ESSAY- Father's day: You sound just like him

"You must be his son. You look just like him."

My father lies propped up in the hospital bed, arms outstretched and palms up, as if he had passed out in an act of supplication. Chin on chest, mouth open, sallow cheeks sagging below black-circled eyes, he lists slightly to the right, a small, storm-battered boat on a now calm sea of white and blue linen. Life-lines trail from left and right. His needle-marked black and blue forearms tell the story of the five hard weeks since open-heart surgery. He looks terrible.

The nurse, who has correctly identified me, hears my swallowed laugh and follows my gaze toward the bed.  She tries to recover. "Oh, dear, I don't mean you look, uh... it's just..." I smile, wave "no insult." To make her feel better I say, truthfully, that people have always said we look and even sound very much alike.

Mercifully, a patient's call rescues her. I pull a chair up to the bed, where I will sit and watch awhile. It's hard, visiting like this day after day, not to see your own future in the bed you sit by. Look just like him? Well, not yet, anyway. I have to smile, though, for he's actually looking better today. Ah, maybe that's because the nurses have managed to shave him– except for his upper lip, I notice, probably still too rough and raw from the nasal tubes he's finally rid of.

I make a mental note:  tease him, when he wakes up, about growing a full mustache. Until his beard started to go gray, he wore a thin, Clark Gable mustache, unlike his father, who wore a bushy Mark Twain model throughout his life. I can already see the resemblance; let it grow a few more days, and he will look very much like his father. Damn that nurse.

The shave aside, my father looks better than at any time since the surgery that few expected him to survive. It was either that, which might give him a few more years, or go on morphine and die in a few weeks. It took seven days to wean him from the respirator, weeks more for the other machines. But here he still is, heart functioning just well enough to keep him alive.

He shifts a bit in bed, lifts his head back against his pillow. I put my hand gingerly on one of his to let him know I'm there. His eyes open, and as soon as they focus he grips my hand with surprising strength.

"Tommy! Tommy, you're here. You're here!"

I smile at the diminutive of my name, which I never hear from anyone except a few older relatives. But his seeming surprise at my presence, as if I haven't been there almost every day for weeks now, worries me. Before I can reply, he continues, with great urgency, "Do you know about Pop, did you hear about him? He's very sick, in the hospital."

Pop? It dawns on me that he's speaking about his father. I'm not sure how to respond. For weeks after the surgery he could not distinguish between nightmares and reality. The psychological changes commonly precipitated by open heart surgery were particularly acute in his case.

Given his long stint on the respirator and the attendant damage in his throat, he was unable to speak for over ten days, though he often tried desperately to communicate, his eyes wild with fear or rage, arms straining against restraints, until he was sedated.

When he was finally able to croak out a few words, he kept asking if Mom was okay, if the police had found the intruders. Did we get the people who had shot him in the chest, tied him down, tried to suffocate him?

It took days to convince him that he was not in the hospital as a result of those attacks. Only gradually, and after a few regressions, did he finally recall his condition before the surgery and accept our accounts of his history since then.

So I respond carefully, "Dad, are you speaking about Grandpop, your father?" He nods vigorously, as if to say, "Of course! Who else?" I pause to consider, to find the right tone.

"Dad, I think maybe you were having another bad dream just now. You know Grandpop has been gone many years. Remember?  He died when he was 95."

My reply startles him. He stiffens– then seems confused or disappointed. He drops my hand and looks down at his own. I recognize his "figuring out the problem" look and know to wait quietly.

Finally, he grabs my hand again and speaks more softly now– but with no less intensity. "So you mean that old man in bed, that old man who's so sick, so very sick... that old man is me?" I sense the rhetorical nature of the question but answer carefully, "You've been very sick for weeks now, dad." He nods his head slowly. He's still holding my right hand, and I put the other over his, and we sit that way for a while. I can't remember ever holding hands with him like this, holding on to one another so long.

When he releases my hand, he turns to me, smiling. I sense he's put aside that image of the old man in the bed, wants to say something. I wait. He smiles impishly, looking as childlike as a convalescing 88-year-old can look. "I figured it out'" he says, as if expecting praise. "You know how?"

"How?" I ask, not entirely certain what he's figured out.

"I figured out why that old man in the bed couldn't be Pop. Pop was older, of course. To be alive now, he'd have to be about a 130 years old, and that's not possible."

"Yep, that's for sure'" I quickly affirm. I'm in fact delighted that he's now able to reason his way from dream to reality. I must have mirrored his satisfaction well, for he lies back quietly, and when he dozes off again, he's still smiling, like a child who has just been praised.

The very sick old man in the bed survived for almost five years after that visit. I was reminded of it just a few weeks ago, by a call from a long-time family friend. She'd had a thank-you call from one of my sons, for a special gift. Turns out they had a long, very "adult" conversation. Silly to remark upon that, she admits, since he is, after all, an accomplished adult, and yes, we have to stop thinking of our kids as if they were still children. Kids... children? We both laugh. But what she really called to say is, "He sounds so much like you!"

I start to tell her how people used to say my voice sounded just like my father's, but no one's ever said that about either of my sons and me. She interrupts, explains she doesn't mean our voices sound alike.

He "sounds" like you, she explains, in the cadence of his sentences, his tone, his way of pausing to think before speaking. Like you, she repeats, her own voice rising. He sounded just like you. I don't know how else to say it.