My father got sick last week. It started as flu, then the whites of his eyes turned yellow. I was standing in my parents’ bedroom, watching him trying to get up off the bed. I’d been meaning to ask him for some money to get to college
‘How are you?’ I said.
‘I don’t know how I am.’ His eyes wandered the room.
I never did go to college that day. At lunchtime, the ambulance came to take him, and I stayed in my bedroom, couldn’t watch them carry him down the stairs. They put him in an intensive care unit and phoned us to say his kidneys and liver were failing. David Doran next door told me this wasn’t good. He’s studying medicine, said he’s practicing telling people bad news.
My mother visited my father for most of every day, but I didn’t go. No one said I had to. Anyway, my mother said he’s delirious, that he doesn’t know what’s happening. So how can he miss me?
Five long days, and he starts to get better. I go in to see him. He looks dreadful, suddenly smaller. His skin has blue shadows and his hair is wild as if he’s been thrashing around on the pillow. He doesn’t have the tube in his mouth anymore, the one my mother told me about, but his voice is whispery and cracked. There’s something he really wants to say. He makes my mother lean down close. I’m expecting something profound, a rare public declaration of love, maybe, or an insight from the threshold of death.
He forces the words out. ‘Buy … chocolates … for Cecilia.’
We don’t know any Cecilia. I wonder if he’s still delirious.
He raises the finger with a plastic clip on the end and points it towards a dark-haired nurse standing at the bed next door. She’s talking to a male nurse, and as she turns smiling from whatever he’s saying, she notices us staring. She raises a hand and wiggles her fingers. Cecilia.
My cheeks go hot. In the week I’ve let him out of my sight, my father has formed an attachment to a stranger. It comes to me that this Cecilia would have been touching him, washing him, intimate with his body in a way I don’t want to think about. And now he’s telling my poor mother to buy her a present, this woman who has taken our places in his heart.
But my mother just smiles and kisses his cheek.
‘We’ll go get them now.’
I force myself to kiss him as well, even though I’m angry, and starting to think this father who has come back is not the same as before, this new one given to falling for young women and sudden physical breakdowns.
Outside the hospital, the world looks just the same, but my mother insists the day has gotten finer. She hums and looks up at the sky as we walk to the shops on our humiliating mission, her silky scarf trailing from her hand.