Loyal by Laura Valeri

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My father and mother: married fifty years, divorced five. My father’s long-ago sweetheart; a letter, a short-lived affair.

He gives her half of his money and the beach-front condo. He moves into a smaller one in the same neighborhood. He can see her building from his window, points it out to me when I go visit.

They see each other every Sunday, after Mass, at their favorite chain. Sometimes, he proposes they marry again. Most times, she storms out after he denies the affair, the incriminating letter. They meet again, the next Sunday, or the one after that.

For the last two years of my father’s life, my mother, every day, cooks all his favorites, minestrone, apple tart, onion frittata. She delivers his lunch in a glass container at noon, and trades it for the dirty empty one of the day before. Sometimes she brings him a quart of milk from the grocery store. He saves quarters and singles to reimburse her for the $3 parking valet.

For the last two years of his life, my father calls my mother every morning when he wakes up and every night before he goes to bed. He asks her what plans she has for the day. He encourages her to go to the pool when she’s depressed. He gives her financial advice. He offers to drive her to the doctor, or to the mechanic when her car breaks down. He buys her flowers on Mother’s Day.

She has diabetes. His kidneys are failing.

She has a cyst on her liver. He’s plagued by a tremor, the onset of Parkinson’s.

An MRI reveals melanoma in his lungs and liver. The diagnosis is uploaded onto his digital record on the day he is scheduled for dialysis access surgery. The hospital cancels the procedure while my father is already in the waiting room. “Call your doctor,” they tell him, no other explanations.

The urologist doesn’t answer my father’s call. The oncologist’s earliest appointment is two months away.

No one will tell my father the obvious: he’s dying. Better by kidney failure than metastasized melanoma in the liver and lungs. They decide for him which death is best without letting him know.

Long ago, the tremor in his hand took writing from him. Now, without dialysis, his tongue stumbles, words get stuck in his mouth, then explode out of shape.  A mix of English and his native Italian. “Gratta my ankles, please.” He itches all over.

When he collapses on his way to the bathroom at four in the morning, my sister, visiting from Italy, finds him and calls 911. An emergency treatment gives him back his speech, but it’s temporary. The hospital doctors are less circumspect: there is no point, they say, in having access surgery. His heart is too weak.

At first, he insists he is strong enough. When the nurse comes for a formal assessment, he forces himself out of bed and walks twenty feet leaning on his walker. He’s breathless, pale-faced when she tells him “enough,” and he collapses into a plastic chair in the hallway. I praise him. “You did good.” He shakes his head, having understood something I haven’t yet.

Later, the surgeon tells my mother, “It is cruel to give him hope.” He leans close to my father’s face, nearly shouting, “You really want surgery? You could be stuck in a coma, with tubes down your throat. You want to do that to your family?” If he goes home now, he tells my mother, he won’t even feel it. He’ll slip away in sleep.

It’s a lie.

It takes him five days. Just in time for my brother to fly in from Denver and to watch a soccer game with him, holding his hand.

On his first night at home he asks me if he’s still at the hospital. He looks at the wraparound view in his condo’s bedroom, eyes wide and nodding. “Mine?”

He can only speak in short bursts. When the hospice caretaker is done towel-washing him, he asks my sister, “Ready?”

“For what?” she says.

“The funeral,” he says.

He must be spoon-fed. He refuses milk, soft cheese, my mother’s home-made broth. He eats only chocolate pudding and tiramisu.

Morphine won’t soothe the itching. My sister and I take turns through the night rubbing his skin with CBD cream, but touching hurts him. His lungs, filling with water, won’t let him rest. The itching keeps him awake. He nods off, then startles awake, his weak voice crying, “gratta, please, there,” a shaking finger pointed at a foot, or a shin.

On the third day, only hours before his lungs will fill with water and suffocate him, he says, “It’s a terrible world.” We gather around his bed. “The whole family is here,” we reassure him. He seems lost looking at me, then at my sister. “And Mother?” His voice is a whisper. “Right here,” my mother says, touching his hand. He turns to her, struck, mouth gaping. Then, “Come sei bella.” How beautiful you are.

 

Laura Valeri is the author of three short story collections and a book of essays. Her most recent work, After Life as a Human, an ecological memoir, was released in November 2021 with Rain Chain Press. Laura Valeri’s essays, stories, translations, and critical essays are widely published, most recently in South85 Journal, Assay, Santa Fe Writers Quarterly, Fiction Southeast, PRIMS, and others. She teaches creative writing at Georgia Southern University and is the founding editor of Wraparound South, a journal of southern literature.

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