The Truest Thing
I’m trying not to feel anything. My father-in-law is terminally ill and spends his days and nights in a mechanized lift-bed. My brother-in-law wanted to purchase a house to help take care of his father, but he needed a cosigner on his loan. I refused.
My father-in-law stayed for months in a nursing facility not far from where my wife, Quyen, and I live. I visited him once while Quyen saw him on a regular basis. Two weeks ago, my brother-in-law managed to buy a house without my signature and brought his father home.
Quyen is close to her family. I’m not. They speak Vietnamese. I don’t. I did not go to my brother-in-law’s house after his escrow closed. Quyen did. I haven’t been there to watch over her father. Quyen has.
My wife asked me to come to her brother’s house today because her father is going to die soon. I do it out of obligation.
I greet Quyen’s relatives in an awkward manner; I don’t know what to say to them. Quyen’s mother leads me to a room where my wife is sitting on a wooden stool beside her father. He is in bed and Quyen is holding his hand. I’ve only seen the look on her face once before—after she suffered a miscarriage two years into our marriage.
Her mom leaves and my wife and I are alone with a dying man. His face is pale, emaciated, and I see the outline of his skull. His eyes are dark, empty. His lungs have collapsed from years of smoking and chronic asthma. He is hooked up to an oxygen machine and breathes through a tube at his mouth. His frail body is bone-thin.
Quyen tells me he can only eat a few spoons of baby food a day; it’s all his stomach can handle. She says something to him in Vietnamese and her father nods once. She releases his hand, picks up a remote, and inclines the bed so that her father is in a sitting position. She gets up and walks over to a tray table at the corner of the room. It holds a plastic pitcher of water, a Styrofoam cup with a bent straw protruding from it, and a Kleenex box. Quyen wheels the tray table next to her father. She pours water into the white cup, sets the pitcher down, and dips the straw into the cup. Quyen suctions liquid into the straw by covering one end with her index finger. She lowers her father’s breathing tube, brings the straw to his lips, and releases drops into his mouth. This is how he drinks.
Quyen puts the straw into the cup, adjusts her father’s breathing tube, and reclines his bed. She sits on the stool and says something to him, but he doesn’t respond. His breaths are shallow, rapid, like the panting of a winded dog. Quyen says the hospice nurse placed the oxygen tube at his mouth because he was struggling to breathe through his nose.
He is on morphine to ease his pain. It’s all they can do.
Quyen gets a tissue and dabs her father’s eyes. She tears up when she tells me her father is crying and she can barely suppress the sobs welling up within her. She puts the tissue on the tray table, turns to her father, draws closer, touches her hand to his face. Then she leans and brings her lips to his forehead, kissing him several times the way a mother would kiss a newborn.
It is the truest thing I have ever seen.
It is the love from a child to the person who gave her life. And in that moment, I am no longer looking at a withered man gasping for his last breaths. Instead, I see a father who took care of his daughter for most of her life and the now-grown woman who returns his love.