I stood at the foot of the hospital bed, playing solitaire on the tray table. With each turn of a card, I looked up to see my father’s large blue-gray eyes staring at me. Memorizing my face? Asking for something?
He was beyond speech; four years into his illness. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia was supposed to be relatively benign. “You can live with this for twenty years and likely die of something else,” said the doctor at the time. Four years later, aged 72, he was diapered and speechless in a hospice bed. I didn’t understand how he had gotten to this point. Even though I saw the disease rob my father of himself, bit by bit, it was still a shock.
When I was growing up, he was often mistaken for a wrestler or football player. Such was my father’s presence. A deep, resonant voice, broad shoulders, with a bald head and prominent nose – he was the perfect dean of a New York City high school.
He was also the perfect social studies teacher. A voracious reader; he consumed biographies of Jefferson, Lincoln, Russian histories, westerns by Louis L’Amour, and any and all novels about the mob. All with equal gusto.
I continued playing solitaire. The slap of the cards on the laminate was a familiar sound to him. I would hear that sound as I came down the stairs in my own house, when my parents visited, and see him at my kitchen table, playing solitaire while waiting for the rest of us to be ready to go – wherever it was we were going, Dad was always ready early.
I kept looking up at his eyes.
My flight was 5:45 a.m. the next day, Sunday, March 13, 2005. That flight would get me home in time to see Leah’s final dance recital (she was a senior in high school and would be going on to college in the fall) and to celebrate Daniel’s 16th birthday. I took my leave, giving him a kiss on the cheek and a squeeze of his diminished arm. My mom and my brother Mark were with him and that comforted me.
He died that next day, on my son’s birthday, during my daughter’s dance recital.
I still see his eyes looking at me.