I See You
Ellen Birkett Morris

There wasn't much time left, already his limbs were heavy and he would have periods where he could do nothing more than listen to the rain inside his head.

He wanted to be free of the constant pain. Free of the body's rebellion.

He was lucky to have daughters. If he'd had three sons they'd be too scared to sit by his bedside. They wouldn't feel free to tell stories about their childhood or ask what kind of memorial he wanted.

A son would have let him have it yesterday morning when he looked at his middle daughter and said "I've been a selfish bastard my whole life." But his daughter was quiet for a moment. He imagined her cataloguing his sins, his infidelity towards her mother, his gambling, and the critical remarks he used to distance himself from others.

But she looked at him with love in her eyes and said, "We are all a bunch of things, selfish and giving, nice and mean, caring and cold. It means you are human." He drew a deep breath in relief. It felt like being given Last Rites.

His daughters kept bringing in visitors. His oldest brought her new-age boyfriend, a bear of a man with a thick dark beard, who brought "sacred stones" for him to hold. He had always despised such things. Six months ago, he would have started a heated debate about alternative medicine. Instead he took the stones and held them for a few minutes before letting them drop on the dirty linoleum floor. 

His youngest brought a friend who ran an end-of-life consulting business.  The woman kept blinking her big eyes as she ran through a list of questions including, do you have unfinished business and how do you want to be remembered. Body snatcher, he thought to himself. He tried to recall Morse code on the off chance that she was signaling the correct answers to him with her blinks.

All of life was a test. Did you live up to your potential? Were you kind enough to those who love you? Did your life matter? It made him more tired to think about it.

He was visited by memories of things he thought he had forgotten long ago. In dreams he saw his father staggering drunk in the doorway speaking in tongues, while a younger version of himself shivered in a cot in the corner. He saw his mother rising to help his father to the one bedroom and catching the back of his hand in the face. His mother whispering prayers. His father shouting words that made no sense, while he hummed to himself until everything grew quiet. His fear and confusion, asleep inside him for years, was awakened and he was a child again. He ate the soft food of childhood and had people wiping his mouth and giving him baths.

"I love you," he said to his daughters, the nurses, and the young woman who emptied the garbage can. "I love you too," they replied.

On this morning his grandsons were there. The youngest sat on the edge of his bed.

"I have a joke, Grandpa."

"Let's hear it."

"This dog walked into a bar and asked who shot my paw."

He smiled and gave a small laugh, though it left him breathless.

The oldest boy sighed and said, "That's not how it goes. A dog limped into a bar in the Wild West and said 'I'm looking for the man who shot my paw'."

The younger boy began to cry.

The dying man placed his hand on the boy's head and said, "Don't cry, Jack. I liked it a lot. You could do stand-up if you wanted."

The older boy rolled his eyes.

The younger boy sniffed back his tears and then reached for the straw in the pink plastic cup on the bedside table.

He held it to his eye and looked at his grandfather.

"I see you Grandpa, only you." 

The man made a circle with his thumb and forefinger and held it to his eye.

"I see you," he said, looking at the boy.

He trained his eye on each of them in turn: the older boy; the boys' mother, who was his middle daughter; his oldest; and his youngest.

Each time he said, "I see you."

He looked hard at their faces, trying to memorize their eyes, the slope of their noses, the pose of their lips. He remembered each of them as babies, the weight of their small bodies in his arms. He'd seen himself reflected in their eyes.

For the first time he realized that some things were beyond words. Some things just were. Until they weren't anymore. There was nothing left to say. Not even goodbye.

Ellen Birkett Morris lives in Louisville. She has work in or coming from Juked, Notre Dame Review and others.

Detail of art on main page courtesy of J.J. Verhoef.

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