It was late November, and I was visiting my parents. Dad was asleep in a rented hospital bed in my sister’s old room; he was dying of lung cancer. Mom and I talked over coffee at the kitchen table. I told her about a hospice, how they would come and help out a few times a week. She lit a cigarette and I watched the ashes form and fall to the table, until at last she put it out without having taken a single drag.
“You’ll have to get some help for him here,” I said. I knew how these things worked; I was a nurse and dealt with dying people every day.
My mother just folded her shoulders into her chest. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”
I hated to hear her whine. My leg jiggled impatiently under the table. I had found a doctor for my father, had translated for my mother when the doctor told us what he’d found while operating on my dad’s head. I had been there when they discovered the site of origin — the lungs — and through all the radiation treatments. I was tired, too; yet there she was looking at me as if my being a nurse could solve the problem, as if I could tell her it was all going to be OK.
I got up to take our coffee cups to the sink. Out the window I could see the gigantic ash tree I’d climbed during the summers and, nearby, Zipper’s old doghouse, falling apart now, a dusting of snow covering the roof, and the bare patch where he’d worn away the grass with his body. Beyond that was the field, fallow for several years. My parents had given up planting and harvesting in favor of snorkeling in the Florida Keys. When we were kids, my sister and I would help plant the corn. My dad was always particular about our planting the seeds one at a time, but sometimes I would get lazy and just dump the seeds by the handful and use my feet to cover them with soil. He always knew, though he’d pretend to be puzzled when the corn grew up in tight bunches and he had to go out and thin the seedlings.
I heard my dad stir in the bedroom, and I knew I would have to go in there, where the shades were drawn so he could sleep, and the air smelled of cancer, of Dermassage lotion, of a body that had gone too long without a real bath. I went in, carrying a book I had brought for him. It was ridiculous, my wanting him to read a book about how to cope with cancer when he could hardly eat.
He said, “I can’t cut my fingernails anymore. Look at how long they are,” and held up his hands for me to see.
I set the book down and turned on a light next to his bed. His fingernails were thick and white. I had never seen them that way before. His fingers were slender and soft, the knuckles smooth from not working. I went to the bathroom and found a pair of nail scissors. Now I had something I could do, instead of just sitting there unable to say anything. I began at his thumb, cutting the curved nails one by one, holding his hand in mine, trying to remember if he had ever held my hand. Maybe I had just forgotten all the times, remembering instead his bad temper and how I was often in the way of it.
Nothing moved except his chest lightly rising and falling, and his eyes as he watched the glint of the scissors rounding each finger. I caught each nail before it fell and set it on the table next to the bed. When I was finished, he watched as I brushed them all into my hand and threw them away.