I hadn’t touched my father’s face, except to kiss him hello or goodbye, since I was a baby. Babies always explore the people they love — pulling noses, putting a finger on a lip or an eye, patting cheeks — but I outgrew that stage and Dad was always moving too fast.
In the darkened ICU room, watching him breathe, I stroked his cheeks, felt the softness of his white whiskers, explored the contours of the furrows in his cheeks, the smoothness of his forehead. I admired the shape of his nose and prayed for his hazel eyes to open. I could see my grandma and my aunt in his face.
The area on the left side of his head where the stroke happened felt cool under my fingertips; there was a little bump — probably a skin tumor. I remembered he had a bump on that side when I was 9 or 10. It grew slowly larger and larger, so he went to the doctor to have it removed. After it was removed, the doctor performed a biopsy of the mass and found a piece of a nettle bush embedded in the tissue. Dad had flown down a hill on his bike when he was four and ended up in a stinging nettle bush. It had taken 32 years to work its way back out. Perhaps there was still a piece left in the bump under my fingers.
The whiskers were three or four days old, past the scratchy stage. He was never interested in shaving and, on weekends, he put it off. My mother would protest, but before he shaved, he would chase me around the house to give me sandpaper kisses as I shrieked. Once, he grew a beard for a Wild and Wooly contest in celebration of our town’s centennial. I don’t remember if he won, but he had a lot of fun. His patients must have wondered at his appearance, but some of them were probably growing beards too.
His lips were soft. I didn’t linger over them; they were pushing air out as if he were running instead of lying tethered to a hospital bed. His lips were always moving, even when someone else was talking — as if he were rehearsing their words, repeating them under his breath so he could remember for later. He did remember and each joke or story he heard was added to his abundant repertoire to be pulled out later and shared with family, friends, coworkers and complete strangers. After the stroke, he couldn’t talk; he couldn’t even swallow.
The age spots like giant freckles on his forehead felt no different than the rest of his skin. Under the skin, behind the bone of his skull, did his brain still remember? Dad could recall the first and last names of every person in his stories, even if he was telling stories about growing up at Lake Elsinore 70 years ago. He took a boat to school instead of a bus and waterskied like a champion.
His amazing memory got him through school without having to do much actual studying. Even in college, all he had to do was open a text book, look at the diagrams and read the text once and he would remember all the information. It frustrated my mother who always had to study hard, as did Dad’s self-taught ability to draw and paint. When he attended my school conferences, he always covered the chalkboard with pictures of Goofy, Mickey and Donald. My classmates were delighted, but I was always a bit embarrassed.
The furrows in his gaunt cheeks were like little canyons — like the canyons along the Yuba and Bear rivers where he took us kids fishing, looking for quiet spots where the water moved slowly. He parked us on a big boulder with our poles and instructed us to stay put or the fish wouldn’t bite. Dad picked a spot down a little ways from us to begin his fishing, but in 10 minutes, he’d move somewhere more promising; then he’d move again and still again. My brothers would wait until Dad was out of sight and then they moved to other spots too. I just enjoyed the boulder and the sun. At the end of the day, I would have caught fish and Dad and my brothers would have stories about how they almost caught the biggest fish in the river.
The nurses and doctors at the hospital don’t know what a jokester Dad was. Every time I got that 2 a.m. call to the emergency room, I’d arrive, frightened out of my sleep, to see nurses and aides laughing. He’d have told them a joke or made a smart alec remark despite his fear and pain — his coping mechanism.
Days later, his only responsive hand caught my hand as it traversed his cheek. He pulled my hand to his lips and kissed it, saying goodbye.
Wendy Schultz is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. Her column appears bi-weekly.