Updated: Nov 10, 2020
by Ryder Ziebarth
Leaving my weakening father alone even a few minutes made me feel culpable, but we needed to eat something.
In the Au Bon Pain in the first-floor lobby of Danbury Hospital sun streamed through floor to ceiling windows; a sharp contract to my father’s shadowy room on the 8th floor, where he lay unconscious for the second week. The small restaurant with its aroma of food sizzling on the grill, warm light, and cheery bustle was a godsend. My mother agreed to go to the café with me for only a coffee. I knew she must be hungry; we’d been together for days and I hadn’t seen her eat much. She either wouldn’t admit it or didn’t know it herself. Leaving my weakening father alone even a few minutes made me feel culpable, but we needed to eat something. Knowing the doctors had not allowed him any nourishment other than what came from an IV tube seemed cruel. Now, he was drowning in his own fluids from pneumonia contracted after he’d broken his hip the final set-back in a litany of on-going medical complications. His eighty-seven-year-old body was tired. He had fought hard for months. I knew the café’s menu by heart—I had been eating there on and off, whenever Dad had been admitted from falls from his walker, car accidents, bladder infections. The staff was kind and sympathetic to my repeated visits. They joked with me about my habit of buying a low-fat yogurt when I arrived in the morning, then returning later for their berry-laden, sugar-topped scone to relieve my stress. The tables were always washed down and floors swept clean, the coffee hot and strong. Mom and I waved to one of the servers we knew by name, Linda, who was behind the counter as we walked in. We chose a booth by the large window to feel some of the October sun’s afternoon warmth. We were always so cold in Dad’s hospital room, no matter how many layers we wore. Outside, the maple leaves on the trees in the distant New England Hills had turned vibrant oranges and reds since Dad was admitted almost a month ago, in the middle of October. The sky was a cloudless blue-bird shade of blue. Water cascaded down a set of elaborate stone steps from a fountain installed recently by a donor my mother knew from her town in Redding. Everything seemed so tranquil, a contrast to what was happening in our own lives. Autumn was my father’s favorite season. His birthday month, in September. “I wish we had that kind of money,” Mom said, looking out at the fountain, its granite wall surrounds, and its’ neat pathways lined with chrysanthemums in shades of magenta and gold. “I’d like to make a donation to this hospital in Dad’s name. It has done a lot for us over the years—my back operation, dad’s back, both my knees.” She paused, then added, “Now this. Damn it all.” This was the first real reference I heard her make to his impending death. She wiped the already clean table with a napkin as if to scrub the thought away. “Mom, do you know what hospice care means?” I was fairly certain she didn’t. “No,” she said, looking at the menu. “Can you get me a half lemonade and half orange juice please?” When I returned with her drink, I folded my hands on top of the table, leaned closer to her and explained that hospice meant we would stop all of his medications, including the antibiotics that weren’t working to stop the progression of his pneumonia, remove his IV feeding tube, and begin administering morphine and sedatives “to make him comfortable.” “I’ll split the chicken salad with you,” she said, having picked up a menu while I spoke. “Mom are you listening?” “Yes. I heard you. I’m thinking. I want some tomato soup, too. You have a cup with me,” she said, then slipped the menu back between the condiments. Everything on the table was in its rightful place. “Go order our food from Linda at the counter, will you honey?” I decided not to press her and slid out of the booth. My knees felt weak with some kind of complicity. A few minutes later I came back with an overloaded tray—her soup and sandwich, a bag of Sun Chips, my scone, and a huge chocolate chip cookie. I set everything down in front of her. She started on the soup. “Mom,” I said, gingerly, “Do you want to talk to the hospice team here at the hospital?” She spooned the soup to her lips and stared out at the fountain endlessly flowing over its rocky steps. “I guess so. But call your brother, Rob. Tell him to meet us here about 2:00. Can you do that?” “Sure,” I said, unable to eat anything, not even my scone.
She devoured the remaining food. I hadn’t seen her eat that much in a week. After lunch, we went back to Dad’s room. The shade was drawn blocking out all the light. I raised it, unable to stand the darkness another day. Why had it been perpetually closed? Why hadn’t I noticed until now?
Mom walked around to his bedside and kissed her husband of sixty years on each of his closed eyes, then settled in the chair next to him. She reached for his age-spotted hand—so familiar to me, even more so to her, and said, “Go ahead now, honey, go call your brother. I’ll be right here with Dad, telling him how beautiful the sunlight is.”