My father always smelled like Purell. This was before the pandemic, before people lined around blocks at Costco to fill their baskets with hand sanitizer and toilet paper. He never had toilet paper, though, he always took mine. This was before when being unwell seemed to belong solely to him.
His was an early form of contract tracing.
“You made me sick.” He would accuse me, always reclined in his bed. The sofa was reserved for holding court, friends visiting his perpetual sickbed. His belly was a giant mound atop which he interlaced his fingers. “I hope I don’t get bronchitis again, Jesus.” And he did get bronchitis again and again, for which he blamed me, or whoever he had figured out gave him his most recent sickness. To his credit, he was usually right. But I didn’t give him the sores on his face and arms from obsessive scratching. I didn’t give him arthritis, probably.
I wouldn’t say he was immunocompromised, like someone with lupus or cancer. We’ve learned a lot more about those things since the coronavirus. Rather, I think his body had given up the fight for wellness out of sheer expectation.
“I’m going to die soon,” he would threaten. “I’m not going to make it past fifty.” But he did, and sixty too. And while as a child I would protest, terrified that my daddy would die and leave me all alone, as I grew older the protestations softened and quieted and turned into a shrug. You can only fear a warning for so many years until you become tired of being afraid.
I ask my husband for a cigarette, and he pauses for a long time and then says “But where will you ash it?” As though he needs to know the outcome of my choice so he can decide whether I get to have what I want. Like my father, he sometimes treats me like a child. When you are small, everything is a gift that you are expected to be grateful for. For my father, this gift was in the form of his stories, which he would tell for hours without stopping, and in the end, he expected gratitude. I rail against even a whiff of it now, and when I get the cigarette from my husband I ash it on my stomach sullenly, reclined in bed, just like my father did for all those years.
I am like him. When I am angry, my eyes flash contemptuously and I say nothing. I feel wrath and hatefulness and plan cruelty. It passes. I’m glad that is mostly all.
When you are a child and you are clever, people clap their hands and praise you and ask for more. But as you grow, it becomes something you have to hide, otherwise you are prideful, or vain. I still want that praise. I am still a child by my own making, and want to be taken care of. “You are selfish.” I can hear him hiss. “I did everything for you.”
But I think about the times he was sick, so skinny his pants would fall down and he would hobble around with one hand holding them up and then hide in his bedroom for days at a time. I think about visiting him in the ICU, his face ashen and sleeping like a small child himself after his gallbladder went septic and his liver failed. I remember all the times I didn’t go play because he couldn’t keep up, so I sat with him instead and we fed the ducks, watching them waddle up to us and fill their mouths with bread from a bag I clutched in my tiny hand.
He didn’t die and hasn’t still. Now, his name makes my mouth turn dry, and my lips into a tight line. “Was it really that bad?” people ask. But it is a question because they are uncomfortable, and don’t know what else to say. A question for the sake of it.
“Yes,” I say. “but he did everything for me.”