I’m on the Indianapolis-to-Pittsburgh night shuttle. Thirty thousand feet below, the fields of Ohio and then the lights along the riverbanks of the Ohio, as the pilot announces the beginning of our descent into Pittsburgh, where my father lies in a hospital bed, being readied for tomorrow’s surgery. His urethra, bladder, and prostate will be removed because their cells have gone awry, like a Fourth of July bottle rocket-turned-sidewinder spinning across the night. Somehow all I can think of is the tag line repeated by a comedian last night on TV. “Go figure,” he’d say after asking some ambiguous or impenetrable question or posing an imponderable premise. “Go figure,” he’d say, shrugging his shoulders in consternation.
After driving into the city, speeding down the parkway and out of the Ft. Pitt Tunnel to the glorious city of lights along the rivers, I get to the hospital just in time to kiss him on the cheek, tell him that I love him, that I’ll be staying as long as I’m needed. I’ll try to sleep and return early the next morning for pre-op, when we’ll all be told what to expect. What to hope for. I remember the conversation I had four years ago when the family doctor, who must have thought of me as if I was still a child, explained the male urinary system to me by drawing a line diagram with his gold Cross pen on a prescription pad. I wanted to tell him, “I know all about the male urinary tract. Tell me something I don’t know.”
The next morning when we get to my father’s hospital room we’re told everything’s going well, ahead of schedule. His surgeon meets with us and explains the operation in detail but warns that they may find other complications once they’re inside. Things are sometimes worse than they appear. “We have a crack surgical team,” he says. “Give us eight hours.” But there’s no guarantee. Eight hours. I think how it all comes down to this. Say you’re lucky for fifty-nine years, and then eight hours and it’s a different life, buddy. All those other years gone, out the window, because it’s all ahead of you now. A skilled surgeon will construct a new route to and through your stomach for your piss to travel, and it will, drop by drop, and your penis will be forever useless for that task, just like that.
And just like that, eight hours later, he’s back, a hole carved in his stomach where his piss is flowing, drop by drop, into a tube connected to a plastic pouch on the side of his bed.
A few days later when he is awake and talking and feeling alive, my father asks me to shave and wash him, so I lather his face and scrape the stubble from his cheeks and neck, then take a warm, white washcloth to his body: neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, hands, chest. My father says, Go ahead, and lifts the gown to show me his stomach, swollen purple from above his navel to his groin and under to his rectum, held together with metal staples like an oversized zipper. My father points to his black-and-blue penis, shriveled and dangling, and asks me, What good is it anymore? I cannot give him an answer, but instead think of the first time I saw it when I stepped into the shower with him in 1957, when his thirty-four-year-old body was sleek and taut as a racehorse, his muscles rippling along his stomach, and I watched him lather his neck and shoulders and arms and chest and legs, and his thick, long penis and balls swayed like a fleshy clapper against the bell of his thighs, and I looked embarrassedly to my own hairless six-year-old groin, shamed and confused by what I did not understand and was yet to be. And now, twenty-four years later, all that is gracefully carved away by a surgeon.
I think of the surgeon, my father’s black-and-blue penis, the comedian. Who could invent those burning cells gone awry inside my father? I think how pain is like God: great and hurting and incomprehensible. How all those days and months and years are rendered irrelevant by the careful hands of a surgeon, and even God is no longer there with you and you stand small and naked, confused and abandoned, the world an impenetrable dark, and all you have in place of understanding is human love, the kind that is given to you. Go figure.