My father’s eyes stayed closed. Standing behind him, as he lay in his narrow bed, I stroked his warm, almost hairless scalp. The hospice doctor, finishing the examination for which he’d come, poked my father’s feet with a pin. No reaction. My father’s cough gurgled, thick. The hospice nurse leaned in and deftly snuck a suction tube into his throat; he gagged, arms flailing, writhed away from her. Then, abruptly, he quieted — his breath still ragged. I took up my post again, smoothing the sparse white strands at the sides of his head. When I was little, my father let his giggly only child fluff out his then-thick hair. It was our Herr Doktor Einstein game. It didn’t bother him to look ridiculous. Now—the overseer of his care and sometime caretaker—I had access to his body again; I cleaned his crusty nails with a metal file from my purse, held a tissue around his nostrils for him to blow into when I visited the facility, where nothing was easy—even before my father started dying.
“You must love your father very much,” the pinstripe-suited doctor said. He sat cross-legged on the old leather recliner I had brought from home. He propped his clipboard and paperwork on his knee.
It was a long time before my father took another noisy breath. I looked down; his blind hand sought his belly and rested there, just under the sheet.
“He must have been a very good father,” the doctor said, scribbling away.
“He was,” I said. My immigrant father, with faintly Germanic attitudes about the body. The swimmer who taught me to swim, while my mother fearfully splashed herself at the edge of the sea. The opener of his overcoat on frigid winter walks from the subway. “It’s not really that cold. Breathe in. Ahhh. Breathe out.” The man who took me into the shower with him when I was four and five, whose were the first adult male genitals I saw—unthreatening, matter-of-fact—who made the point that there was nothing to be ashamed of in our nakedness, in any part of us. The one who sat near me when, at thirteen, I writhed on the couch with menstrual cramps, who told me stories of sisters and old girlfriends who survived them. The man who signed the secret permission letter that allowed me to be fitted for a diaphragm at the Margaret Sanger Clinic, when, at 19, I wanted to sleep with my fiancé —“You are sure, right? And he is committed to you?”— a letter my mother would have considered shameful, especially if anyone knew.
I stroked his forehead and scalp, my fingers trying to speak. My father inched his hand further, just inside the diaper the sheet barely covered, and rested it on his penis.
“I mean I’ve rarely seen your degree of devotion,” the doctor said, still writing.
I reached down, quickly lifted my father’s hand by the wrist, and moved it away.
Sudden as my mother’s judgmental eyes, a bizarre impulse of propriety? Because his death was on a public stage, the audience, strangers? My father gave me a gift, which I thought I’d kept. But I censored him, taking away a little flame of comfort he might still have felt. And was ashamed of my shame.
“You really are a good daughter,” the doctor said, looking up, smiling.