three ghosts

They called me this morning. Dad was sick again and the ambulance just left. I drove to New York to help him get better again.

I walk into his room and quick see this is his last hospital visit. His last hospital room.

Pop is propped up in bed with eight pillows. His face is pale yellow, his eyes sunken potholes. He isn’t talking anymore.

He stares at me. Now we both knew. The Cancer is winning again.

My sister Nora’s friends are here – Lori and Carolyn, adult versions of the munchkins who ran around my house. They are all grins and laughs and shrieks, telling jokes and acting out stories and hugging Dad. Cartoon stuff. They are clowning and this room is their Big Top.

Dad’s smile is as wide as a Moon Pie, his eyes buried behind his cheeks. He is happy! He could have a balloon tied to his wrist. Clowns can make you laugh even when it’s raining and you’re standing in a puddle. This is a time for clowns.

I step into the hall, looking for Truth and the Head Nurse.

“Can I ask you about my Dad? His condition?”

She doesn’t want to talk with me. It’s 10 p.m., she’s busy and tired, and this grim talk is a doctor’s job. And doctors come around in the mornings. But I am The Son, the one who asks questions. They’ve been expecting me.

I say nothing and wait because we aren’t waiting for doctors.

She exhales loudly. “His condition is grave,” the Nurse says. She holds my stare. “Look. Essentially, his organs are shutting down.”

“Which ones?”

“All of them.”

Oh. We chuckle. We listen to the rain pelting the hallway window.

“You know, the doctor can explain this better.”

“I don’t think anyone can do better than that.” We both laugh.

“Sometimes,” she says, “we talk about whether Cancer will spread. Or where. And sometimes, you need to look at the damage it’s already done.

“We will make him comfortable.”

I ask, “How much time does he have.”

“Days. Hours.”

“Weeks?” I push.

“Days,” she says. “Maybe two.”

We can’t see the rain in the dark, but we sure can hear it. Coming down hard.

The blood throbs in my ears. “That’s a really nice room you have for him. It’s big, big enough for a circus.”

“Your dad was a fire captain, right? First responder?”

“Yeah,” I say.

“Yeah,” she says. “That’s what we do.” We bob our heads.

And then I notice: We are at the end of the long hallway. Past the desks, past the chairs, away from all the other patients.

“So, we’re out of everyone’s way down here?”

“He deserves that,” she says. “Won’t be too long now.

“There’ll be a coffee cart outside the room in the morning.”

Nurses do what doctors don’t. She touches my forearm and leaves up the hallway.  I go to the laughter.

After a few hours, I leave for O’Donoghue’s to stare between the bottles. Every damn stool is taken, so I order two at the bar and sit at the furthest booth with my back to the bar.

I start with the bourbon. Knob Creek has a bite I like when it’s warm. The first sip burns so I finish it in two. The Porter pint cools my mouth some, then it’s gone in a long swallow.

I’m spent. I’m lost. I have no more ideas. I shut my eyes again. 

I am so drained. I can’t keep the old man alive. I ask God for help, help me understand.

And I open my eyes and here they are: My three holy ghosts with all my answers.

Granpa sits across from me, his white hair standing straight up and over. He beams his lopsided grin.

Granpa would kiss my mom’s friends on the mouth, they said, when they were teens. He taught me how to deal cards. He turned off his hearing aids on family Sundays until someone brought him a drink. Usually me. We buried Granpa in 1991.

I was named Tom for Granpa and my dad. But Granpa always called me Boy. The Boy. I was never sure if he knew who I was.

“My boy. How are you.”

Next to him is Granma. She seems even shorter and hunched over.

Her eyes vanish as she smiles. She is the kindest person I’ve ever known. She put newspaper under my bare feet when I was a kid. She hated the IRA and the Three Stooges the same.

“Let me look at you. Just let me look at you.”

And right next to me on my bench is Mom: The Queen of Hearts.

Mom watched the Mets and cursed while she ironed. She taught me how to bowl and, when I was reading, turned the light on over my head. We watched Streets of San Francisco and I would guess the foreshadowing. She thought I was a genius-in-waiting. I was her favorite and she was mine.

I held her hand while she died in that same hospital and that was 35 years ago.

Mom and I both gawp, our open mouths targets for flies. I’m fever-dreaming; all four of us know it. Can the people at the bar hear us? I don’t care. Our time is short.

“Mom, Dad’s dying. Lisa’s been working hard to keep him well. Mom, I can’t fix this.”

Mom squeezes my shoulder and says, “He’s been gone for a while now. Find your peace. Find it. Now! He’s in pain. Let him go.”

Wait, what? In our house, we don’t give up. Ever. We fight.

I turn to Granpa for a better answer.

“You’re a good boy.” He pushes aside the bar glasses and holds both my hands. His eyes are clear. He is present. “Tommy, you’re a good man.”

I look to Granma. Help. I held her hand, too, when she died on that floor back in Arizona.

“Granma, I don’t want to let go.”

She reaches and squeezes my hands and says, “I love your children so much.

“Let go. He’s going to be alright. You’re going to be alright. ”

I am frightened: “I can’t leave him. I’m alone.”

Mom strokes my head and kisses my cheek.

“He’ll be with us.”

And they are gone.

Silence fills the room. I am alone — again — in a booth big enough for four souls. I pause. I listen. My panting slows to a whisper. And I ponder.

Pop will soon be in a different bar booth. He’ll have a Scotch on ice and be with Mom and her parents. Maybe, his parents, too. And they’ll laugh, hold hands, and press knees against knees. There’s so much comfort in that idea. Dad won’t be alone. He’ll be home.

I am staggered and so, so sad.

Reason had not worked, so I turned to faith and this was what I got from the three ghosts who live in my head. Let him go.

Pop has to find his own way to the next place. He has people waiting.

I grind my heels into the floor and inhale deeply. Once. Twice. Twice more. Slowly. I have nowhere else to be.

And…I let him go.

– Tom Sakell 

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