[img_assist|nid=6815|title=Self Portrait, Health by Janice Hayes-Cha © 2010|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=259]On Saturdays, we folded paper boats. With his sleeves rolled, he stood beside the pond creasing triangles, corner to corner, his reflection rippling in the water. He sailed his boat, forced breaths propelling it, keeping it afloat. He counted the seconds before it sank, dissolving to pulp.
On Sunday mornings he made egg sandwiches. In his old blue robe, he stood at the stove, the sizzle of butter in a frying pan. He cracked open eggshells on the rim of a bowl, never breaking the yolk. While cheese melted on a Kaiser, he sliced the pork roll thin, hot grease popping in a second pan.
After breakfast, he took us to the park, my sister and me. In cut-off jeans, he stood behind the swings pushing us both at once. Higher, we howled. He snuck drags, and exhaled smoke between pushes. We pumped our feet, pointing soles toward the sky, leaning back, mouths wide open, catching the wind. The count of three: our two bodies, all angles and limbs, arcing through the air.
I dug tunnels and moved plastic molded army men around in piles of dirt. I conquered fortresses, soldiers surrendering in the late afternoon sun. On my bicycle, I jumped over ditches as deep as canyons and taught myself to ride with no hands. I fell chin first into a gravel pit. Don’t you cry, he said, so I taught myself to hold back tears.
I learned to throw a ball, to catch whatever came at me, to bat left-handed better than the boys. I learned how to spit, until my mother scolded me. I stockpiled crabapples in the yard and hurled them across the street at the neighbor’s fort, hitting it every time. Don’t get caught, he said, so I learned how to disappear.
I launched rockets and climbed the tallest trees. I built a slingshot and took aim at rabbits and squirrels when they got close. I caught fireflies and plucked the light organs from their bodies, smearing the bioluminescence on my face like war paint. From the window of the house on Bridge Street, he saw me.
On the day my father came home from Nazareth Hospital, at his request, I took a pair of scissors to his hair. In one hand, I held the fine-toothed comb lifting the strands of hair away from his scalp while with the other hand I opened the scissors, closing them like metal jaws, one sliding past the other, tufts of white falling onto his shoulders and the bed sheets, some drifting down to settle on my shoes.
In this same way, I trimmed the long wiry hairs of his eyebrows then reached carefully into the moist caverns of his nostrils with the tips of the twin blades. With each snip, he looked to me for comfort, searching with boyish eyes for a sign that it was almost over.
With my fingers still wrapped around the handles, I scissored the blades together, slicing them through the air, one half-grazing the other, a single silver screw allowing the simultaneous gesture of the object’s purpose and my intent.
At fifty-one, a massive stroke had left my father a hemiplegic. One arm, one leg, frozen at his side, no longer could he command either to move, to support his weight, to take him from one place to another. To bend. To wave. To hug. To hold on.
I was twenty-one when it happened. I spent my days conferring with doctors, my sleepless nights with bottomless cups of coffee and music blaring from headphones covering my ears. Springsteen screamed anthems of growing up and getting out, and here I was faced with knowing I needed to stay, to care, to piece together some kind of future for myself in Philadelphia, my father’s city, his family tracing its roots along the narrow, shadowy streets for more than a century.
When I finished cutting my dad’s hair, I began dressing him, starting first with a long white pair of socks. I rolled them in my hands then unrolled them onto his feet, the left foot first.
“Aaahhh,” he screamed, the sound dragging out longer than it should, a high-pitched, impulsive wail. “You’re hurting my toes.”
They curled under like commas, rigid and deformed, the nails brittle and yellow.
I slid the left leg first into the pair of pants, then followed with the right. As he lay there, wordless and still, I pulled the zipper up, aware of the two rows of teeth dovetailing together. My father stared upward, his body a horizontal plane, now parallel to floor and ceiling.
I pulled his shirt over his head and worked to maneuver his left arm into the sleeve. Misshapen and stiff, it clung tightly to his chest. New at this, I did not know the order in which I was supposed to be dressing him. I did not want to be dressing him at all. And I sensed my dad’s frustration. With his right hand, he clutched the forearm of his left, lifting it then letting it fall hard against his body.
The phone call came in the middle of the afternoon. My father sounded child-like, pleading for help, trying, though, not to alarm me. I urged him to call 911, offered to call for him.
“Please,” he begged. “Just come over and help me up. I’ll be fine once you get me back in bed.”
Every single day, I worried that he might fall. Physical therapists had helped him to walk again, but he was far from steady. He clutched a hemi-cane in his right hand, his left arm tightly fastened in a sling against his body. He stepped with the right leg and commanded the left to follow, a sliding motion more than an actual step. He lived at home with my mother, who now needed to work full-time. My dad’s days were spent alone, the television his constant companion. I stopped by frequently, drove him to physical therapy appointments, but he quickly became cut-off from the world outside his little house.
I drove fast, arriving to find him on the floor beside his bed, his left leg pinned between the bed and the wheelchair. I moved the wheelchair out of the way. He wanted me to lift him, to put him back in bed so we could simply pretend he had not fallen.
“Hook your arms under mine,” he pleaded. “I’ll help you by pivoting my body toward the bed.”
But his leg was twisted in a way that made me know I should not move him. And even if his leg had not been twisted, there was no way I could lift my father alone. He was six-feet tall and outweighed me by at least eighty pounds. I dialed
At first, he seemed angry with me. I apologized more than once, then folded myself onto the floor beside him. I lay down facing him, eye to eye. As I extended my hand toward his, he reached out and squeezed my fingers. He did not let go.
“Remember that 1980 Phillies team, Dad? Think you can name all the players?”
I turned it into a challenge.
“Mike Schmidt,” he said first. “Greg Luzinski. Tug McGraw.” He went on to name the entire line-up. The paramedics arrived just as he finished the list.
I stood out of the way as the two men in uniforms hoisted my father onto a gurney, their strong backs facing me. Sweat trickled down my dad’s temples. “Don’t drop me,” he said, more than once, his voice quivering. With his right hand, he held on tightly to one man’s arm, his fingers clenched, sinking into fabric and flesh. Both men reassured him, their kind words and respect for my father filling my eyes with tears.
I climbed up into the ambulance and listened to the wail of the siren as we sped through intersections along Cottman Avenue, watching as the two men began assessing their patient—blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation. “Caucasian male, mid-fifties,” one announced into the radio transmitter. After the final stretch on the Boulevard, we arrived at Nazareth. Once again.
From off to the side where I sat, I saw him. I saw my father folding paper boats, cooking breakfast in his blue robe, pushing my sister and me on the swings. When the ambulance stopped, the two men lifted the gurney out onto the sidewalk. The count of three: his body, a single motionless plane, arcing through the air.
Kristina Moriconi is working toward an MFA degree at the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA. Her work has appeared most recently in The Shine Journal, apt, Verbsap, and Opium. Her connection to Philadelphia became increasingly meaningful after her father’s death just before the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. She has begun an extensive research project tracing his family history and has decided to stay here even longer.