As our father lay dying, I fought with my sister over morphine. I wanted to give him as much as possible, as much as the hospice nurse said that we could, and so, every two hours, at the chime of his Westminster mantel clock, I’d push a thin syringe between his lips and let the liquid slowly bleed across his blackened gums. Soon, the landscape of his face would transform as his pain disappeared. Gone was the heavy ridge of his brow, the dark pull of his mouth, the hostile inroads crisscrossing his forehead.
Ruth had convinced herself that it was the morphine that was killing him and not the leukemia ravaging his bones like kudzu.
“People do this all the time in hospice situations,” she warned. “I read about it in a magazine.”
I ignored her and went on with the business of securing his comfort. I put his cat, Betsy, onto the bed with him where she nuzzled against his hip and rested her paws on his belly. I maneuvered a pair of fleece socks onto his crumpled, blue feet where neuropathy pulsed in the veins slithering across his toes. I lifted his bald head, the skin riddled with moles of every shape and shade, and fluffed the pillow beneath it.
Ruth and I had not seen each other in decades, estranged by the complex manifestation of parental abuse: belt buckles and bruises, dark days locked in damp closets, fear. But here we were, sitting together in our father’s dank, dim, living room, where strips of yellowed paper peeled from the walls in droves, and the stench of stale cigarettes wafted from his tar-colored ceiling. How strange to have our father so helpless and weak before us: tiny and incapacitated by suffering, with none of the rage that once cowered us.
“80 percent of hospice patients die from morphine,” Ruth said. “Did you know that?”
I became obsessed with his mantel clock, made of cheap, engineered wood shellacked to an obscene gloss. It ticked on and on and on, each moment marked by the minutia of our father’s reappearing pain, which rose to the surface in layers: a twitch in his lips, a narrowing trough between his eyes, a deepening hollow in his cheeks. He would try to speak, but no words escaped the mechanical movement of his mouth, the flip and flap of his saliva-slicked tongue.
Sometimes two hours felt like two years, two lives, as the strain on his face blossomed into a writhing that enveloped his arms and legs and torso. I imagined the bones beneath his skin so frayed and hollow, the aching deep and unrelenting.
When I could wait no longer for that clock to chime, I reached for the morphine on his bedside table, a small glass bottle the size of a thimble, with a shiny silver cap. Quickly, Ruth leapt across the room and wrestled me to the floor.
“Not yet,” she hissed.
“It’s soon enough,” I said.
She sat on my chest and wedged her knee into the fold of my elbow until the small bottle I clutched in my palm fell to the floor and she could pick it up. Our father had once pressed a lighted cigarette to the delicate skin of her neck, leaving behind a small crescent-shaped scar. I could see that scar now, peering out from the shadow of her jawbone.
We rose from the floor and stood before our father one last time. He was moaning now in agony.
“I’ll do it,” Ruth said, forcing the syringe between his clenched teeth, releasing its liquid gold.
© Jamy Bond
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb. Read Jamy’s interview]