This is a creative nonfiction essay I wrote my senior year of college. I’m not sure that now, not even a year later, that I would have written it the same. But I want to share it anyway.
He is yellow. Not like my favorite color yellow. Not like Coldplay’s “Yellow”, which he always says is my song and that I can no longer listen to. Not like nursery room yellow or sunshine in a crayon yellow. Not like dandelion yellow or organic tomato yellow. He is sick yellow.
My mom is red. Not like sunburnt from a long day at the beach red. She is hysterical red. She madly rubs her eyes and pushes her stringy bangs out of her face, bringing more and more blood to her cheeks. She cannot be consoled. Everyone moves awkwardly around her like she is a wounded animal that no one knows whether to put out of its misery or help.
The room is gray. The sheets are gray, the walls are gray, the curtains are gray, the dog is gray. The air is gray. The tube coming out of his mouth is gray.
I am numb. I have seen people dying before but not in my house. Usually they are in hospital rooms with linoleum floors and fluorescent lights and hypodermic needles. Usually they are older than 64.
My sister is sitting on the bed by his feet, rubbing his skinny ankle. Tears are building in the corners of her eyes and she wipes them away. They come back. She has been repeating this motion for 12 hours. The house around us feels as unfamiliar as the situation does. My parents moved in a year ago while I was at school. The closet in “my” room is still filled with boxes containing personal items that I instructed my mom not to touch. Their bed is the same as it has always been, though. The blue iron frame twists and winds around its self like the wires that lay by the bed.
My sister-in-law comes into the room and sits in the chair beside me. She whispers something to us but I am not listening. The whir of the vacuum-like machine connected to him is drowning out every voice. She holds out her hands; my sister takes one and my mom takes the other. She starts to pray. Her voice begins to break, weeping in between each word. I hate the pronounced tears and the ridiculous religious sentiment so much I get dizzy. I think he would hate the attention. I stand up and walk out.
The hallway from the bedroom to the kitchen is covered in family photos, all nicely framed and thoughtfully arranged. I run my hand along the cream-colored paint, dragging my knuckles across each barrier, unafraid of touching one the wrong way and causing it to crash to the ground. The photos are mainly of me. There are a few of my brother and sister, aunts and uncles, cousins and pets; but I’m in almost all of them. My kindergarten picture, my professionally taken senior pictures, candid photos of me running through my grandmother’s cornfield when I was three all hang beautifully in a calculated design. I take up most of the room because I am the baby and the only child that both of my parents share. My brother and sister are my dad’s kids and are technically my half siblings but don’t feel anything less than whole. But they both have their own lives; multiple children, developed careers and issues they created outside the sphere of this house. I only moved out three years ago. This is still my home in a way. It is still the only family I have.
In the bright kitchen whose counters are covered in deli trays and random neighbor’s Crock-Pots filled with homemade concoctions, my cousin offers to make me a sandwich. Fuck no. No one flinches at my words, not even my 75-year-old grandmother who prides herself on being delicate and having beautiful chandeliers. My cousin slaps turkey onto a piece of white bread that I am certain my aunt brought from home because we only eat wheat bread at my house.
I return to the room after a while, assuming it’s enough time to get a prayer over with. I wouldn’t know. They are no longer holding hands, but sitting silently on the white comforter, each sniffling to a different rhythm. I ask if I can be alone with him. My mom’s selfishness shines through when she begins to deny my request, but momentarily subsides. She leaves the room clutching a tissue to her face.
I really don’t know what else to say. I’ve watched enough Lifetime movies to know that people in comas can sometimes hear you even though they can’t respond and don’t necessarily know who you are. Everyone told me to talk to him, but the few words I have are shaky and desperate. For the past three years I have expected this day and have thought about what to say to, but none of it makes any sense now that he is lying here, transparent and comatose.
I love you.
I crawl into the bed, over the layers and layers of blankets that cover him up to his chin, and try to avoid hitting any wires. I lay on the other side of the bed because he is hard to look at. His limp jaw hangs and I try to picture him in normal character laughing and eating ice cream even though he is lactose intolerant. I take a deep breath and get closer to him. I put one hand around his bicep, which is warm and soft and feels like it always feels: not saggy and papery like an old woman’s but not smooth and tight like a young person’s. I put my other hand on his hand. Earlier, my brother used a piece of thread to remove his wedding ring before his fingers got too swollen. I feel the divot where it used to be with my fingertips. The liver spots on his face taunt me. Like the bald head a cancer victim wears, they are his badge of disease. The cirrhosis was quick and noticeable: His arms and chest stayed bony but his belly is bloated. His cheeks are caved in and he looks like the pictures I’ve seen of his dad right before he died of lung cancer at the same age. I put my head on his shoulder and breathe with him, trying not to let the sadness I have so long avoided overcome me. It is inevitable though, for the temporary feelings to dissipate like fog and the permanent ones to unpack in my chest.
I try to remember the last time we talked. I think he called me last week to set up my Vanguard retirement account, trying to prepare me for life without him as much as he could. But I don’t feel prepared. I don’t know how to pay my taxes, how to change my oil, how to mourn the death of a parent. But he did teach me how to drive stick shift when I was eight so I could help on the farm and how to swing a golf club when I was eleven so that he could have someone to play with and that I need to always say please and thank you, no matter how far away I move from the Midwest.
Eventually my aunt comes in the room and asks if she can sit with us. She chooses the chair closest to him and puts her hand on his shoulder. She wipes the corners of his mouth with a wet washcloth and adjusts his head that he can be more comfortable. His breathing becomes agitated when she moves him but slows down once he is still again.
It is late when I wander back into the kitchen, hungry for nothing but feeling faint and aware that I should eat. My grandmother looks at me and starts nervously offering me different dishes. I sit down at the table and listen to my cousins and uncle talk about which flavor of Pineapple Whip is their favorite. My sister hands me her youngest daughter and goes into my dad’s room to spend time with him.
Her name is Zada and she is one year old. Her chubby, round face and large, bright eyes make me feel less hopeless. She presses her tiny hand to my face, pushing with all of her body weight into me. Her grin exposes her unevenly spaced teeth that dot her gums. Her fat little feet stand on my thighs and she bounces up and down while holding onto my fingers. She giggles at the fish face I make and puts her soft, warm forehead up to mine. She can say Pappy and I hope she will remember who he is. I know you don’t form memories until you are three, but maybe she and him will be different.
My sister suddenly runs into the room like she has no weight and my name slips out of her mouth like an accident. She grabs my hand and runs with me back to the room. We step inside and I look at him.
He is not yellow anymore. He is white.
We are all white.