Rodney A. Nelsestuen
The 57th Hour
It is the first hour. I sit with my father in one of many shifts, to talk with him, watch him, help him not to breathe too rapidly. When I feel his pace quicken I tell him to slow down, to take his time. So he tries. In just a few minutes I sense a metronomic beat in the shush of his breath.
A doctor comes in and studies the oxygen readout. She leans over. “You're having difficulty aren't you?” He nods. She looks at the readout again, then again leans over and says with practiced condolence, “We're giving you all the oxygen we have. But I can slip a tube into your lung any time you say the word.” He shakes his head.
“No.” he says weakly. “No, I don't want that.” The doctor stands, studies the chart, then says she'll return. I stare at my father’s pale frame
in stark denial while a scent from childhood rises in my mouth. I sense that smell, the dry dust of winter in a one room schoolhouse. My father
and I had both gone to the same school a generation apart. He came speaking Norwegian when it was forbidden and meant a whipping for
the boy who uttered a word. I came speaking English only to be taught Norwegian songs for holidays; the same stale air of two generations
passing through a leaky furnace, deteriorating with each rebirth. The smell brought me to the third grade row where I died in stale
waiting, paralyzed in breathless ticks of time, each second present, present, present until the day was ended. After school my father would
whip me for shirking my chores the night before and escaping to the elderly couple’s farm house a quarter mile away. I had not thought
that trading unfed calves for a half dozen sugar cookies would carry such a sentence. My father was lean and rawboned. But what he
lacked in muscle he made up for in speed and leverage. Why the decades-old scent came to me now I don’t know, except that,
going back to even that dark day it was a better day than this.
Within my memory we are quiet for two, maybe three minutes. Then he looks at me. “We all have to die sometime.” I feel the sting of tears but I hold them back. My throat forms a lump that continues to grow. My jaw sets and I try but cannot speak. I want to touch him but cannot. I want to change all this but I cannot and I struggle to “buck-up” as he would put it, to embrace the imminent as if merely waiting for a bus.
He has said it. The end of his time is coming and he is not going to accept the delay of doctors who would only postpone the inevitable
and let him fade into a coma for days or weeks or months while a mere machine breathes. He said this five years ago, had meant it,
and now at the moment of truth he will follow through in the belief that free will is free, but limited, in deciding how but not exactly when he
“The only thing I'd have done differently…” he says. “I wouldn't have smoked.” He does not rage. I lean forward for a blessing that never comes, and I wonder how he faces the onrush of the next minutes or hours without looking back. What has he done or left undone to regret? He says but this one thing.
My father was one of six siblings and the only one to finish high school. He had a scholarship in engineering, but in the midst of the depression had no way to support himself in college. So his life was on a small Midwestern farm where he raised his children with an intensity that drove them off to college to seize the education that eluded him. And in that accomplishment a man who was never satisfied is now content, with one regret.
My mother enters with the doctor, who repeats there is no more oxygen. At this I rise to a top corner of the room and look down on the
helpless assembly, hoping to evaporate in a mist, until I see that only the doctor and I fade away. My parents’ eyes meet. My mother,
who has always deferred, does so again, waits for his decision in the eternity of time a few seconds can become in summing a life
of sixty-seven years. His return look is clear-eyed and deeply blue. He nods. The first hour has ended.
I am nine years old and seek the meaning of death at my grandmother’s funeral. During the service my father and grandfather sit in the straight-backed stoicism of accomplished Norwegians. They are serious but nothing else. At one point my father picks at the wart on his hand, flitting small flakes of skin onto the floor beneath the pew, the angles on his face deep in thought. He picks so hard I think it will start to bleed as it did sometimes when he picked on it fiercely or when it cracked in January because of the cold dry weather and with his hands wet from milking cows. Then he stops and shares the silence of his father’s grief, looking more and more like him while time stands still.
The service over, I watch from the basement lunchroom as my grandfather picks up his rye bread Cheese Whiz sandwich sprinkled with crushed potato chips. On his plate is a long brown sugar cube and beside it a cup of Lutheran Ladies Aide coffee that is so pale and thin that you cannot find a cup deep enough so you would not see the bottom even though you fill it to the brim.
He disposes of the sandwich and his ritual begins. First he takes the sugar cube and the heavy church butter knife.
He holds the cube at one end between left forefinger and thumb and with a couple of marking swings, the knife comes down dividing
the cube exactly. Then he takes the steaming cup and, tipping it toward him, coffee spills over into the saucer. He raises the cup
and slips the saucer from beneath and sips from it, pours the balance back into the cup, setting both down again. He pops one of the
sugar cube pieces into his toothless mouth and then sips his cooled coffee with a slurp nearly audible above the noise of the church
basement, while people talk as people do when they have not seen each other for some time and have recently spent the respectable
amount of time being somber at someone’s loss. My loss. My father’s loss. My grandfather’s loss.
The second piece disappears into his mouth, and then he drinks deeply of the now nearly cold coffee, finishing it with his head tipped back, draining all its satisfaction, ending with a quick down-stroke of the cup into the saucer where it plinks once and is silent. He takes the napkin and with a single fold, smoothes it over the cup and saucer. He’d done this twice a day in all my boyhood memory and as hard as I try, I see nothing different in today’s ritual, the only communion he ever shared.
People approach and offer condolence. My father and grandfather nod without smiling and say thank you and when all this condolence is done, they go outside to talk with the men of the church while I learn only that Cheese Whiz on rye bread with crushed potato chips sprinkled on top is very good.
It is about the twenty-seventh hour. It has been some time since my father acknowledged anyone. Sometimes his eyes open in the heave of breathing and you think he sees you, but then they close as the air exits in a rush, repulsed by swampy lungs. Breath is life. There are three seconds to a breath and in a day and a night there are nearly twenty-nine thousand breaths; and a day and a night are all that remain.
At least he does not pull his hand away when I hold it. I hold his hand and hold it and hold it and hold it. A lifetime’s worth of holding. I touch the perennial wart on his knuckle. No one has ever done this, or, hasn't lived to tell about it. The wart is no longer coarse or hard as I had seen it over the years of farmer cracked hands and chipped nails.
I am holding his hand, soaking in it, absorbing it, taking from it all of him I can even as our grip mingles and the strength with which
he took hold of life dissipates between us. And still, it amazes me that in the pale thinness of his suffering frame, bald head devoid of blood,
his presence still surges in every pointless breath. And every pointless breath presses on my heart the shortness of time, how childhood
is a brief and flashing glimpse of family heaving on the seas of life, too busy steering the ship to notice how time passes. And now
I see my own obsession. How work has been my proud vessel, yet now leaves me naked in the threadbare reality of my two grown sons.
Work, it was the place where I found the concrete section of reason and meaning, in credenza and desk, the hum of a bad starter in fluorescent overhead tubes washing out the color of life; the computer and phone walled off by email and voicemail.
It was the place that caused small boy big-eyed tears when I left for the day. On Saturdays they'd judge the corner office windows, measure with their eyes my square footage against the rows of cubicles and lesser spaces as if to weigh my worth; the walls of white board where important plots and plans were made, erased, and made again. They'd scribble until I noticed it was permanent marker that darkened the sacred spot where the bottom-line was meant to call out proof, if they cared, of what that worth was.
Time was an iceberg of stale air on pale walls, immovable, impervious, everlasting in my eyes while surreptitious decades slid in giant sheets I never noticed to consuming seas I never saw.
And, later, it was the place from which I’d call to say I’d be late, to hear the relief in their teenaged sigh as darkness closed on the windows. I would imagine dinner conversations never held.
Work, it was how I measured my time, valued my life, where I avoided them in the absolute necessity of early mornings, later nights until, alone, I looked down once, and the wear on the carpet betrayed me.
It is hard to go past the thirtieth hour, but no one wants to quit. He is still with us. His blue eyes still open but now less and less. The color though is deeper than I could ever know and the closer to death he grows, the deeper I see them becoming.
Still, we must take a break. For the living, sleep will eventually win. For the dying, sleep has no real power since there is no reason not to sleep and in that wicked persistence, its power is lost. So we go knowing that we who will live are powerless.
I step out into the night air. Winter’s grip has slipped, yet the earth has barely heaved up its frost. The sun is set and the spring winds take air from Canada pretending a breeze until I am chilled to the bone. Or what else is so cold that I imagine steam rising from my blood as it pulses through the frozen cavern where my heart once was? Oh yes, my father’s death.
I awaken in my mother’s house as the pre-daylight hue lifts the darkness outside. I stare at the wall and remember waking here, during high school, to my mother’s call:
My mother yells for the third time and I answer for the third time. I pick up my shoes and throw them glancing across the floor and against the wall. And so the drill goes. She would hear this and was satisfied that I would get up. The door closed downstairs as she left to help my father. I wondered how she could fall for such deception every day. I did not stir again until I heard an engine groan and saw the school bus flash past the small arched crack in the corner of my bedroom window. The angle of the crack gave off a mirrored effect that made me wonder if the bus was going in the valley or out. It was a riddle in the curve of the glass where the bus went both ways at once. If I was right, then I had exactly fourteen minutes before its return. More than enough time, those fourteen minutes, merely time.
And now those fourteen squandered minutes could be all that remains. I sink in the pillow and consider the best of times: Seventeen was my favorite age until I was thirty then that was it until I was thirty-five then that was it until I was fifty… Had I understood mortality I would have treasured each tick.
That time is relative should not have surprised us and should not have taken a genius to discover. The speed of time is inversely proportionate to our desire for it. Time lies at the heart of us, our core. The Tin Man braved the evil witch and, worse yet, the flying monkeys to reach the Land of Oz and beseech the Wizard for a heart only to find it was a ticking clock he needed. It is time, then, that matters.
So I get up. On the dresser lies my grandfather’s railroad watch. I pick it up and am surprised by its weight. The porcelain dial still has the creamy, antiquish color tinted into the finish the day it was manufactured. It has Roman numerals at the hours, and red Arabic numbers in five minute increments tucked in the shadows of the cover just above the hours. There’s a small inset dial with Arabic numerals in a Romanesque script to measure ten second intervals, with hash marks in between. The spade hands look black at first but turn metallic blue under the bedside lamp, with the promise of an elegant sweep.
The movement is of damascene nickel covered in ornate gold and a scene with a twelve point buck leaping a tuft of swamp grass at the edge of a stream. The etched lines in the background are a vague indication of a hill on the other side. It looks like the view from my grandfather’s barn.
The watch was manufactured at the end of the 19th century and hasn't really kept time for years although it does run for a few seconds or minutes before something in the works catches and it stops.
My father gave it to me. He said that in the first half of the 20th century, between the wars, a man was incomplete without a time piece. The need to keep time was proof of purpose without which, a man was simply unworthy. And if purpose languished or failed momentarily, then the weight of a railroad watch in his breast pocket was at least hope; and that hope could be tethered to a life worth living by the chain with which he fastened it.
My grandfather gave it to him at the start of the two years he withdrew from the family, from work, and sat within himself, only sometimes speaking like the sporadic seconds that tick in unpredictable patterns from the railroad watch.
Throughout 1935 and 1936 my grandfather took his meals separately. He lay unresponsive beside my grandmother at night and let his children work the farm without direction. His days repeated themselves as he sat in the back parlor of the house while unseen time rushed by in torrents.
His behavior was odd, my father said, but even the odd is warmly familiar, in time. My grandfather refused both doctor and preacher. He was never seen to offer prayer or even despair at his state and after two years, took up his life and his work once again as if rising from a single night’s sleep.
There was never any question asked nor answer given and eventually the whole of that time was put out of the family mind, just as the watch lay on my childhood bedside table, both there and not there, for years.
Unlike my grandfather, my father never rested. In fact, the intense pace of his own life was but a form of penance paid for his father’s failing; and the reason for my third grade whipping comes clear as a purification ritual, assurance that the sins of the fathers will not be visited upon the sons. Somewhere a cup plinks in a saucer.
It is the forty-sixth hour. My older brother and I leave our father’s room for a quiet talk. He tells me our father is slipping backwards into childhood, infancy even, and that he is weak, unable to control things, himself, his body the victim of overwhelming forces pulling him inward toward a theoretical center, an infinitely small point of infinite density from which mortal flesh cannot escape.
I guess I must have missed that. I see my father as I did two nights ago when he started this journey, with resolve and purpose, going only where he said he would go.
As a young man he was a ski jumper and once told me that control was important to successful jumping. I tried some as a teenager but found the act of pushing off down a ramp toward a ledge from which you would become airborne the antithesis of control.
But I knew what he meant.
Once on the approach, there is precious little you can do but ride the skis, although under control. You have no choice about where you are going, but you are under control. At the instant of the ledge you put aside fear and embrace the uncertain air, spring forward with your very soul. The forces of physics, gravity and inertia have you in full, but you are under control. So I imagine his death is the ledge of life from which he will soon become airborne. It grows nearer and he has no choice, but he is under control.
It is the fifty-third hour. Ten p.m. We can see that things have changed. His breathing hastens toward some end while his coma deepens. Each breath is new and different but not of his own making, forced from the rush of time against his body. The doctor tells us his organs fail. The journey grows hard and we hunker beside him, form a relay vigil keeping watch as he goes on without us.
I take my turn as my mother and siblings go off to sleep in unforgiving chairs in the nearby waiting area. I listen to the cadence of his breath and wonder how anything that steady and deliberate can be so ineffective. Soon my mother comes back and says she cannot sleep, that she feels she needs to be here. I think about protesting, maybe tell her she needs to rest, that being rested is going to be important. But then I see. It is right for her to be here and if it takes all night, it will be okay since he is her husband and she is his wife and they have been together these many years.
She clears her throat. “Two nights ago we prayed together,” she says. Her voice is calm. “We said the Lord’s Prayer then we turned it all over to God. So now it’s his problem, not ours.”
I imagine how he prayed with her that night, just as I would pray with her twenty years later when her own breath failed in an eternal fourteen minutes while I sat beside her in helpless wonder. Lord, if it be thy will, take this cup… And these words once forced upon me in Sunday school come round in earnest.
I wonder if death is but a passing accident or if otherwise ordained. Is there a need to fret about things one cannot change? Free will be damned. And still I hold life’s weight and feel guilty for it. My eyes become dry and clear, as hard as my resisting soul. I should let go the hope of some terse miracle and simply feel my father’s death. But I do not. Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.
“He is gone,” my sister says as she tries to wake us, “it is finished.” I am not stable. I am tired and groggy and annoyed by the interruption of even this fitful sleep in a hospital recliner.
We all gather in his room and it is very still. There is no breathing – no heaving, sinking chest. He is quiet and his eyes are closed. We whisper now and wonder why. I hear the absence of ticking. I see his still hands like the hands of a failed railroad watch, a leaping buck forever frozen in midair beside a still stream.
I take his hand. It is cool but not yet stiff and I draw from it all I can. I imagine I have always held it, that I will always hold it, and that I will be able to touch it the rest of my life whenever I remember what we have gone through with him. And I vow that I will no longer fail my children and will hold them and shake their hands and hug them and tell them I love them in case they do not get the chance to do at my death what I do at my father’s death.
We leave and I stand outside the room looking back on his bare feet jutting from the sheet. I stare for a long time; longer than the fourteen minutes I squandered every morning during high school; longer than the time between my favorite age of seventeen then thirty then thirty-five and fifty. It is a long time.
A nurse approaches and asks if they might take his corneas and my mother says yes. I wonder if any of him goes along, and while I know better, I pretend the blue does and it is enough.
So where does his presence come from? Why do I still feel him like some present memory? Do the decomposed particles of energy bombarding the atmosphere still carry his mark? Is it a cosmic rain of spirit passing through me? Or is it simple memory that will die when I die, merely the sum of my genealogy as the very thing in itself? How is it I still believe I touch him when I close my eyes and reach out in darkness to find that rough hand and hold it and hold it and hold it?
This is hard and momentous and sad, and still with a sense of completeness, of a journey’s end reached, of something come full round, of faith and lack of faith, of triumph and failure in determination, of loss of control but staying in control at the same time, of things that I should ponder, of a good life lived and now gone, but not gone if you believe, if you are his son, or if merely the blue of his eyes pours from someone else’s body; of not regretting; of resolution to be like him or better, and yet not like him as he was like and not like his own father; and glad that I am; for his showing me the importance of things he did and did not do but I should, and the guilt for those which I have or have not done; and of all I have learned, yet the loss and sorrow and so much more missed opportunity that I could not make up for in the fifty-seventh hour of my father’s death.
©2007 by Rodney A Nelsestuen