FATHERS AND SONS
I have in my wallet a Red Cross card, my blood donor card, and the record and the total amount of my donations over time. Spots of time. Squeezing a rubber ball, cookies and orange juice. It’s two gallons and a bit more, which means if I look in the refrigerator it’s about the same as two of those gallon milk cartons and a half-pint of whipping cream. Helping to save a life for those in need of transfusions, that spot of time in which someone who needs blood or blood products receives from a donor that which is life-saving. Advertising.
December of every year I think about this. My own father had his cancer diagnosed late 1967 and the surgery: esophageal cancer, an error or DNA mutation that grows and invades nearby “structures,” liver, diaphragm and such. Nothing could be done except take him home and make him comfortable for the short time left. The doctors called it “palliative care.” I remember sitting there with that doctor, just the two of us, and he was very precise about my role: care for his worries and fears, smile, touch, and above all, be positive. Be a good son….
Spots of time: December 24th, 1967, my mother and my sister and I left the hospital. I looked up and he was at the window and gave me a soft wave. Christmas Eve it was and that soft wave has over time become one of the best gifts I’ve ever had even if I didn’t know it at the time. We hadn’t eaten. Places were closed. The Greyhound Bus Station was open and the three of us sat there like nighthawks.
We had the same blood type, my old father and I, which I’ve come to think of these days in larger ways than simple compatibility. He had jaundice as a child and thus was not a donor. Here’s the issue then:
There’s this stuff called hemoglobin which has to have a certain level if a patient is to have a good “outcome.” And surgery, which is what it is, means that blood vessels are cut during surgery and such requires clamping or cautery or ligature. Things can happen. I imagine it’s a bit like going for a run and then just when things seem to be going along well, well, time to stop and tie one’s shoe.
We had him home, my old father, and he woke and sat up and began actively hemorrhaging from his mouth, very dark and copious, enough to cover the entire front of his white t-shirt, vomiting. His face was white, unshaven, and the look in his eyes was the look of shock as he sat on the side of the bed. Loss of blood, loss…. Bleeders they’re called.
My mother and I cleaned him and helped him dress. He was very weak and so terribly apologetic about the mess. The doctor had been called and we drove him west to the small town hospital, the same place in which my tonsils had been removed and oddly the same room in which my grandmother had passed away, gone to be with God. And checked him in.
As it was, though, there was a shortage of blood out there and although the doctor, our old family friend, could stop the bleeding, somehow, coagulants I guess, there didn’t seem to be a way to replace what had been lost, except through time. And that for the moment was scarce, time that is.
But I remember standing there in that hospital room, that spot of time, with my father in that hospital bed, resting, but weak and still white, and the doctor, old Doctor Carlson, looking at me and then asked whether I knew my blood type. As it was, we were a match.
The nurses wheeled in another bed and there we were, my old dad and I, bed to bed, my arm close to his arm. I watched as my blood flowed a good pint or more into my father’s arm.
It can be done, you know, direct transfusion, my artery to his vein, carefully from my artery in my wrist, what’s called the radial, to a vein in his arm. I suppose it was physical, very medical and all of that, but if metaphysics is a guide to morals my good sense tells me there was also something spiritual and this a year or so before my having read Kant’s “Metaphysics of Morals.”
And even then, well, even then so much gets lost in the language what with words likes “supererogatory.” It’s awkward, you see: One cannot say that there is a moral obligation for healthy people to give parts of their bodies to the sick. If so, well, imagine the world in which we live in which sick people would own a right to the parts of healthy people’s bodies and could do what was necessary to enforce that right. Hypothetical, I know.
But blood is not a kidney, or a part of one’s liver, which can regenerate if I understand the issue. And if someone asked me if I had a moral obligation to my old father I would surely say “yes,” but I don’t know if I could itemize the reasons for the choice and the obligation. I can, though, recite it this way:
And his color came back, the white changing and then his eyes came awake and opened. Outside it was Minnesota winter and the night was cold and brittle, but inside that little hospital room something was happening, ephemeral, one of those things one never should give up or forget for any reason. I could not have explained it then and even now think of it only as a certain kind of celebration that allowed me and my old father to step out of time for a short while and be safe with one another, alone in that hospital room. It was as if some kind of life-giving pressure was flowing from my artery into his vein, pushing, shoving, demanding that he come back from where-ever his spirit was traveling, coming back.
Connected…. A few months prior we did what we always did when duck hunting opened. We had this spot, a flyway, between Augusta Lake and Thompson’s “slough.” There were two hills and a little vale in between. The ducks would maneuver from the lake to the slough and use that little vale as a sort of glide path. We had a blind and were hunkered down. The dog was ready, anxious, Big Jerry.
He was likely the best wing-shooter I ever knew or saw, as I’ve said before. But that day, all he did was bust holes in the sky. There was a lull for a bit. He was thinking. He gave me his gun, a Winchester Model 12 chambered for a 12-gauge, three inch magnum, a specialized model for Super Specials and Super X shells.
I watched him walk down that little hill and through that vale and to the car parked about a half-mile away where he sat and waited. It was the new trifocals was all but it was enough; with those three lenses, though, and one’s head moving up and down to focus and try to figure which of those three lenses was right and how does one shoot at three ducks at one time? What can a son do but share his father’s disappointment?
I have a picture somewhere likely taken from 1947, mid-summer. He’s wearing his working man’s clothes and a hat. I’m in diapers and he’s holding me in the air, and I’m frowning, I think, not yet a year old, not yet…. Not yet but would become a year old and then age ten and then on that day in December 1967 age twenty and a couple months away from becoming legal.
Father and son, and when I think back on these two spots of time, 1947 and the latter one late December 1967, the two spots come together, but this time I’m smiling and laughing and holding him in the air, him….
And it would be that way for a couple more months, on into February 1968, and that time I could no longer hold him in the air, and around 6:00 in the evening, the 26th and he went to be with God.
Father and son together that day, too. His breathing rasping through the oxygen mask and perspiration pooling in the hollows by his collar bone. The nurses had given me some soft towels and I dabbed them into those pools to absorb the salty water. Father and son.... He would now and again say something, audible, at least to me: “That’s no way to change tire!”
“That’s no way to stack bales of hay!”
“Come on Dan; break this game open. Just a single.” And then, oddly, he looked at me and said something I’ll never forget: “I bet you think I’m crazy, don’t you? Some day you’ll understand.”
If I could have given him breath that day I would, breath like blood. I guess there must have been some phlegm in his throat and he struggled for a bit to sit up. I was on the right side and my mother was on the left side and we helped him sit up. There was mirror on the wall and I think he could see himself in that mirror, his thin face, and eyes with that soldier’s thousand yard stare, battle weary, life weary, the start of some kind of dissociation, I guess, detachment.
Or maybe even just the right prepared moment to die. He looked at my mother and said, “We’ll always be making love.”
And then he gave it up life, spirit, soul because how much can a human being endure. I remember his muscles relaxing, his eyes dilating but I had my arms around him yet and so laid him back down since I could no longer hold him up which is what fathers do for sons and what sons do for fathers.
We laid him to rest on the 29th, a polished oak coffin. It was sunny that day and no wind. There was a flag draped on the coffin and a salute from his Legion Post friends, volley shots they’re called, honoring those who served. A bugler off in the corner of that little cemetery sounded taps, the final salute it’s called. There was the ceremony of folding the flag into that symbolic tri-cornered shape, folded thirteen times, this done by a good pair of boy scouts and one Legionnaire, and then that ceremonial handing of the flag to my mother in appreciation for my old father’s honorable and faithful service. And that’s how that day went.
A few days before my mother and I were gathering clothes we thought should be brought to the undertaker, properly dressed he should be before that ubiquitous thing called “the viewing.” She started to cry because nothing would fit, the cancer having done its business and such a loss of weight. I went to my own closet and came back with my brown herring bone three-piece suit, an ecru button-down shirt and paisley tie. The fit was perfect or so said the undertaker.
And that was that. He looked good for the “viewing,” even if a bit like a banker. I did one thing though: When a child my old father had lost the ends of two fingers on his left hand in a farming accident. He had been picking up corn ears and placing them in the elevator and two fingers were caught in the chain.
The undertaker had so placed my old father’s hands that the two fingers were hidden. I asked him to to re-arrange his hands. I don’t know why but it seemed to be the thing to do….
“…wistful hands across the canyon of time….”
For you are a trustworthy messenger
Cipher-stick of the lovely haired Muses,
Sweet mixing-bowl of loud-sounding song,
Pindar, Odes, “Olympian VI”
My father and I stand with a catch of fish,
Pike, long and slender, dark-green back-scales,
Sides mottled, yellow bellies smooth to touch.
I have a trolling rod; I unreel a bit of line.
My father hands me a dare-devil, red and white,
One side polished to a silver glitter; I remember
The warm day brought out hatches of mayflies
Dying in abundance to share our luck.
He fills his beer can, sinks it beneath the surface;
We have bread and cheese, sausage for lunch.
Things slip out of grasp, one order of things
Drops into that split vision memory gives us.
But that was long ago, so far away that now
I think of it as a dream I probably never had.
Daniel James Sundahl is Emeritus Professor in English and American Studies at Hillsdale College where he taught for thirty-three years.