2011 winter fwriters csmith witness

by Curtis Smith

My father's stroke is massive. The ER doctors predict he will die before morning. We wait.

  *

Humor at such times is both awkward and deeply felt. Morning comes. Still my father breathes. My brother says, "And why should he give up being stubborn now?"

  *

I do not request the night watch by his bed. I am simply the first to remain while my brother sleeps and showers at our parents' house. I stay the second night with my mother and the lingering shell that is my father. A routine is thus established. Routines are comforting in uncertain times.


* * *

My boy, a kindergartner, has forged a deep kinship with my father. Their bond fascinates and perplexes me—my father, distant and quiet; my son, not one to sit still. Yet the boy has sought out my father's lap, and secure in that perch, he is free to rub his grandfather's bald head or tenderly remove the hearing aid from his ear. My grinning father indulges every whim. What words will the writer conjure to tell his child the old man he loves is gone?

  *

No feeding tubes. No ventilators. No extraordinary measures. The nurses empty the urine bag that dangles from the foot of the bed. They maneuver his unresponsive form with a tenderness he will never acknowledge. We thank them for their kindness, for the coffee and blankets they bring us. We thank them for allowing us all a bit of dignity—a currency that has never seemed so valuable.

  *

My father sees another dawn. He is a hopeless case. We accept this. He mutters incoherent syllables; here and there, a recognizable name. "We are here," we tell him. "We're right here." He is a sleeper unable to escape his dreams. His trembling fingers wrestle the oxygen tube from his lip. Over and over, we pry the hissing plastic from his grasp. "You're OK. Relax." For a moment, he will rest, exhausted, before rejoining the struggle. We soon grow tired of the fight. Comfort is more important than oxygen now.

  *

My son is six. Here are my memories of six: the thrill of watching color TV in a Sears showroom; a friend who broke his arm when he jumped from a swing's highest arc; a blizzard and the drifts that towered over my head. I recall few specific scenes with my father, yet he is always there, his presence like a color I could never erase.

  *

On the third day, we convince my mother to go home for a few hours. She is tired. We're all tired. The doctor on morning rounds says my father will die, probably today. My brother and I smile, each of us inheritors of our father's stubbornness in one form or another. We wait.

  *

His room's window looks out upon an enclosed atrium, long and narrow, five stories tall and topped with skylights. Lazy rhythms swirl below. The information desk's attendant turns another page in his paperback; custodians and security guards come and go. Dark beneath the skylights, the moon visible for a few hours, and outside our window, a gray that is neither day nor night. Cradled in the room's backbreaking recliner, I sleep in fits, in hallucinations, in random surrenderings of awareness. My father has not uttered a sound since morning. The color fades from his cheeks, another shade of gray for this gray room.

I open a book by his bedside—Bernard Malamud's The Fixer. Thirty years before, as a college freshman, I'd read the story of Morris Bober and Frank Alpine. The tale's melancholy and dreariness did little to garner my eighteen-year-old interest, but in this hushed room, I drown in Malamud's world, a place where a kind gesture or an extra nickel in the cash register might make all the difference.


* * *

As I wait for my car to warm up, I cry for the first and only time. There is nothing I can do but be a witness to the inevitable. Please, let me do that well.

  *

My father's breathing deteriorates. Five, ten, fifteen seconds pass without a sound before he shudders and gasps like a diver emerging from an icy sea. He sucks his pained breaths and slips away once again. I hold his hand, tell him I am near and that he can go if he'd like. Stubborn, but not a surprise.

  *

I arrive home after dawn. Behind me, an hour ride on the interstate, the city skyline emerging then fading, the road shared with truckers and sleepy commuters. I stop by my son's room. I stroke his cheek and allow my fingers to rest near his mouth. The current of his sleeping breath warms my skin. How do I appear in your dreams, little man?

  *

A TV hangs on the wall opposite my father's bed. The agility of basketball players, a sitcom's canned laughter, the fictional dramas of pretty, pretty people—these notes ring hollow in this hushed space. Still, I can't read or simply stare at my father all night, so I fiddle with the TV until I activate the closed captioning. Three nights running, I find myself watching High School Reunion, a second-rate reality show. The show's premise: thirty-somethings reunited in a luxurious house, the cast comprised of stereotypical players—the jock, the nerd, the cheerleader, the bully, the party girl. The proceedings are contrived and banal, yet I discover myself drawn to the show's underlying themes: the pain of unresolved pasts, the memories we carry, the ways we change and the ways we stay the same.


* * *

My son's head swirls with facts. Ask and he will tell you how many lifeboats were on the Titanic, the year Krakatau exploded, the speed of diving falcons. He has sat by my side as I read simply written biographies of Helen Keller, Ben Franklin, and Martin Luther King. He asks questions, grappling with the challenges of chronology, motivations, and history. I understand that in my son's eyes, I am not allotted the luxury of background. A child can't be asked to comprehend his father's history; a child's father is history, an influence so deeply entangled in a child's own existence that he will take years to separate the two.

I pull my chair closer to my father's bedside. I am glad I have grown old enough to understand him better—a child of the depression, poor and fatherless, a father himself at nineteen. He gurgles. He twitches in the throes of his final sleep, his history now written and sealed.

  *

My father dies in the early hours of Saturday morning. My role as witness is done for now.

  *

Humor, part two: Ten years before, during a serious battle with lymphoma, my father made plans with a local funeral home. My brother and I accompany our mother to meet the funeral director. Our father's wishes: cremation, no service, no fuss. Still, we need a casket for the crematorium, an urn for his ashes. We suggest a cardboard box, an old coffee tin. The funeral director, after a moment of pause, offers a nervous smile.


* * *

My wife and I call our son to the living room and ask him to sit on our laps. We talk about his grandfather's illness and how sometimes a body can no longer take the strain put upon it. The boy breaks into tears before we can say the word "dead."

  *

On a spring Saturday a month later, we hold a service. Having a last say is one of the luxuries ceded to the living. Forsythias are in bloom, the landscape's yellows and greens vibrant after winter's dull hues. Sunshine sparks in the stained glass. I carry my father's urn, a simple wooden box, the weight surprising. In the vestibule, we greet neighbors, the family members who arrive from distant cities. My boy explores pathways between the deeply stained pews. Nerves find me as I settle into the front pew. The preacher takes his place atop the altar, and in the still moment, my boy begins to cry. He grows inconsolable, and the rawness of his sobs tears into me. In my hands, a much-folded paper: Anne Sexton's poem "Courage." When the time comes, I ascend to the pulpit, my feet suddenly distant things. Looking upon the others, I question my decision to offer a few words. My son studies me, his tears momentarily harnessed, his eyes bleary and red.

The witness is the vessel of history, so let me be strong now. I summon my courage, for me and him, and begin to speak.

* "Witness" first appear in elimea.

Featured Works

Short Fiction
The Diorama and
Caravan

Essay
Witness

About the Author

Curtis Smith's stories and essays have appeared in over sixty literary reviews and have been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Writing, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He has published three novels, An Unadorned Life (by the now defunct Neshui Publishing), and Sound and Noise and Truth or Something Like It (both from Casperian Books). Press 53 has released his last two story collections, Bad Monkey and The Species Crown. March Street Press has published two collections of his flash fiction. This coming winter, Sunnyoutside Publishing will release his essay collection, Witness. For more information on Curtis Smith, visit www.curtisjsmith.com.

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