpected response to my question.
“Anything you need, Dad?”
Of course there was. And — like all my brothers — I’ve always known the answer.
He just needed me.