My Father's Heart

True to form, my father maintained control even when his heart seized up like a jammed cogworks. He raised his hand and shook his head, refusing help from concerned friends slicing balls on the golf course near him. "It's just a little indigestion," he said. "I can handle it." Only when he started gulping air and the band of pain threatened to snap his ribs, only then did my father stow his golf clubs and allow himself to be driven to the emergency room. After so carefully building an ironclad reputation (Baptist pastor, newspaper columnist, Rotarian, all-around nice guy) in his small Wyoming town, my father felt he had a lot to lose from something like a heart attack. It is, he would say, evidence of weakness.

The first thing I notice when I walk in the intensive care unit is the plastic tube disappearing down his throat like he's trying to swallow a corrugated snake. The second thing is how his body had gone gray and collapsed against the hospital sheets.

Even so true to form my father has triumphed over the heart attack and, according to his doctors, will emerge from the double-bypass with a textbook rebound. The Rev. Donald Dodge has many more sermons to preach from his pulpit at the First Baptist Church in Flint, Wyoming throat-snake or no throat-snake.

That is months down the road, however. All I care about is the here and now.

When I walk into that hospital room, I'm entering a sliver of time when (at last) my father is as weak and powerless as he was 56 years earlier cradled in his own father's arms. I take pleasure in the fact that my father's heart has knocked him flat on his ass like a newborn. I'm also delighted to see he's been rendered speechless.

This, after all, is why I responded so quickly to my mother's phone call. By that point, he'd already been airlifted from Flint to Salt Lake City, had his heart rerouted by the surgeons and started his recovery in a private room. My mother sounded serene, at peace with the whole situation. I knew it was only her dutiful, "it's-in-God's-hands" facade. Inside, she prayed God would give one hard squeeze with His hands and finish everything.

Before she got off the phone, my mother gave me a set of instructions all ICU visitors must follow: visiting hours, authorized gifts, and cleansing procedures. "They don't want anything infectious coming in from the outside," she said.

So... here I stand at the sink with foot pedals for taps, my sleeves rolled to the elbows, water dripping from my raised wrists. The paper towel dispenser is empty. I wipe my hands on my pants, recycling my germs. The pneumatic doors part like a curtain, and I enter the sterilized sanctuary of the ICU. Through half-open doors, I see other critically ill patients. The ones with their eyes open stare blankly at the ceiling. At the nurse's station, I ask for my father's room and am pointed down the corridor. All around me, the rooms hiss and beep, sustaining even those who don't deserve to live.

It's been 18 months since I last saw my father. Three days after my high school graduation, I'd gone away to the university in Laramie and stayed there, unwilling to come home on even the longest holidays. Eventually, the phone calls and letters from my parents dropped off to once a month. I told myself I could endure a monthly 15 minutes.

I pierced my nose and wore a diamond stud; I changed my wardrobe, buying the blackest T-shirts and jeans Kmart had to offer. I did this in defiance of what my father would call "good and proper behavior befitting a child of the Church." I also smoked marijuana and slept with a variety of girls. Maybe I went too far, a little too deep into this rebellion thing, but I couldn't help myself. I was addicted to hating my father.

That's why I strut into the ICU grinning, practically humming. I'm way beyond the Prodigal Son at this point.

Despite the collapsed gray, my father looks relatively the same the receding crown of hair, the hooked nose, the original chin blanketed in the folds of the extra ones piled on by age and cholesterol. His mouth forms a tight "O" around the respirator tube; two thin wires one red, one blue, like those on a detonation device disappear into his chest. He has one leg outside of the bedsheet, no doubt trying to cool that half of his body. The sheet has fallen away a little, and I see his nakedness. His pubic hair has flecks of gray; his penis is swollen and bloody from the catheter sunk down its center.

The room is crowded with machinery, tubes, and the smell of a bedpan. A heart monitor hovers above the bed. On its tiny green screen, a line zigzags like a horizontal lightning bolt.

My mother stands next to my father, her fingertips on his shoulder. She looks like she stumbled through a plate-glass door and kept right on walking. Two doctors bend their heads in her direction, murmuring long strings of words. It's hard to distinguish their voices from the machinery.

In the doorway, I shuffle my feet. My mother looks up. "Jonah," she says. "You made it."

The doctors stop talking, nod their hellos.

My mother can't even leave my father's side that's how much control he has over her, even while lying semi-conscious and sedated. She touches his wrist just above the iodine stains and IV needles, but it's no different than if he were the one gripping her wrist. She looks down and says, "Jonah's here. Isn't that good news?" There is exhaustion and relief in her voice.

Because of the tube in his throat, my father can only communicate with his eyes. They roll in the sockets, bumping his shaggy eyebrows.

(Down the road, he'll regain his voice, his strength, his character. He'll insist the nurses fold the blanket at the foot of his bed and that he be covered with only the sheet. The back of his hospital gown must be untied when he's lying down, re-tied the instant he sits up. My mother will have to wipe off her glossy lipstick before she kisses him. "It gives me a sore throat," he'll tell her; adding a footnote: "You know that.")

I approach the bed. He smells like surgery hot and medicinal and temporarily sterilized. Without touching him, I say, "Hello." This is not what I want to say. I want to greet him with, "Hello, Dimmesdale" (I'm in the third week of my Am Lit course at Laramie, and this has been on my mind), but because my mother and the doctors are still in the room, I don't call him Dimmesdale. Still, it's enough to know I can.

 My father takes one look at my diamond, gets one whiff of my stale cannabis breath, and rolls his eyes in wild circles. I know what he's saying; I've heard it all before.

I look over my mother's shoulder at the room's only window. I can see a fraction of the world outside. There are a few leaf-stripped trees trying to reach their branches as high as my father's window. Three people cross on the light at a street corner, two walking briskly toward the other who has his head down against the wind. In the distance, clouds lower across the Wasatch Mountains. The sky is dark gray, like the mood in my father's room.

When he does have full control of his body, my father uses his voice like a symphony, each word a perfect note. Much as I hate to admit it, there's poetry in my father's voice. When I was younger, it was the sound of his words, not the words themselves, that got me through each Sunday service. I'd look around at all the other people of Flint the ranchers, the taxidermists, the Forest Service officials and I saw they were just as spellbound.

After church, he'd be in his bedroom singing the hymns of the day as he changed his clothes. Thinking he was alone, he strained for the high notes on "How Great Thou Art," warbling like a songbird as he pulled up his socks. But when he emerged and caught me listening in the hallway, he blushed, cleared his throat, and dropped to a low, restrained whistle.

I remember another time when one of my father's favorite songs on the radio was something called "My Name's Not Lisa." I thought it was the stupidest song, probably because I never understood what the words meant. Now, I know it was about infidelity, this woman telling her philandering husband to quit calling her by his mistress' name. My father went around humming that song for nearly a year. It was his hymn to adultery.

We all knew about his woman. When I say "we," I mean me, my mother, and my father. And when I say "woman," I mean it in the most generic sense of the word. My mother and I never learned her name, never knew what she looked like, never caught her scent or saw a loose strand of hair. Still, to us she was as real as the dining room furniture. And in my father's voice, under the whirling current of day-to-day chatter, something swam against the flow; something that was, when we later stopped to think about it, unmistakable passion; something like a prize trout that had eluded him for years and, by God, it was about time for him to hook it, bring it to the riverbank.

We discovered the woman the winter of my senior year in high school. When I say "we," I mean my mother and I reached the conclusion separately, never speaking about it, never admitting we each held something that could kill my father's reputation in the town. But I knew she knew it was in her eyes, her posture, the new tremble on the edge of her smile. I'll probably never know how my mother learned of the adultery maybe it was like a freeway collision, a long chain of clues piling into each other, the endless crashing finally ground to a halt. Maybe that's how it was for her. Maybe she saw the trout flipping on the shore, plain as day. Maybe, but I doubt it my father is much too careful.

For me, it was a scrap of paper. I snuck into his church study one afternoon when he was at the county hospital praying for Chance Gooding's wife, who was on her last leg of cancer. It was December. In fact it was the shortest day of the year, and the sun was dying over the rim of Arrow Mountain. There was just enough light in the study for me to see what I was doing. I was playing a prank on my father, taking all the Bible commentaries off the bookshelf behind his desk, turning them upside down and then putting them back on the shelf in haphazard order. My father has this thing about alphabetizing. It was just a prank. It wasn't like I was on a quest or anything.

The scrap of white paper, bright as neon in the dim, solstice room, fluttered to the floor out of the pages of the Genesis commentary. I watched the note spiral down, then bent to pick it up. There were only three words on the paper, written not in my father's hand, not in my mother's hand, but in another woman's hand. How could I be sure of its femininity? The blue ink was curved and flowery, softening the hard letters and, in some places, looked rather like women's breasts. I knew even the most sensitive rancher in Flint couldn't form letters like those. I closed my eyes, imagining the hand: the fingers long, slender, tipped with red nails.

I didn't know who they belonged to. For weeks, I tried to guess her identity, choosing and rejecting dozens of names: Grace Black, the owner of Lilies of the Field Flower Shoppe and who handled all of the church's wedding, funeral, and holiday arrangements; Shellie Monkle at the Wrangler Family Restaurant; Oona Packerby, lead alto in the church choir; Marilyn Withers, Edith Pond, Dot Bickley, Marion Ash, Wanda Holt, Desiree Fernandez all lined up in my mind like beauty pageant contestants. But if it was any of them or one of the other 1,400 women walking the snow-packed streets of Flint that winter I'll never know.

I'll also never know what the rest of the note said, for the three words in my hand were part of a longer epistle (my father's word, "epistle"; he loves using it instead of "letter"). The scrap was bordered with descenders and ascenders: the hook of a "j," the mast of a "t." The trio of words were torn from a page of flowered stationery. I had no doubt it was my father's own fingers which had done the tearing and tucked the slip inside a commentary he could pull off the shelf at his convenience. I had no doubt he often stared at the blue ink, maybe even panting and throbbing in the hush of his study.

Before I left the room that solstice day, I rearranged the books on the shelves, putting them in proper order. Later, I burned the note it went quickly under the match but I've kept the words ever since, waiting to use them.

Now my father lies in front of me helpless, colorless, voiceless.

The doctors leave after once more consulting the charts. It is only two days since my father collapsed on the golf course and, though things are shaping up for a textbook recovery, they're still concerned. Before they go, they pull us aside and say, "His heart is not out of the woods yet. But that doesn't mean we're not hopeful."

My mother meets my eyes. We speak without speaking. We're both thinking of that purple-gray organ wandering lost in the woods among the tangle of underbrush and the tall, inward-pressing trees. At this point, I'll bet his heart would be happy for even the smallest patch of sunlight on the forest floor.

Neither of us are willing to provide that sunshine. All warmth has been pinched off my mother's face. She shows every one of her 48 years in her eyes and at the corners of her mouth. This is so unlike her usually bright, pastor's-wife cheer, I almost don't recognize her as my mother. Still, under the circumstances I think she's held up remarkably well.

We look down at my father. His eyes bounce between us.

My mother finally pulls her fingers from his wrist. She looks at me, then back down to my father. "Now that Jonah's here, I think I'll go grab something at the snack bar. I won't be long." She bends down, gives him a light kiss with her glossed lips then leaves the room. I watch her go. She only falters once when she passes the nurses' station but she has completely regained herself by the time she reaches the pneumatic doors.

Later that night, at the end of the hospital's visiting hours, she will drop her defenses again while waiting for the elevator. I'll come up beside her, hold her small shoulders under my arm and pull her against me. She'll say, "He drains me," and I'll see the hollows beneath her eyes moisten like groundwater seeping into a freshly plowed field.

I won't know how to say what I feel, so she'll say it for me in a whisper: "Sometimes I hate him so much." Her whisper will be like the first trickles of water hissing through the cracks of a dam.

I'll tighten my arm around her shoulders, and for that moment we'll be something more than mother and son, something less than lovers. I'll feel a rush of passion for this woman beneath my arm. I won't think of all the girls back in Laramie, I won't think of mothers and sons on TV, I won't even think of Oedipus groping around his palace with the blood streaming from his empty sockets. No, by the time the elevator bongs and the doors open for us, I'll be thinking we're like two strangers who befriend each other in a jail cell.

But all that comes later. For now, my father and I are alone, and I'm the only one who can speak. I have dreamed of this opportunity since childhood. I choose my words carefully, already knowing which three will pass from my lips. Since my mother's phone call, I've been standing in front of a mirror, practicing my delivery. In the History of Man, this moment is as important as when Jacob entered his father's tent to swindle the birthright.

I lean close, so close I can see the sweaty pores of his scalp. "I know some things," I say.

His eyes narrow. Then widen.

I brush my mouth against his ear and whisper the paper-scrap words: "I'm your Bathsheba."

Then, like an arson who has dropped the match, I turn to flee, only pausing once to look over my shoulder at the spreading damage. My father's eyes thrash in their sockets. His throat pushes against the tube. Above him, the heart monitors beep like smoke alarms. No matter what happens next, I have done the right thing.