I hunch forward in the uncomfortable vinyl chair, pull in a deep breath, and hold it. The waiting room around me is a bright, sterile white from floor to ceiling, and it smells of antiseptics. Lifting my paper cup to my lips, I take a small sip of cafeteria coffee. It’s cold.
I should be at work, enjoying the comfortable pace, the office banter, the space heater under my desk warming my toes. It’s my first post-college job, and sometimes I still have to pinch myself to believe that I got my dream job right out of school. Right now, however, the thought doesn’t do much to comfort me. I shouldn’t be here, sitting at a hospital, waiting for news I don’t want to hear. It all feels too familiar—the waiting, the rhythm of the hospital, the overwhelming lack of word from the doctors. It hasn’t even been a year since Mom was ripped from me; I’m not ready to say goodbye to someone else.
I try to swallow, but my mouth has gone dry already. I put my coffee down on the table and spin a pink plastic ring around my finger. It’s a cheap thing, like the kind you’d get out of a twenty-five-cent machine, but that doesn’t matter to me; I always wear it when I’m stressed, and since Mom died, it’s been almost a daily feature. I close my eyes, and there he is.
I was holding my father’s hand as he led me through the fair. Lights flashed and carnival music filled our ears. The air smelled of popcorn and funnel cakes, and my hands were sticky with melted cotton candy.
“Come on, June bug, we’ve got to get back to Mommy,” he said. I looked up at my father and pouted, squeezing his hand all the more tightly.
“Can’t we just play one more game?” I begged. My father’s laugh reverberated through my very bones.
“You sure don’t know when to let go, do you?” he laughed. “How about we stop at one of those prize booths on our way out and see what we can get with our tickets, hmm?”
I didn’t point out that we barely had ten tickets between us, just took off running for the prize booth where a pink ring awaited me, my father’s warm laughter following behind.
The door opens, and I’m thrust back into the present. I stand up as a woman in a lab coat and butter-yellow scrubs enters. She’s clutching a clipboard at her side and smiles wanly at me.
“June Taylor? I’m Dr. Melanie Feingold.” She shakes my hand. “Please have a seat,” she says. I comply, and she sits across from me. Sweeping a stray lock of blonde hair behind her ear, she scans her clipboard.
“Can you please tell me what’s going on?” I ask. I hate how my voice sounds, so weak and nervous. I always wanted to be the kind of person that could speak calmly and rationally in the face of something terrible.
“June, your father suffered a severe stroke last night, as you know, which resulted in a brain bleed. The bleed turned out to be stronger than we thought, and by the time we were able to get the pressure off his brain, it was too late.” She pauses, and I realize I’m grinding my teeth. “I’m so sorry, June,” she says. “We lost him. Your father passed away.”
I hear her words, but they feel like they’re coming from a thousand miles away. Turning the ring on my finger over and over and over again, I let the words sink in. Passed away. My father.
“I understand this is a shock, and I want you to know that we have resources available to help you through this,” Dr. Feingold is saying. “But what’s most important right now is that, as your father’s healthcare proxy, you decide what happens next. We can recommend a number of excellent funeral homes or have someone get in touch with your church if you’re part of a local congregation. I know planning a memorial is the last thing you want to be doing right now—”
I shake my head, cutting her off and trying to understand. “Passed away?” I repeat. Those seem to be the only words still rattling around in my head. Swallowing, I voice the one thought I’m almost too afraid to speak aloud. “Are you sure? Haven’t there been cases when doctors thought someone was gone, but then they wake up?”
The doctor puts down her clipboard and looks me directly in the eye. Her eyes are a calm blue, like the ocean after a storm, and I think I see tears misting them. “I know that you want to believe that he’s coming back to you,” she says in a placating voice, “but he’s gone.” She reaches over and squeezes my hand. “I’m so sorry.”
But I’m shaking my head and standing up. She’s wrong—she has to be wrong. They must have missed something, or they just needed to be patient and wait. I run my fingers through my hair, pulling them hard through all the knots they find.
“Can I see him?” I ask, voice pleading.
Dr. Feingold stands up. “Of course,” she says, and she leads me out.
As we pass rooms filled with patients, my mind is still buzzing, trying to process what she’s said. I try to brace myself for whatever I’ll see when we reach my father’s room, but every image I conjure up is one of him laughing, or telling stories, or reading A Christmas Carol to me and Mom around the fire in winter, complete with every character’s unique voice.
What I’m not prepared for is how normal he looks.
When Dr. Feingold opens the door to a private room with a hospital bed and a dozen machines buzzing and beeping and whirring, I almost think we’re in the wrong room. But then I see his face, weatherworn and caressed by age, and all the thoughts catch in my mind, stopping in their tracks.
Shakily, I take a step forward. He’s connected to so many tubes and wires, and yet when I look into his face, he looks completely at rest, like he could be sleeping. There’s a chair by his bed, and I think they must have put it there for me, but I don’t sit. I just walk up to his bed and stare down into his face and shake my head. I can’t do this. I’m not ready to say goodbye, to let him go. Out of habit, I start twirling the plastic ring around my finger again.
“He doesn’t look . . .” I can’t say the word dead, not in relation to my dad.
Dr. Feingold takes a step toward me. “I know,” she soothes. “He looks peaceful.” But I’m shaking my head, and I feel like I can’t breathe. Suddenly this airy room feels cramped.
“I’m sorry,” I say, pushing past her and out of the room, “I can’t.”
Speeding down the hall as fast as I can walk, I swipe tears from my eyes. I take several wrong turns, passing groaning patients and crying families, and all the while the air feels like it’s being sucked out of my lungs. I shove open a staircase door. I’m nearly at a run now. My head is pounding, and I’m twisting that stupid plastic ring so hard around my finger I’m sure it will break. On the ground floor, I finally spy a door leading out and all but sprint through it.
I burst into a parking lot and force my lungs to expand with air. The cold stings my cheeks, and I realize I didn’t bring my coat. Wrapping my arms around myself, I collapse to the curb and rest my head on my knees.
I can’t let him go. The only way I got through losing Mom was by clinging to Dad; how can I lose him too?
For some reason, that night at the fair keeps playing in my head. I can see it so clearly, down to the neon pink laces I’d convinced Mom to let me string through my Converse sneakers. I couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven, but I’d wanted to stay until the coach turned back into a pumpkin.
“You sure don’t know when to let go, do you?”
The memory jolts me like a lightning strike, and I lift my head. Is that what I’m doing now? Holding on for dear life, even though the ride’s already over? I try to imagine what he’d say to me now, but those words are the only ones that will come to my mind.
I want to scream, or fight, or protest. I want to march back inside and beg the doctors to reexamine everything. I don’t want to listen to a single word they’ve said. But somewhere inside, a still, quiet voice tells me I can’t hold on any longer. I think of the picture on my desk at work; it’s a shot from graduation day, only two months after Mom passed, and I was still a wreck. But that day, I saw Dad beaming at me after the ceremony and found myself smiling back. He secured me in his arms and whispered in my ear how proud he was of me, and I thought maybe there would come a day when I could get out of bed without feeling crushing heartache first. That was the day the sun came out.
I wish he was hugging me now. I can't fall apart like I did after Mom, because Dad’s not going to be there to pick up the pieces and bind them back together. He won’t be there to wrap his arms around me when a memory hits, or to make me chicken noodle soup with turkey, the way Mom used to. This time, it’s my turn to be the strong one.
Wiping my nose on my sleeve, I stand. My legs are shaking, and my body is quivering as I turn and force my feet to carry me inside. I take the stairs one at a time at a methodical pace, twisting that little pink ring around my finger. The skin on my finger has started to get irritated with the movement.
On my father’s floor, I walk slowly to the nurse’s station and tell the nurse on duty what I’m here for. She has me fill out a couple forms, and then she and another person she tells me is a grief counselor lead me down the hall to my father’s room. Dr. Feingold is already there when we arrive.
“We’re here for you, whatever you need,” the doctor says.
I take my time, walking over to my dad, pulling the chair up close to him.
“I’m ready,” I say, and for once, my voice sounds resolute. I wrap my fingers around my father’s hand and stare into his calm face. When Mom died, I never really let her go, I just clung to Dad. This time, however, I’ll have to stand on my own two feet. This isn’t the way I wanted this to go. This isn’t how I wanted it to end. And yet, here I am. I can’t hold on to him any longer.
Behind me, I hear Dr. Feingold step quietly out of the room to give me a moment of privacy. When I look into my father’s face again, he looks the same, like he’s sleeping, like he could wake up any second and grin one of his silly grins at me and take me to the fair. Squeezing my eyes shut, I lean forward and press a kiss to his forehead. In my mind, I see his smile as it turns to laughter, a warm, golden laugh that feels almost tangible, like I could hold it in my hands, or bottle it up.
I whisper, “Goodbye, Dad.”
When I pull back, I slip the plastic ring from my finger and press it into his hand before finally letting go.