While I wait at my father’s bedside I read Cormac McCarthy’s first book, The Orchard Keeper, published in 1965, the year after I was born. It is a bit of a vigil. There is something peaceful about watching the shadows change as the day progresses. A yellowish glow tints the scene as the day goes on. All the while in the background the wind whooshes and whirs about the building. We are on the seventh floor of the hospital, up under the roof, and there is a view of sail boats on the Swan, like folded paper napkins. Another woman waits and watches too. She has the title of PSA but I don’t know what it stands for. Her job is to sit and watch the demented, the wanderers, the ones who might decide to get out of bed and fall. She reads a thick book but she is close to finishing. I can tell it’s a romance from its cover; a damsel in the arms of an officer. The thin waisted beauty leans back but he traps her in his strong arms, moves his rock jaw close to her cheek.
My father is asleep. He has had a subdural bleed. Sandwiched between skull and brain there is blood. Now we wait. They check his eyes for light responses, lifting his lids like raising the morning blinds. He sleeps on.
Over pages the character from McCarthy’s book, Sylder, is in a physical fight for his life with a man he has given a lift to. It is 1933. They are fighting by the stationary Ford car on a dirt road. The man has struck the first blow, striking him with the car jack. The killing takes pages. One paragraph I read over;
“He was jerking at the man’s head but the man had both hands over it and seemed lost in speculation upon the pebbles on the road. Sylder let his hand relax and wander through the folds of the neck until they arrived at the throat. The man took that for a few minutes, then suddenly twisted sideways, spat in Sylder’s face, and tried to wrench himself free. Sylder rolled with him and had him then flat backward in the road and astride him, still the one arm swinging from his broken shoulder like a rope. He crept forward and placed one leg behind the man’s head, elevating it slightly, looking like some hulking nurse administering to the wounded. He pushed the head back into the crook of his leg, straightened his arm, and bore down upon the man’s neck with all his weight and strength. The boneless looking face twitched a few times but other than that showed no change of expression, only the same rubbery look of fear, speechless and uncomprehending, which Sylder felt was not his doing either but the everyday look of the man. And the jaw kept coming down not on any detectable hinges but like a mass of offal, some obscene waste matter congealing and collapsing in slow folds over the web of his hand. It occurred to him then that the man was trying to bite him and this struck him as somehow so ludicrous that a snort of laughter wheezed in his nose. Finally the man’s hands came up to rest on his arm, the puffy fingers trailing over his own hand and wrist reminding him of baby possums he had seen once, blind and pink.”
But still the man is not dead. He takes another page to finally succumb to the brutal force of Sylder. Finally extinguished the man relaxed “his hand and the fingers contracted, shriveling into a tight claw, like a killed spider.”
How hard he fights to hang onto life. How hard is it to die? Even old Dad seems to struggle on inwardly. Inside is he at war, dueling in hand to hand combat to hang on and not die? To emerge the victor.
The vivid richness of McCarthy gets me thinking about murder. I imagine bringing the pillow down, like in so many movies. I think of Francis. So many teenage tears shed watching Jessica Lang turn vegetable. Maybe the guard is here to protect Dad from me and what I might do faced with the diagnosis just given; “he might be starting to pass away.”
Lying in his hospital bed the nurse comes to clean his teeth, no matter that he is sleeping, or at least mimics it. No matter that clean teeth no longer seem a priority. She asks him to open his mouth and he obeys. He has three teeth that she cleans with a bicarb swab rotating it around his mouth. When he’s had enough he bites down on it and attempts to draw it away from her. I think of a dog at tug of way. Ok you’ve had enough of that I see, she says. Give it up. The toothless gums hold the brush and then he lets go. He has won this fight. She retreats.
He sleeps on.