One Favor in Return
He sat upright in his bed, holding her hand, and felt the hot sting of yet another piece of his soul breaking off and disintegrating into the atmosphere. When did she get so old? Her hand, once tiny, pink, and flawless, now twitched under wrinkled skin. Her knuckles flexed under liver spots and thick blood vessels. She’s what, 73 years old now? He couldn’t remember. He ought to, he was there when she came caterwauling into this life. He had held her in his once powerful arms, pausing just a moment to look at her innocent face, yet unscathed by cynicism, before handing her to his exhausted wife. Oh, his wife…how he missed her. Seemed a lifetime ago since he had last gazed into her warm ice blue eyes. A familiar, yet fresh sting throbbed where that piece of his soul once was.
She felt exhausted. It had been a long flight from Philadelphia, and she was eager to get this over with. Hell, she had been rehearsing this day since her mother died all those years ago. Admittedly, he lasted longer than anyone would have given him credit for. She suspected her older brother and younger sister had already made their peace with their father’s illness, but she resented them for leaving her alone to do this.
She could feel him studying her. From behind yellow and spotted eyes, she knew he was lucid. Despite his body failing him, he remained sharp as ever. It gave her a chill as she contemplated her own mortality. But when it was her turn, she thought she’d do things considerably different than him. She wouldn’t burden her children, or grandchildren for that matter. Her eyes shifted to their hands. When did he get so old?
“I’ll leave you two alone for a while.” Dr. Masamuto offered, bowing slightly before disappearing out the door.
When they were alone, he tried to give her his famous smile and a wink as comfort. It was a gesture he had been known to melt hearts with since his grade school days. It was a gesture he always gave her whenever she felt doubt, or insecure. It was his way of telling her, “Hey Jellybean, everything will be alright.” But all he managed to muster through frayed nerve endings was a tremble and twitch around the corners of his lips. Dismayed, he watched her look down at their hands. Trying to wink had been the catalyst for tears, and he feared if he tried again, it would appear as though he was crying. He had never cried in front of any of them. It wasn’t their job to console or reassure him, but rather he felt it was his duty and honor to be the beacon of strength for their family.
Still, he didn’t possess the control over his body he once did, and a tear strolled down his face. But his daughter was still staring intently at their hands, and he wiped it away before she looked back up.
Despite the burn scars that ran from the bottom of her jaw to her left temple, he still thought she looked remarkably beautiful. Through her decades of disappointment and mistreatment, he could still see the naturally self-less and loving look in her eyes that were the trademark of her youth. He had wished she weren’t here alone. Not for his sake, her presence was all he could have hoped for, but rather for her own. She shouldn’t have to carry this burden without her siblings. But somehow he knew it’d be her who would respond. And now here she is, looking eerily how her mother would’ve looked had she lived this long: unashamedly beautiful.
When she saw his other hand move rapidly to his face, she thought he was just scratching his cheek. She didn’t want to look up just yet, seeing his mouth twitch silently had knocked a brick out from the wall she had built around her heart, specifically for today. She knew what was expected of her, and she intended to provide it. She needed a moment to regain her composure, so she lowered her eyes. She rubbed her left temple, a spot where the scar tissue was toughest, as she so often did when she was thinking.
When she was twelve, and they moved into their new (old) house, she had demanded she have the attic as her room. There were windows of intricate design on the east and west side that flooded the attic with light from dawn until dusk. Of course her brother and sister both claimed they had laid stake to the attic as their own, but when they saw the attic was largely unfinished, they quickly conceded the claim. But she saw something neither of her unimaginative siblings had seen. She had seen the potential. And within a year and a half, she and her daddy transformed a dusty storage room into a beautiful bedroom fit for a princess. He had built her a padded bench under each window so no matter the time of day, she could sit with the window open, feel the prairie breeze, and read her books. At night, she had porch lights that circled around her one of her windows, wrapped around the center beam of her ceiling, and back down around the other window. For some reason, it reminded her of an enchanted forest, and she never went to bed without them on.
Perhaps that’s why, when she was suddenly woke from a deep slumber coughing wildly, she had panicked when she couldn’t see her surroundings. Through fearful shouts, she heard her father’s voice boom through the roar of the fire, issuing orders. She heard him give sharp instructions to her brother to get his youngest sister to the shed on the far side of the back yard. She heard her mother ask him what she ought to do, and he hadn’t hesitated.
“Go with them. Once I know you are all safe, I can focus on getting to her. I promise you, I’ll bring her to you safely.”
She shot out of bed, and tried to walk toward the stairs on the far side of her room. The smoke was so thick, she couldn’t see most of her room was engulfed in flames. The boards under her bare feet smoldered, and while crying out in pain, jumped back into her bed. She felt like she was in a waking nightmare, and wasn’t sure what to do next. So she sat there, grasping a stuffed Dalmatian she had named Rock’n’roll (“Aren’t you too old for a teddy bear?” her brother had teased. “It’s not a teddy bear, it’s a puppy. Mom gave me this one.” She had responded as if that should be explanation enough.), trying to listen for her dad to climb the stairs. A burning support beam cracked free from its restraints and landed on her bed, coming to a rest against her head. She screamed as the embers from the beam melted away parts of her face and hair. Still holding onto her stuffed dog, she pushed away from the beam and decided she’d make a run for the stairs. She took about three steps when the whole floor gave way.
Light flooded her vision as she fell to the main floor where she saw her father standing amidst a roaring blaze. Almost without looking, he reached for her falling body, catching her like a game winning ball. The momentum from his leaping grab allowed for him to tuck her against his chest while landing hard on his back. His shirt caught on fire, but he didn’t seem to notice as he hurriedly carried her out of the house and to the shed. He didn’t put her down until he got there. Her brother jumped into action, slapping her father’s back trying to put the flames out. Her face would heal a lot more aesthetically than his back ever would, and she would forever be grateful. But even amidst the chaos, he wore that confident smirk.
“Sometimes you’ll stumble, and you might twist your ankle. Sometimes, you’ll trip and break your wrist. Sometimes you’ll fall, and you’ll flail, and sometimes you’ll fail. But as long as I’m here, I promise each and every one of you, I’ll be there to catch you. Isn’t that right Jelly Bean?” He asked, “You know I’m here for all of you, right?” While the inferno blazed behind him, he stood as tall as he ever had, and took inventory of his family. He had expected all eyes on him, total and complete adulation. Instead, he was met with confusion and anxiety. Sudden understanding washed over his face.
“Where’s your mother?” He had asked impatiently as his shirt smoldered in the warm summer night. It was as though he wasn’t aware of the 1st degree burns that would require a skin graft when this was all over.
“She went back in after you” her brother said, not realizing the implications. Not another moment passed before her father had shot back across the yard and into the house that now resembled the gates to Hell. Moments later, they all heard him yelling with great effort, as though he was lifting something heavy, or on fire, or most likely both.
Lifetimes passed between their father’s heroic dash across the lawn and his not-so-heroic return, holding their mother lifeless in his arms. He laid her down on the lawn halfway to the shed, and his three children warily walked the other half to meet him. None of them wanting to see what they thought they’d see. But the truth had been so much worse than any of them could’ve imagined.
There her mother lie, eyes open, skin black and blistered. Her only hair was matted to her scalp in wispy and frayed bundles. Through her neck was a charred splinter about the size of a road flare, jagged and covered in blood. It had punctured through her throat, presumably when the ceiling collapsed.
She felt a flash of anger hotter than the inferno behind them. “You didn’t catch her.” She said defiantly. But once the words escaped her lips, she drew in a deep breath, as if to suck them back in. She watched as her father winced in pain, and just looked down at his beloved. He didn’t look any of them in the eye for a long time after that. She never brought it up again, not even to apologize.
When she thought she was ready, she looked again at the man who had been her hero. She wanted to tell him that, but her voice got caught in a lump in her throat. He was still examining her with a look of pain and pride. The light filtering through clouds was the only illumination in the mostly empty room, but it was enough to show her the track of moisture halfway down his cheek. It ran from his eye toward his lips, but appeared smeared halfway down, as though he tried to wipe it away.
Is he crying? She felt like she had caught the mall Santa taking off his beard. She couldn’t hold it back anymore. Tears flooded her vision. He wasn’t supposed to cry. Despite all her construction, it only took two direct hits and the wall around her emotions came crumbling down.
He suddenly regretted asking her to come. He didn’t want his last meaningful human interaction to be one of pain and heartache. He supposed that was his biggest flaw; he wasn’t able to predict how others would react emotionally. It’s not that he didn’t feel them too, because he most certainly did. It was how strongly he felt about the matters of the world that attracted his wife to him. He was simply more efficient at compartmentalizing his emotions than most people he encountered. Now, his daughter was having a flood of emotions, and there he sat dumbly wondering what to do. He didn’t always have a hard time knowing exactly how to get her to forget her problems and smile again. One such time flashed across his memory.
It had been snowing when he dropped her off at basketball practice. She had sat quietly in the passenger seat of their Ford Taurus – not his first choice for automobile recreation, but it was reliable enough to transport the people he valued the most. Normally extremely talkative, she just stared at the snow through her window.
“Hey Jellybean, is everything OK? Are you OK?” He did his best to take his natural gruff out of his voice and sound more nurturing than authoritative. He wasn’t sure if it worked.
“Yeah. Just had a bad day.” She responded, saying nothing more.
What could be happening in a 10 year old’s life that’s so bad? He wondered. He tried to remember what it was like when he was 10 years old, and all he came up with was catching tree frogs in the summer and sledding a wicked hill in the winter. But he had decided not to press it. Surely basketball practice would shake her out of it. Blood pumping and gamely socializing tended to cure her of any ailments, he knew.
But reality clashed with expectation when she came trudging back to the car, slamming the door with extra emphasis as she slumped into her seat.
“Hmph!” Was the only greeting she gave him, arms crossed tightly across her chest, looking down at her feet.
“Still a bad day?” He probed, knowing that was a dumb question.
“Worse.” She was getting really good at her monosyllabic responses.
Instead of putting the car in drive, he surveyed the mostly empty parking lot of her elementary school and had an idea.
“Well, I bet I can reverse how you feel.” He snickered, feeling proud of his idea.
When she didn’t respond, he put the Taurus in reverse, put a hand on the back of her seat, and wrenched his whole body around so he could see where he was going. He floored it. The fresh snow initially protested, and they didn’t move. But as the spinning wheels created friction and heat, they picked up some momentum. When he was going a solid 30 miles per hour, he suddenly cranked the wheel, sending the car in a controlled slide.
“Whoa!” She said, clearly surprised. She tried to regain her rough exterior when he switched directions and she was thrown against him. She let out an involuntary giggle. He continued to draw a figure eight in their family car in the middle of her elementary school parking lot until she was laughing uncontrollably. It was only his own dizziness that caused them to stop. While he waited for his vision to stop spinning, she suddenly wrapped her arms under his and put her cheek on his shoulder.
“Thank you Daddy.” She said, squeezing his formidable arm. “You’re my best friend.”
But here they were again, she is clearly having a bad day. And though snow fell outside the clinic window over a peaceful Japanese countryside, he was without the Taurus. He had no idea how to console her. Again, his mouth twitched as he searched for the right combination of words that would put an end to her hysterics. He wasn’t sure what had triggered her tears, she had seemed so stoic just moments before. Since his ability to articulate seemed to be temporarily offline, he settled instead for running his hand through her hair, like he had done her entire childhood. Like he had done at her mother’s funeral. Like he had done when the father of her first child left without so much as a “gofuckyerself.” Like he had done so many other times when life dealt her a particularly cruel hand. Life liked to deal from the bottom of the deck, and seemed particularly worse when faced with some like her. Someone who was born with a natural love for all living creatures. But if you play long enough, the house always wins.
That did the trick though, and her uncontrollable sobs de-escalated to a few sniffs and dabbing her eyes. It had been 20 minutes since Dr. Masamuto had left, and it would seem he just couldn’t muster any words to commemorate the situation. They hadn’t said anything to each other since she walked through that door, holding his letter. But he wasn’t particularly concerned. He believed the right words would come at the right time. For now, it was just enough to have her with him.
Oh how she adored this man. How could he possibly know the right thing to do or say – or in this case, not say – every time she needed him? How was any one person that intuitive? She didn’t know, but he always was. With one exception. One God damned exception. The only time he ever asked any of them for anything, and it was the big ask.
“My dearest (insert name of child here),
I write you today with a heavy heart. As you already know, I was diagnosed with emphysema six years ago. I’ve pursued every treatment option I can find, and finally, had my prayers answered just a little over two months ago. Next Generation Hope has graciously agreed to fly me to Japan, where a small clinic deep in the country offers “final” pain relief, and I’ve humbly accepted. I hope you don’t find me a coward, but (insert name of child here), I can’t take the pain anymore. Since there is no cure, or even anything to reverse my symptoms, I find the daily struggle to breath to be agonizing.
On September 6th (I’m sure you’ll remember the importance of that date as the day your mother and I were married), I will be given a series of injections that will send me from this world to the next. Normally, a request such as mine would be requested from a spouse or parent, but since I am without either, I find that I must rely on you three. Bottom line: I’m scared. No one knows what’s on the other side of the curtain. And for those who say ‘you’re born alone, you die alone’, I say that’s rubbish. In most common scenarios (mine not being uncommon), we are generally not alone when we are born. If no one else, it is our mothers who welcome us to life. But death can be another situation entirely. All too often, people pass away without the comfort of a loved one.
That’s why I’ve decided to have some say in it. I don’t want my last moments here on Earth to be filled with surprise and panic. This way, it’ll be on my terms. I’ve never asked anything from you, and have only tried to be the best father and grandfather I could be. Admittedly, I was only a fraction of a parent, as the bulk of my soul died with your mother in that fire. But I did my best. Would it be so awful for me to ask for one favor in return? Just be there with me. I need someone I love and trust to be the last thing I see in this world. YOU are that person for me. Please don’t let an old man die alone.
May your nights be pleasant,
And your day’s twice as long.
I love you.
How could he ask that of me? He could have asked for anything but that. She thought mournfully. But he was right. When else had he ever asked anything from them? She supposed her accompanying him on his final adventure more than makes up for a one-sided relationship. For the first time since she got there, she truly looked him in his eyes. She wanted him to see the truth.
The truth was, he wasn’t a coward. Her brother and sister were cowards. But this man was taking control of his destiny. Look closely kids. This is what heroism looks like. Dr. Masamuto came back in with a tray of syringes. She felt his hand tremble. She put her other hand over his, cupping and covering his fingers. He would not go into that great darkness alone. He’d at least have her voice as an anchor if he ever needed to find his way back.
Dr. Masamuto bowed first to his daughter, then to him. His eyes buckled from the weight of his tears, and he wet his cheeks and beard in a single, unsteady breath. This was it. If his beloved was waiting for him on the other side of the curtain, he’d find out real soon. He watched with interested horror as Dr. Masamuto emptied the first syringe into his I.V.
Was it too late to tell him to stop? She thought so. Not that she felt it was her right to ask him. But when she saw the unadulterated fear in her hero’s eyes, she worried he might ask to stop. To have time to reconsider. What would the doctor say to such a request? “Oh geez, sorry pal. A half a second ago and –“
Dr. Masamuto bowed again, this time to him first, then to her.
She held back the urge to upend his tray and storm out of there. Instead, she resigned herself to silent support as the doctor injected the second syringe.
This is it. If I have anything to say to her, now’s the time to say it! And he tried as hard as he could to apologize for putting this burden on her. To ask for forgiveness for letting her mother die such an awful death alone, and then believe he has the right to ask this of her.
Dr. Masamuto bowed one more time. This time, just to him.
He discovered everything he wanted to say, but could no longer speak. Instead as Dr. Masamuto injected the third and final solution, everything else melted away except one final thought. Staring deeply into her eyes, the world melted painlessly away and he thought, Thank You.
“It’s okay dad. I forgive you for mom. I forgive you for this. Go now, your work here is done.” She finally had the courage to say aloud. It was something she had been rehearsing since she received the letter. She thought she saw a look of understanding and relief flood his eyes, just before his face went completely placid. And at 6:07 pm, September 6th 2075, she watched as her dad took his first and final step behind the curtain. She let go of his hand, suddenly terrified for her own crossing. Her first thought after he died was a quiet but firm, I will always love you, but I hate you for this.