I eased the door open, and swallowing hard, made myself look up and towards the bed. The light from the bedside lamp spread across the blankets. He’d gotten so small that it was hard to tell there was anyone beneath the covers. I could see his eyes flutter open, and I watched as he turned his head slowly in my direction.
“Hi,” I whispered as I approached the bed. “How do you feel?” I continued, searching for words and realizing that was probably the wrong thing to say.
“Everything hurts,” my father replied in a soft, faraway voice.
I swallowed again and forced the tears that were ready to spill from my eyes to stay where they were, just below my lower eyelids.
“I’m sorry. I wish it didn’t,” I said. It was an inadequate response. “Happy birthday,” I continued. I stood at the foot of the bed.
“Thank you,” he said, a brief, small smile passing across his face.
All I wanted was to run from the room, but instead I reached down and smoothed the covers at the corner with my left hand and then I sat carefully, afraid that any movement would make his pain worse. His tired gaze rested on me.
“I have a present for you,” my voice cracked, and I hoped he didn’t notice.
I’d spent the previous week wondering what to do- whether to give him a gift or not. I’d spent an hour that afternoon wandering the aisles of a nearby bookstore. It had been our tradition. Every birthday I gave him a book. He gave me books too, all my life. He’d introduced me to Eudora Welty, John Updike, Peter Taylor and more. I wasn’t ready to call it quits. I wasn’t ready to admit this was the last time. He’d never even read the book. But I had to give it to him.
He looked up, and his eyes rested on the book on my lap. I held up Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage. It had just been published, and I knew that if he wasn’t dying this was a book he would read.
“Ah,” he croaked. “The reviews have been good.”
“Yes, ” I replied. “I thought you might like it.”
“You’re welcome. I hope you like it.” I turned away and with the back of my hand quickly brushed away the tear that had escaped from my right eye.
And then we sat, in silence, until he dozed off. I reached forward and set the book down on the bedside table, under the lamp and stood up, trying not to move the bed.
I walked to the door, staring at the floor, listening to his rattled breaths. Maybe I would read the book first, I thought.