By Minhal Baig
In the back row of a theater, I feel shapeless, that my body is secondary, that I’m leaving this world behind me, and I won’t be back, at least not for a while. This is what they call a real surrender.
The lights are dimming now, and I am transported back.
Two years ago, I am hunched in the corner of a hospital room; the floor is slipping out from underneath me. My father, having just turned sixty-nine years old two weeks ago, is lying in a hospital bed, hooked to a ventilator, fighting for his life. His eyes are closed, but even when they are open, they do not look. He sees, but he does not know. He does not know what we are about to do, what choice we are about to make; we cannot undo this. What is about to happen will change the rest of our lives.
We are “pulling the plug.”
What a fucking awful term, as if they thought of us as machinery. The white suits, they come in and appear concerned. They look at me, as if I am an animal being led to slaughter. I’m not here against my will. I chose to be here. I wanted to see him die. The room is so small, it can barely contain the two of us, but it will be big enough for me soon.
I don’t remember what day it is. The ventilator is a muzzle; it keeps him from speaking. He is too weak to write. Bodies come in and smile and say something nice and then they leave. They don’t acknowledge me. I’m still of the living. I have the rest of my life to be ignored. When someone is dying, they steal the gravity from underneath you. Will they, won’t they, will he, won’t he.
I am wearing two sweaters. He is cold, but not dead yet. My siblings and I come in and out for days. Seventeen days. Each day feels like a year. I must be forty-one by now. The hospital room is the worst form of theater; everyone has a part to play. Look, there’s the nurse. There’s the doctor. All their dialogue is scripted, like they’ve seen this so many times before; the stock phrases, the false apologies, the worried faces may as well be masks. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s on fucking repeat with these people. It’s not their fault. I get it. I want to understand. I want to be okay with this, I want to let it go, but I can’t and I won’t and this is when time stands still.
I wondered what it’s like inside of his brain. Wondered if he knew what was happening to him; are you really aware of death, or does it sneak up on you? The religious aunts and uncles come in and they say, perhaps it’s time, God will take him when he wants to. I am furious, I’m so fucking mad I could lose it. I am not sad. I cannot cry. I am upset that I can’t cry about this, can’t cry about losing my father. I am not human.
I had dreams about it. I was sleeping on a couch in a friend’s apartment for several months, trying to figure out how I should be spending my time. I’d taken up a job as a sales associate at Gamestop, as a way to make some money; as a way to pass the hours. I was getting lost in my head, in my writing, in the words about nothing. Where is your perspective, what the fuck do you care about? On a constant loop inside of my head. So of course, I took up a mindless job, to remind me of the realities of adulthood: keep your mouth shut, take your paycheck, drink your cheap coffee and eat alone in cafes because you’re too lazy to cook and you don’t have any friends.
I woke up one morning to a phone call from my sister. The prognosis is not good, she said. You should come, she said. Even if you are still mad at us, you should come, she said. I don’t remember what else. She could have been speaking a different language. Grief makes us speak in tongues; we are incomprehensible.
I had left home months earlier and I remember the words that came out of my mouth: “You don’t care about me.” I hurled these words at my father, who was sitting in a wheelchair in the living room at the time, and he said nothing in return. He didn’t see me leave. There was no final exchange; just my juvenile monologue met with silence. Maybe he was tired. Look, even adults don’t know what to say sometimes. I know what he would have said. I can’t write those words, though, because it feels wrong. I don’t want to put words in his mouth. There is no mouth to say them.
“We have to make a decision,” a white suit said. No, I have to make a decision. You get to see me make it, you asshole. For those few days, all of the thoughts in my head were so obscene, it made me question my sanity. Why are you so fucking angry all the time? I would ask. Why are you so upset? Did you think this would end differently? That you were going to be the exception? There was one-half of me that wanted it to be over. The other-half wanted me to feel this way forever, as if I deserved this.
Death should be more swift than this. Seventeen days is a very long time to watch somebody die, but I’d also been watching him die for a few years now. First, there was the cane, then the wheelchair, then he would lie in bed for hours, then days, and now he was here, unable to speak or make sense. My siblings brought him cake for his sixty-ninth birthday. I was not present, because, like I said, I had “run away from home” and had committed to being angry. What bullshit. Such Yale bullshit. I have to be consistent, or they’ll never learn their lesson, I had thought. What lessons did my father have left to learn? He couldn’t eat the birthday cake. The sugar, my mom said, the sugar, that’s what did him in. Diabetes. Coronary bypass. Liver failure. Kidney failure. Heart failure. I’m a fucking failure.
After my freshman year, I took two photos of my dad: one in which he is on the couch, looking forward into the future (did he know what would happen then?) and one where he is looking straight at me. This is my father as I remember him; in my living room in Chicago, on our couch, turning his head to look at me as I take this photograph. Looking at me, looking through me, as if to say, you are what will be left of me when I am gone.
I held up the whiteboard, with these words: “We are taking you off your ventilator.”
I have written about this before, about this moment where I write these words, about when I hold up this whiteboard at the foot of his hospital bed, hoping that he can make sense of them, of our decision, of what is about to happen to him and to the rest of our lives. I could write about this moment a thousand times, and it would be different every time, but the whiteboard and the words are always the same.
It only takes a few minutes after they “pull the plug.” His breathing is quiet. My breathing is loud. My heart is racing. His is failing. What is the fucking point of this world if we eventually lose everyone we love? I want to say I’m sorry, but it’s too late, he’s already slipping. Maybe he understood what I meant when I said, “You don’t care about me.” You care too damn much, I really wanted to say, but I am too young to say what I mean. I just say the words that hurt hardest. Because I am a fool.
The religious people enter and they pray. They say, if we pray, maybe he will recover, he will come back. Are they really that stupid? Prayer means shit now. Somewhere, my dad is laughing; he was a scientist, after all. When people look at me now, they see him; I lose my temper, I talk too loud, I am (sometimes) too smart for my own good, I am demanding and ambitious and depressed. I don’t want them to see him when they look at me, but they do. Somewhere, my dad turns his head to look at me, in the living room of our home in Chicago, as if to laugh, as if to say: fuck them.
Hey, he said you were a writer or something, a long-lost, distant relative told me. I didn’t hear them say it the first time. What? Your dad said you were a writer. No, I’m not a writer. I just feel things, and it’s too hard to hold them in. That’s not being a writer. That’s just being a fucking human.
The following summer, somebody asks me: does it get better? No, it doesn’t. It never gets better, you just get better at coping, at learning to live with a loss you didn’t choose. It doesn’t matter if it was two years ago or five or ten. I will never get over it, I am committed to this loss. I will carry it with me until I am dead.
The summer was so hot, everyone lost their minds in our cramped house, with all of his things lying around as if we were waiting for him to come home. Whenever the doorbell rang, I ran to answer it. I am still making sense of this nonsense, of the lost time; it was as if I’d lost consciousness for the days I’d spent in the hospital, and when I woke up, I no longer had a father.
The lights come back up in this theater. I’m leaving this behind. I don’t want to write about this anymore. I just want to feel human.