The front door to the hospital is the gateway to an alternative reality. The glass doors slide open silently, you step across the threshold, and it is suddenly okay to make your dinner out of a grilled cheese sandwich – the kind you got as a child, white bread and american cheese, not the kind they make in gourmet food trucks with brie and pears and bacon – and onion rings.
The woman who is supposed to guide me to my father’s room is having an extended conversation with a nurse about her pregnancy and if you can predict the sex of the child by how a woman is carrying the pregnancy. I’ve been driving for two hours, so I decide to find the bathroom. While I’m washing my hands, my stepmother texts me the room. When I exit the bathroom, they are still talking about the nurse’s pregnancy.
This hospital has a sign out front claiming that it is in the top 100 best hospitals in the country. It isn’t as nice as the hospital mom died in. Dad’s room is tiny. It has one of those ubiquitous hospital chairs in it, the kind designed for helpless family members to occupy in the interminable hours between visits from the Doctor, who maybe this time will tell you what’s really going on or what to expect. You can sleep in a chair like this, if you must. But this chair that is expected to serve as home-away-from-home, a bulwark against the exhaustion, has to be re-arranged every time dad has to go to the bathroom.
Which is frequently.
He talks for six hours straight. He’s stuck in one of those experiments where some disproportionate scientist inserts a probe into a frog’s brain to see which nerve makes that first toe twitch. Except now we’re poking at emotional abscesses in his brain to pinpoint exactly which of those pustules will erupt in which form of pain and paranoia. There is one for my mother, one for his sense of failure, one for his grandiose understanding of himself. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are mentioned frequently. He grins maniacally when they bring him his dinner and he announces that he’s getting the Trump treatment. There are algorithms, and numbers, and codes. He had a mission, but he couldn’t keep his goddamn mouth shut, so he blew it.
It isn’t her fault and it isn’t your fault, I’ll just have to reset. We’ll go back 7 minutes and all it will cost is putting her in a box and making her suffer. But this is the last time. Because I’m the real God, the absolute final God, and I had to go back and find the first Pope.
He hits me. Twice. And this is when I realize it is an alternate reality, one in which your father can punch you in the arm as hard as he is physically able, and you don’t take it personally. I mean, you keep your arm out of punching distance after that, let’s be honest. But in this reality, when your father calls you fat and ugly to your face, a shithead and a dumbfuck… you just sort of agree.
He is nothing but id and these soft spots in his emotional landscape. Failure comes up again and again. “I’m a failure,” he tells me. “Me, me, me, me, me, me…” until I wonder if he’s going to find another word. I think I might be a trigger. After all, I was the one who forced him to tell my mother that he’d been cheating on her. Well, forced… I told him either he could tell her or I could tell her and he really didn’t want me to be the one to do it. At the time, he told my mom that I’d arranged the whole thing because I like being at the center of the drama. I know he’s never really forgiven me.
I’d give my left nut to be able to go back in time and cheat on your mother.
He doesn’t have to go back in time – that’s what he did. I don’t tell him that his nuts are safe. He’s too likely to pull up his hospital gown and show them to me. He grabs two nurses by the breast, and that’s not even the worst of it.
One of his nurses is black. And then he does it.
I’ve heard the word before. Of course I can. There are loads of ways to say it. My elderly uncles, twenty years ago, casually. Just one word among many. In songs defiantly, or affectionately. From my friend who is allowed to use it when she talks about her ex husband because she’s black. I’ve never heard it spat with the contempt, the vicious intent behind it, at least not until my father hurls it at his nurse.
Ice Cube, while on Bill Mahr’s show last week called it a tool, a knife. I believed him in the way you believe someone with expertise you don’t have. The mechanic tells you that your fuel gasket is leaking and you believe him. I believe Ice Cube differently today than I did last week. Now I know why it is entirely fair when a black woman says she can’t trust white people. This reason is different from her reason, but it is a reason nevertheless.
My imperfect father wouldn’t be called “woke” in his sane life, but he’s probably better than most. My life is populated with black friends, they’ve been in his house, eaten at his table, and he’s never given a hint of harboring racial animosity.
And yet. Lurking in my father’s id, right next door to the groping of unwilling nurses, is the knife.
There’s nothing comparable. I can’t comfort myself by thinking that a black man in the same position might holler cracker with the same vitriol. It isn’t the same. In a white man’s mouth, the word is a threat. Even for my diminished, elderly father, delirious out of his mind, it is a threat of rape, of lynching, of dismemberment and pain. In a hospital setting, he’d be cold-clocked and on his ass before the threat was followed through, but does it matter?
The nursing staff assures me that it’s alright. They hear this kind of thing all the time. But how does frequency make it more alright? This malignancy is unmistakably there in my father’s id, and this woman has had to bear it time and time again, if not from him than from other white people.
Is it in my id? If my frontal lobe shuts down and all I’m left with is the raging need to maim anyone who crosses me with whatever weapons I have near, is this knife close enough in my psyche to be the thing I reach for? And why would you ever trust a white person again, knowing that there’s a reasonable chance that, somewhere lurking in their mind is a knife that they keep just for you?
On the drive home, I talk to a friend who is a psychiatric nurse. He suspects we’re dealing with delirium. It is a symptom more than a disease, it pops up around urinary tract infections, sepsis, unpredictable shifts in medication. All three factors are present and accounted for in my father right now.
Today, he is back to algorithms, logarithms, and this mission for the Pope that only he can see through.