He finds himself fidgeting with his black Reeboks in the elevator. It seems so pointless as he realizes he wore long shorts and athletic socks thus exposing the snake eating its tail tattoo around his right ankle. At no time would this be a problem, but no doubt there are countless waves of Witnesses huddled in the private ‘friends and family’ waiting room of the intensive care unit. He didn’t want to give them any more reason to gossip and peck like chickens at the seeds he would be throwing via tattoos and earrings.
That still happens. But that is not the worst. He fishes the paper from his pocket where instructions were written. He turns the corner and approaches the glass wall on the right past the room of moist slithering vipers on the left. Through the transparent divider he sees in the distance a flesh-colored ghost of a once 215-pound former Green Beret who served eight years in the United States Army.
When the cancer started to creep back into his father’s life, Steve made several resolutions. Among them, he never wanted a colostomy bag, he didn’t want to waste away in an undignified manner, he wanted his ashes to be spread at the Rosenberg, Texas Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses where he had worked hard for 5 years or so, and he didn’t want to leave his family penniless. Steve was the smartest person James knew, and a wise man in his late 50s. James trusted his father knew what was best for himself.
His mother insisted that her husband forgo the normal treatment of chemotherapy and/or radiation for a homeopathic course, a growing and profitable trend among the faithful followers of Jehovah since the early 90s. The December 15th, 1994 Watchtower had an article written about the subject, paragraph after paragraph of hazy nothing explaining little than it’s “basically an area for personal decision.” Per the Watchtower’s normal glazing, the warning was more about the preoccupation with the subject than the physical health of its readers. For this, it seemed perfectly suitable to make the ‘decision’ to truck his father from Colorado to California with massive expense to keep him alive on a ridiculous diet while his body still systematically failed. It started innocently with aching legs and ends four years later in a single bed room on the fourth floor ICU section of Spohn Hospital on Elisabeth Street in Corpus Christi, Texas.
A year earlier James had visited his father while Steve was undergoing evaluation at the beautifully situated and well-equipped MD Anderson Hospital in Houston across from the Houston Zoo. He thought about Brit and Derrick, and the other people he had lost touched with after moving to New York… Ollie too, of course. What a different life I would have had if I could have just stayed here and come out on my own terms.
His father was in good spirits but thinner then he had ever been. I really hate for you to seem me like this, he said.
Well dad, look at it this way… at least now you’re at your ideal weight.
His father made a ‘model’ pose from the hospital bed. The air was broken and goodness was flowing throughout the room, the building, their hearts. The only person who was immune to this was Blanche. The Perez family (sans an older brother) were a popular family in the religion. They had moved around almost yearly, worked at the assembly hall construction site, and performed enough circus tricks at the conventions that their name and faces were recognizable. Because of that, news of Steve’s returning cancer and preferable nontraditional un-Western medicine path to health was known. People loved him, they prayed for him, they talked about him amongst themselves at their meetings and out in field service.
For the entire time he was in the hospital, and over the next year (between the home in Refugio and various hospitals) Steve would be forced to endure a parade of people with a convivial mutation plastered in frozen ersatzic excitement across their face.
Heyyy, Brother Perez! How’s it going?
How well can a slow death go? His father would smile as his mother would stage the next couple or group of people who arrived, engaging them and escorting the current cluster away if they stayed too long. Steve needs his rest or Is it possible for Brother/Sister so-and-so to get in a quick word with Steve?
It was all a farce as his father would rather battle this alone in quiet, silent, militaristic even. The only reason why the procession existed was so his mother could soak in the sympathy of the entire known religious catalog. The show was more about her than the condition of her husband. If this was something that irked him when his father was first diagnosed, it was torturous to watch by the visit in Houston. All this changed when James enters the hospital. As he was disfellowshipped and chose to remain such, this tattooed and body pierced pariah had to be shunned per the organization’s requirements. With his presence, the parade came to a screeching halt after a father and son in a hospital room burst into laughter.
Ten minutes into the stay Blanche interrupts. Steve, the Hasdorffs are here.
They can wait, Blanche. I’m talking to my son.
Steve. They drove all this way from Victoria.
James flew in from farther. They can wait. How often do I get a chance to see my son?
What a question. It sat honest and innocent, but the weight of its truth harbored a guilt that James hadn’t felt before. It was he who cut off all communication from his family so as to establish himself in the world without the burden of their menacing disapproval and injection. It worked. James was a fully functioning human being wading his way through the world safely on the other side of the United States with success. But what his father asked was equally as important as it showed respect without meaning harm.
Dad, it’s okay. I’m going to be here a while. Let me run out or something and you visit with them.
Blanche, give me 5 minutes. Send everyone who drove in at once, but no more, okay?
Steve, I can’t control if people show up.
Get off the phone and quick calling people. 5 minutes.
Okay, but make it quick. Blanche fusses out of the room.
James was still exhaling from the concrete humility. Dad, it’s really my fault that you don’t see me.
It’s okay, son. I understand why. You look good.
I have just one question for you and then we can visit more later.
How is your heart?
It’s such an odd question. He doesn’t immediately remember it was the same question the brothers asked him at Bethel… a question about a metaphoric muscle angry and bleeding in front of them. He didn’t remember because he ignited into a smile – a full, open, teeth apart grin just shy of chortle.
It’s fine. I’m still working on parts of it, but overall… it’s just fine.
His father returned the smile. That’s good to hear. I just had to ask.
It’s okay. I’m going to go to grab a bite to eat.
Thank you, son. I’m sorry for this. Your mother has people lined up out the door. I’ve been trying to watch the news for an hour now.
Why not just tell her to stop?
It makes her feel better. Just, give me enough time to deal with this and be back.
Don’t take too long.
James walks out the room with the best of faces. He passes a line of people waiting to see his father. The older vague vintage memories of his childhood nod gently and look away. Those of middle-age and younger hiss like wretched reptiles at the dirty, filthy clog that had dammed up this fluid cavalcade of pious spirituality they were gifting his father.
James returned later and the hall was empty. His mother was inside arguing with his father. He pauses at the door before going in. They had probably been going at it for an hour by the sound of his father’s frustration.
But he is disfellowshipped.
He is also my son. I don’t have long in this world, I get to spend it with whoever I want. I want to spend it with James.
Steve. Don’t talk like you’re dying. And no one is saying you can’t spend it with James, but not at the expense of the brothers. They’re going to be in the New System. He is not.
Then I can socialize with them in the New System. But James is for now.
He stares blankly at the slightly ajar wooden door’s obnoxious stainless handle trying not to cry. When news of the child abuse had broke in 1994, Steve told the molester he would never be forgiven, ever, not caring if that meant Jehovah God kept him out of the New System. Blanche accused James of making the story up to get attention. The molester was handled “internally” through the congregation… something that bothered his father for years. No matter what, Steve stood up for his son and in his chest he understood the true definition of the word “beautiful” as his dad encompassed all aspects of it if by no other reason but the purity and solidity of the heart. He knocks at the door and opens it to intrude.
His mother looks at him blankly. I’ll give you two an hour or so, then I’ll be back.
An hour or so? James was a little confused.
Well, okay. If you want then until visiting hours are over.
He was obviously missing something. If visiting hours are over, why will you be back?
So I can stay with him, she said frustrated.
James looked at his father in an effort to help translate the parts of the conversation missing between the parts of the conversation.
She stays with me at night in case anything happens.
What’s going to happen? You’re up, alert, you look fine. Are you dying tomorrow?
I wasn’t planning on it.
I don’t think dad needs a baby sitter.
Her feathers were getting ruffled. I’m not babysitting. I’m just here in case something happens.
Like… spontaneous death?
James! Don’t be morbid. In case he takes a turn for the worse, that’s all. These doctors are all trying to pump him full of pills. I can’t have that. I’m allowed to worry about my husband.
He’s in a hospital! Just… go home, mom. I’ll stay with him tonight.
What? James! You can’t do that.
It must be insufferable for you to live with the tension, get some rest. I have clothes in the car. I think I can manage this for the night.
Let him stay, Blanche. I could use the company.
She turned a mean eye to him, I’m not company?
Steve gave a breath and stared her down. That’s not what I meant, Blanche.
James didn’t want this to go much further so he said the magic words, Mom, get some rest. You look tired.
With that cave of vanity she was convinced to go home, sent packing with her overnight bag to go back to the house they were renting so Steve can stay close to the Houston hospital. He was distant with her, only giving her a half hug. Even her It is good to see you, son was barely audible and entirely unregistered. It was heartbreaking on some levels, refreshing confirmation on others.
James retrieved his clothes and settled in for the evening. The nurses came, introductions were made, praises were sung, and vitals were checked. Throughout the afternoon his father spoke as if for the first time. With the absence of the parade and his mother’s exhaustive consumption of attention his father had time to be him. So Steve opened his mouth and talked. He talked a lot as he had much to say.
Obvious was the spoiler alert that homeopathic treatments does not cure cancer. In the five to six years he was attempting resolution from the disease with herbal remedies he could have gone through chemotherapy and/or radiation and recovered. Now it’s different. The doctors had pretty much told him they were past the point of no return. Steve spoke openly, honestly, and with a calm understanding of reality.
To tell you the truth, I’m ready to go now.
You mean like Hospice… or did you want me to slip you something?
His father chuckles. Hospice… I suppose. I don’t have any other choice. I’m ready to go… while I still have some life in me, you know?
There can be immense dignity in death. There is absolutely no dignity in dying. His father was a good man and had much to be proud about, but showing such pride was not in his character. This made the good man even better. James notices a bag next to the lounge chair. He opens it. It’s filled with pills. He reads the first bottle’s name: Oxycodone.
Uh, dad. You have a bottle full of one of the hottest drugs on the black market right now.
I know! Who knows what all that’s worth on the streets. Take it. You could pay for your whole trip.
They both laugh at the idea. I’m not taking your drugs, dad. The question is why aren’t YOU taking your drugs?
Steve began to explain why the drugs were out of reach from the hospital bed. His wife would not allow him to have any pain medication as she still holding on to the less-than-shadowy remnants of genuine belief that homeopathic treatment would still save his life. Her all-encompassing denial prevented the man from having any peace either from the outside world of constant footsteps of people shining with smiles to mask the shock of seeing a formidable man fade from existence or from soothing his own nervous system from the ache that came with cancer’s unquenchable hunger.
So Steve sat in wait… in pain… smiling and joking.
He had to digest this. So he diverted over to asking about David. Katy had passed away in a unexpected and unavoidable car wreck in Dallas a few years earlier. He wanted to know the condition of her twin sister and of David as he and Katy tried to date on a few occasions. There was little update to the rebel’s whereabouts, the only link would be occasional visits from David’s father. In return he was asked about Aaron. It was a subject he didn’t want to discuss but since they were being cathartically brutal in their honesty, James bullet-pointed the events about six months after his departure from his parents. Yes, he had seen Aaron. He flew up to Oregon and surprised him at his house. It didn’t go well. He had the police called on him.
Don’t worry. He’ll come around one day. (Pause.) And if he doesn’t, are you okay with that?
Yeah. I mean I’m not okay with it, but I made peace with the situation, he said while smiling.
Decent people facing death tend to become somewhat “zen” about the world, his father was no exception. Behind his perky hazel eyes James held a mountain of unsteady un-sedimentary rock. He had made the trip because he needed to know that Aaron was okay. He was not. James was screamed at, yelled at, and verbally beaten. He stood there and took it because he thought it was deserved. He had ruined the young man’s life, he wished he had never heard the name “James Perez”, leave him and his family alone, and he wished James was dead. Then the police were called finding James in tears in his hotel room off Interstate 5.
The light in Aaron was gone. The shining yellow gold of sun that beamed from his brown eyes ceased production. It had not only stopped producing light, it was absorbing and demolishing neighboring light within his vicinity through a hovering vacuous cloud of black and venom. The force of Aaron’s damnation was probably the only release of steam this battered bruised body could muster and it came with such a force that years later James will tear at the mention of the name. His knee stopped hurting after that trip. It’s amazing how physical pain can so easily be overshadowed when the heart breaks at such a volume. But he couldn’t tell his father all that.
The truth was that he didn’t need to say a single word, his father already knew. He could see it in his son’s scared and immobile eyes. Steve changes the subject as dinner arrives. The two men continue talking, laughing. The nurse bringing the second plate for James mentions that she hadn’t seen Steve in such a good mood and winks at his son in the lounge chair.
Trying to sleep brought a startling layer of revelation. Even though his father can hold his own during the day and enact normalcy with only passing clinches, his body was of its own accord come the fall of night. James sat in the shaded dark away from the hall lights staring at his father clinching and grimacing, his face contorting to reactionary shapes while his hands buckled in a motorized interpretation of screams.
Is there anything you can do for this? He asked a nurse on her mid-night circuit.
His body is in pain. Doctors prescribe medication, but they can’t force someone to take it.
How does this not wake him up?
Your dad doesn’t rest during the day, he has so many visitors. So he knocks out pretty easily, especially when we can get him to take a sleeping pill. I’m guessing he took one tonight?
He did. It was probably the most sleep Steve had had since being in the hospital. James curled up on the mauve overstuffed chair and watched his father move in ways he has never seen another human being move. How could his mother sit there nightly and watch this and not feel some compassion for the man? How could she sleep while her husband’s body tormented itself without alleviation? It was inhumane. It was less than inhumane. It was a deceptive selfish fantasy and it was killing his father in the most grotesque manner just because she had faith in a absolutism that doesn’t actually exist.
With the morning he confronted her about it. She defended her stance as she felt the brothers were praying on their behalf and Jehovah will provide a way for her husband to make a full recovery without the use of drugs. He called her delusional. She called him demonic. He purposefully stayed all day with his father to prevent any more of Jehovah’s Witnesses from visiting. He couldn’t give his father life, but he could give his father peace. So they watched television, it was the first time they ever watched a baseball game together. They ate lunch, talked about the tattoo his father accidentally noticed, and made the nurses laugh when they came to check in. By the evening Blanche was literally pushing him out the door to reclaim her spot as caretaker.
When he conceded she stepped out for a moment to return to making phone calls. Dad, this is crazy. I don’t want you suffering.
I know, son. But I gotta be faithful to your mother.
One thing that he learned from his father is the true understanding of what being “faithful” means. It wasn’t just something sexual, it was also faithful in heart, mind, and word. His father would not break his word even if it meant death. If he promised anything to Blanche, including not taking pain medication, it was going to be upheld in all aspects. It was his prism of honor. James took a bottle of pills and stuck it in the side table’s top drawer within arm’s reach of the hospital bed in case the pain became too much. He left his father in his mother’s hands.
A year later he stares at the glass wall at the result of her god-fearing work and failed prayers, creeping whispers of disapproval floating from behind his shoulders from the patriarch of the house James refused to stay at as a child because he would beat his children. The tyrant sits with a group as they recoil to the corners in hopes the demons saturating the young man’s soul will not infect them. James opens the glass door across the hall from the pit of judgment.
There is a body laying on a mattress. His older brother is in the room, his mother walking about on a cell phone. His uncle, and elder in the Victoria, Texas Riverside Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses clomps back and forth between praying at the bedside and the room of collected Christians. The person on the mattress is being fed through the nose, IV in hand in a vein practically sitting on top of the skin, machines pumping and beeping providing a soft medicinal background hum. Over the year people stood over his bed in a circle so much the perception of feeling metaphorically buried in one’s own grave eventually gives way to reality as one is forcibly suffocated into the actual grave. His father was beyond that point, now at half the size he was just a year before. He retreated to the safety of a coma.
Approaching the bed finds a skeleton projecting itself through the leathery skin and presenting a non-working visual display of how the joints of the body function, if these had functioned. They are motionless except for the rotating cushion of air underneath. His veins and arteries are barely concealed as his all-white hair atop his crown and around his face stand with wiry weariness through holes of the skin, now elliptical in shape instead of round, pulled sagging by the weight of itself. The body’s heart beats through the chest, visibly noticeable through the skin. It was shockingly gruesome, yet not near as gruesome as his mother standing among the gaggle of Jehovah’s Witnesses proclaiming “They’re trying to kill Steve!” before returning to her phone call and the room. No one was trying to kill him. The doctors were begging his mother to be a decent human being.
According to the Witnesses, removing life support would be tantamount to murder, especially if there was a chance for survival. In the mind of Steve’s wife, there was not only still a chance of survival, but a chance of full recovery, so Steve Perez was kept alive month after month without acknowledgement of the obvious. James doesn’t know his older brother at all, he was not raised around him… but even at this point the two estranged blood relatives saw eye-to-eye without words.
He grabs what was once his father’s hand. There is movement from the body as it lifted its eyelids to reveal faded green eyes glossed with cloudy white. The body looks straight at James. There he is – there is his father. James smiles. They silently converse. The eyes close and never open again. His mother runs about the hospital screaming that her husband had miraculously awakened from a coma. He had not. There is arguing, there is attempt at reason. There is his uncle approaching to say with the most untimely inappropriateness, You know, what your father would want is for you to come back to the Truth.
The entire spectacle is profusely dense with emotion and empty of sensibility. Logic is in catastrophic failure. He cannot support this. He does not support this. He will not support this. The hideous devil in the room is not his own. It is a monster of unified prayers and desire for importance on a godlike scale allowed to run freely since proper truth in observation fails the followers and their religion. He is hesitant to voice as there is nothing to say to those of such devoted daydream. The most powerful truth in the world is the lie one believes in their own mind. There is no arguing with that.
So he walks away. Within 24 hours he flies out of the Corpus Christi Airport, the last location he saw Aaron’s smiling face.
When the cancer started to creep back into his father’s life, Steve made several resolutions. For two years he had a colostomy bag, and for most of a year he wasted away in a hospital in the most undignified manner. When the brother finally pulled the plug at noon on a Friday, the heart continued to beat on it’s own for 43 additional minutes. His father indeed had a strong heart. He knew that before he received a phone call from Texas telling him it was over, the story had ended. Steve’s ashes are buried in San Antonio instead of being scattered per his wishes, bank account empty for continual herbal treatments that didn’t work.
James didn’t care. It was not his family anymore. It was a gross misrepresentation of what a family should look like, papier-mâché sculpture using pages of the bible as strips and lines of the Watchtower as glue. There is nothing of worth, heart, or value within the sociopathic diorama created to give the illusion of ‘family’ and ‘spirituality’ without ever providing the love of a family or viable spirituality. It is wrecked with false hope, spiritually superior but only through denunciation of all other paths, censured much like a schoolyard bully would attack a classmate. He didn’t blame a “god” for his father’s death. People die, it’s part of an undeniable necessity of every life cycle on the planet. But what kind of god warrants such excuses to validate the faithful for such cowardly acts of conceit against death? How can any god allow an inevitability, then bless those who march so disrespectfully over the body of a good man against it? He was right the first time he left. He only returned at the health of his father. That is no longer going to be an issue.
He grips his chest when he puts down the phone. Does he have a heart as strong as his father’s? He doesn’t know. But the answer is not found in his past. He did not go to the memorial service so as not to take focus from a man who deserved to be honored, however they chose to honor him. He has no desire to pick up the phone in that direction ever again. That life perished with his father, fell silent with David, was tied with twine by his mother, and sucked into oblivion by Aaron. All this in the name of ‘God.’ He loved life, he loved living. There is no need to fear death when one is celebrating life.
Because of that none of them were never contacted again… including God.
James P. Perez © 2014