Their Father's Heartbeat
Emma CrowleyMatt hated the way his heartbeat fell into rhythm with that of the dying man. Each pulse cued an unfeeling mechanical beep from the large white machines that surrounded the bed, as if they were trying to remind him that there was no humanity left in the frail husk of a body they were working so hard to keep living. Matt shifted in place, unable to get comfortable in the stiff hospital chair, its plastic unforgiving against his aching back. He had been proud of the chair when his father had been awake to see it. Matt had even lifted it up so his father could read the company name printed on the leg. His company.
His sick dad had given him the same proud smile that he had given Matt the day he received the acceptance letter welcoming him to the school of engineering. His father had taken the whole family out to dinner that night, letting Matt pick the place of course. When they returned, he disappeared into his basement study for what seemed like hours, until the glow streaming out from under the basement door was the only light in the house. The rest of the family had assumed that he was just working late, until he woke up Matt at quarter past two in the morning.
“I want you to have this,” he whispered to Matt, careful not to wake his sister in the room just across the hall. “I bought them just before you and your sister were born, when I started grad school.” He pressed a small black box into Matt’s hands. A sliver of light from the doorway wrapped the tools in an almost holy glow as he opened the gift, a protractor, ruler, stencil, and a couple of metal mechanical pencils surrounded by blue velvet. The set seemed to be in mint condition except for the pin piercing through the top layer of velvet on the lid, which carried the insignia of his father’s alma mater.
Matt traced his fingers along the edge of the pin as he watched his dying father’s chest rise and fall. It had been a part of him since that day, the lapel pin on his suit for every interview, an extra embellishment on his cap when he graduated. Now he held it between his fingers, trying to absorb any wisdom his father had left upon it before his illness, since it was too late to ask its old owner now.
Every day in this hospital dug a little deeper into Matt’s retirement fund. He wanted to let the machines work their magic, but in the end they were only adding days to his father’s life that he would never see. His father had tried to make this easier on his son when he was first diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease. He often raved about things they did together, whether it be third base line seats at a baseball game in town, a plate of flapjacks at his favorite vintage diner, or even watching his favorite films again and again when he couldn’t find the strength to leave the house.. I can die happy now, he would joke, though the humor was long gone, my son sure knows how to spoil his old man.
This was why Matt’s forms were filled out, waiting on his father’s bedside table to be approved by his doctor. Matt didn’t feel that he was cutting his father’s days short. His dad had seen Matt graduate college, climb the corporate ladder at his first engineering job, meet and fall in love with his boyfriend, and had even helped them pick out the newest addition to their family, a rescue puppy. The only thing Matt could think that his dad would miss would be getting to see his son get married, but, as his father would grumble whenever the subject came up, they all might be dead before Matt could legally marry his boyfriend anyways. In this state, he isn’t really Matt’s father at all, but a shadow of someone who once was, a shell that carried the soul that Matt had always loved and adored.
The shell wore a stern expression, one that anyone else would call peaceful. They hadn’t known his omnipresent smile, though, and therefore wouldn’t understand the fear that such a rigid look would usually cause. Matt would have liked to believe that he hadn’t been on the receiving end of his father’s angry glare since his high school days, but in reality his father’s disappointment was still fresh in his mind. The smile had left his father’s face as soon as his eyes fell on the hospice brochure in his son’s hand. Is this it? His eyes bored into those of his son. You’re done taking care of your own father?
There was a light tap on the door and Matt’s sister Kell poked her head into the room. The freckles splattered across her nose were brighter than ever against her pale white skin, but were no match for the deep dark bags under her eyes. Her short red hair was smushed on one side, pressed down from sleeping with her head against one of the hospital’s cold brick walls. Matt got to his feet as she entered, muttering a word of thanks as he took one of the steaming styrofoam mugs from her hands. He lifted the cup to his nose; nothing like the smell of watery coffee and sharp antiseptic to keep you on your toes.
“Go stretch your legs.” Kell murmured, though even the loudest noise wouldn’t be able to wake her father now. “I’ll watch him for a while.
Matt nodded. He stepped towards the door but paused before his fingers could find the handle. He turned back to his sister and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Kell, please look at those documents, alright?.”
“Just look, okay?” Kell flinched at his words. Matt let out a long low sigh, running his free hand over his tired eyes.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap. I just…” His father’s angry reply skipped through his head like a broken record, and there was no way to put the feeling of shame it made him feel into words. How was he to explain that he felt like the villian of his father’s narrative, putting him in hospice and now signing away his life. He didn’t want to be alone in the decision anymore. Those feelings jumbled when they reached his tongue, and he shook his head before they could pour from his lips in a torrent of chaos. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Kell shrugged her arm out of his grasp and moved to stand at the end of her father’s bed. The coffee warmed one hand while the other grasped the metal bar at his feet, letting the hum of the machines travel through her fingers. It calmed her to hear his heart still pushing on, no matter how artificial the heart monitor made each beat sound.
The thought of it falling silent terrified her. Her stomach churned in an all too familiar way as she watched her father’s chest rise and fall. She had felt the same anxiety upon committing to her undergrad school; she had only applied to this school after sending out a few applications to schools that held her father’s approval, schools which had already mailed back acceptance letters. Her father had been over the moon about it, but Kell knew she wouldn’t go to any of them. She waited to receive word from her dream school, a liberal arts college with the country’s best writing program.When she was accepted, her father hadn’t been outright disappointed, in fact he had been one of the first to congratulate her, yet his outwards excitement didn’t reach his eyes.
A year later she declared herself an English major, and her father began to offer suggestions for her future. You can always double major, he would say, slipping the words slyly into normal conversation. I’m sure it won’t take long at all to get a degree in social work or communications or something. Something actually useful, he meant. Soon it wasn’t a dream of writing a book that propelled her forward, but a desperate urge to prove to her father that she wasn’t as useless as he thought.
He hadn’t been able to make her awards night, traffic was miserable he said. At the graduation party a week later he had stood in a corner with his buddies, boasting about Matt’s latest achievements. Even on her day it was all about Matt. The two of them were inseparable, always golfing, watching sports, discussing the latest engineering breakthrough. Her father’s time always belonged to Matt in a way it never did her.
So she can’t let him go. Not yet. Not with so many things left undone.
Her eyes wandered to the papers on her father’s bedside table. She knew that Matt had already signed and initialled on every dotted line. She knew she should be mad at him for signing them so easily, but at least they were still there. All the hospital needed was one child to sign off, it was Matt’s choice to wait until she was ready.
Her father’s hospital bills weighed heavy on her, balancing neatly on top of her grad school work and the three jobs that kept her there. Matt would remind her that there is barely anything left of their father whenever she voiced these concerns. He would never get better. It would be kinder just to let him die. Even while he was away Matt’s words continued to bounce around Kell’s brain, making too much sense for her taste. It was easy for him to say, especially with his father’s last words being ones of praise. He told Matt that he was proud of him. He told Kell that he loved her. She couldn’t let him go until he could tell her that he was proud of her too.
She walked around the side of his bed, trailing her fingers along the crisp white sheets until her hand reached his. His fingers were cold from lack of use, more corpse-like than anything. She lifted his hand in hers, pressing his cold palm against her cheek. His skin warmed only a little when her tears fell onto it.
She shot a quick glance over her shoulder, making sure that her brother was truly gone before leaning down to whisper into her father’s ear.
“Just got the check from that Asimov magazine.” She could feel the dried tears on her cheeks crack as her lips formed a small smile. “We could probably buy our own go kart with this one.”
When her first story was published in a local journal she and her father had taken her five dollar royalty check to the go kart complex in the next town over. They only were able to take a few turns around the track but that was plenty for a first time driver. Her dad had driven right beside her, matching her nervous speed to give tips through stifled laughs. The next payout had been spent racing, a whole fifteen dollars this time.
Every check since then had been at least partially spent at every go kart track within driving distance of the family’s home, until now. She pulled the latest from her pocket, still in the envelope. There was a lot of money inside, but it felt worthless to her alone. She shoved the check towards the bedside table, hating the way the professional grade paper felt against her fingertips. The end of the envelope struck something solid and a cascade of paper scattered across the floor. Kell cursed under her breath and dropped to her knees, scooping the pages up into her arms as if collecting snow. One thing escaped her grasp under her father’s bed, a magazine it looked like. She flopped down on her stomach and wriggled under the bed, catching the edge of the magazine between her first two fingers. One page was marked with a sticky note, dust coating all the adhesive left untouched by the page. Kell flipped open to it and gasped when she realized what she was seeing. Her own words stared back up at her, one of her recently published poems. It had been a long time since her father had the strength to hold anything with steadiness, yet the final phrase was carefully underlined.
She held the pages to her chest, imagining how he had turned them with interest, perhaps smiling at her name at the top of the page as he underlined his favorite phrase. That was how Matt found her when he returned from his walk. He closed the door softly behind him, staying silent until Kell acknowledged him with a single soft smile.
“I think I’m ready now,” her words were so soft that Matt almost loses them in the beeping and whirring of the room’s mechanical occupants. She got to her feet, placing her father’s hand lightly over his chest as Matt wrapped her in a comforting hug. They sat together on the plastic chairs as Kell filled out her forms so that Matt could keep his arm around her shoulder as she wrote.
As the team of nurses prepared to take her father off of life support, Kell lets every mechanical heartbeat resonate through her bones, desperate to capture the last few moments of her time with him. Next to her, Matt gives her hand a squeeze. He leans down to whisper in her ear.
“Dad would be so proud of you, you know.”
The heartbeat turns to a solid note.
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