Fig. 1. Andres Serrano - The Morgue Part II (Death By Natural Causes), 1992
'The large dining room table and eight chairs had been moved out of the room and I wondered briefly where they could be stored. The sideboard was still in place, though it was covered now with the supplies one requires to transport the living into death - hypodermic needles, a plastic rack filled with small glass ampules, a portable cardiac monitor inside a padded canvas carrying case. A steel-framed hospital bed had been positioned in the dining table's place and in this bed, my father lay, his withered body wasted down to under one hundred pounds. His skin was the colour of butter and the whites of his eyes were bright yellow and made me think of a wolf's.
Two months before, my father had fallen backward down his stairs. He'd been taken first to a hospital, then a nursing home for physical therapy. But the medications had been too hard on his liver. Instead of growing stronger in the nursing home, he became weaker, smaller. And now he was dying.
A catheter bag strapped to the side of his bed frame contained only the smallest amount of urine - soon, his kidneys would cease altogether. Maybe in an hour, maybe a day.
The hospice nurse placed a small morphine drip control wand in my father's hand. "When you feel you need more, just push the button right there on the tip. You only need to push it once and you'll get another dose."
Though it was only three in the afternoon it felt much later, because up here on the mountain where my father and his wife had lived for over twenty years, the trees blocked most of the light and the larger mountain behind the house cut the sun off a couple of hours before it set.
My father's wife busied herself in the kitchen, making pitchers of iced tea, wiping the counters with a sponge, brewing coffee. My father's brother and his brother's wife had flown up from Alabama. But my father was too sick for any socializing.
Uncle Bob took a chair in the sunroom, just off the dining room. Aunt Relda had poured him a drink, three fingers of whiskey, and now sat with an iced tea on the sofa. My father's wife had finished up in the kitchen and was now sitting in the recliner opposite Uncle Bob. My brother sat on the sofa beside Relda looking lost and sad. I sat on the floor at Uncle Bob's feet, looking up at him. It was comforting to hear his full, ripe southern accent. It made me realize my father's had been smoothed out over the years, like a stone in a river.
"Now, you have to remember, Marist was the Catholic military school that we attended as boys in Atlanta. And by God, ol' John was battalion commander his senior year there. Buddy?" And here, he looked pointedly at me. "That was no small thing. Battalion commander is the top cadet. Your daddy was the mutherfucker that got to call quittin' time."
I realized I must have seen photographs of my father in his school uniform, an officer's hat perched on his head. I stood up and walked through the dining room, past my father, who gazed at the ceiling with glassy, unfocused eyes. I jogged up the three steps and walked into his office. I pulled his old photo album from the bottom shelf of his bookcase and carried it back into the dining room. Standing beside his bed, I opened the album to the first page. "I thought maybe you'd like to look at some childhood pictures," I said, holding the album before his eyes.
I imagined that if I were dying it would be a comfort to see, again, my long-dead mother, my distant childhood. But my father simply closed his eyes and rolled his head away from me so that his cheek rested on the pillow. "Well, maybe later," I said. A few hours later, while I sat in the sunroom listening to Uncle Bob tell more stories, I watched my brother step up to the hospital bed. Gently, he stroked our father's head. I rose from the sofa and entered the dining room, standing back near the foot of the bed.
In a gravelly whisper my father said to my brother, "You've been a good boy. A good son."'
[To be continued...]
Augusten Burroughs (from A Wolf At The Table)