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Dying Words

by Jacke Wilson

The hospice nurses were tender but busy, hurrying from room to room, and when they had shaved Farnsworth's father that morning they had missed a spot: two or three tiny white whiskers still stood in the crook of his lip. Hardly noticeable to anyone but Farnsworth, who'd spent the last four days standing next to the bed and studying his father's face.

The stubble bothered him. And yet what did it matter? What did anything? 

For hours on end, the old man slept or stared motionless at the ceiling. Now and then his lips parted and random words and phrases emerged. Other times his mouth moved without a sound. 

On rare occasions, a moment of lucidity arrived like a lightning flash and departed just as quickly, the clarified atmosphere giving way to the long stretches of silence, death encroaching on life like night stealing color from the day. 

After ten o'clock, when the facility had grown quiet, Farnsworth brought out the electric razor and took care of the imperfection himself, clipping the hairs and sweeping them away with his thumb. He combed his father's eyebrows, which had gotten craggy, and wiped the smears from his eyeglasses. 

The glasses hadn't been worn for days. Farnsworth rubbed them with his shirt sleeve anyway, like a monk performing a ritual. 

After he'd replaced the glasses on the side table, he looked into his father's eyes, those beautiful blue-gray eyes, the one aspect of his face that had not aged. The body was motionless, a tree felled by disease, but the searching eyes showed that the soul was still trying, still fighting, still attempting to make sense of surroundings and situation. Of existence itself, it seemed. 

His father cleared his throat; the sound echoed around the room. 

"My whole life, I defined myself in the negative..." 

The voice was barely above a whisper, yet it still contained a sharpness, like a razor blade in whipped cream. The note of embitterment reminded Farnsworth of his childhood.

"What do you mean, Dad?" 

"There was a war. I didn't go." 

"You had a college deferment." 

"Others protested. I didn't do that either."

"Well, okay," Farnsworth said. "And I've never circumnavigated the world in a hot-air balloon."

"Does no one understand?" his father said to the ceiling. "I spent my whole life standing apart. Not joining. Not being things. I wasn't an athlete or a musician or a straight-A student. I wasn't rich, I wasn't poor...not a churchgoer, not an atheist..."

"You were you. A human being, alive on this planet. A normal happy person."

His father didn't move. "I was surrounded by happy people," he said, "but I was never one of them." 

Farnsworth felt a heaviness settling into his shoulders. His spine ached. "Come on, Dad. After Mom left--" 

"Ah yes," his father said. "I wasn't a happily married man..." 

Farnsworth felt a righteous anger rising up inside him. "What's the point of all this, Dad? You raised me, didn't you? You fed me, you washed my clothes, you tucked me in at night. You taught me how to field a grounder and tie a tie. You taught me right from wrong, you helped me with math, you put me through college--my god, everything I am is because of you! You, my father!" 

He paused, breathing hard. 

"Your father," the old man said. 

"You say that like it's nothing! Well, it's not. And it's the one thing you can't define in the negative, whatever the hell that means, because you don't get to define it. I do. I get to decide who my father was. And it was you! For better or worse, it was you." 

Farnsworth's heart was racing, but his mind felt clear and light. His back no longer ached. 

"You've done things like this to me my whole life," he went on, "as if you were trying to defeat me. Guess what? This is one time you won't. You can't go out like this, leaving me to deal with the wreckage, because I'm not letting you. This time I win."

"I was a father," said the old man, his eyes flickering. "And you... You were my son..." 

His breathing grew labored. Farnsworth clasped his hand, feeling bone and skin but no strength.  

"Yes, Dad, your son," he said, as tears slid down his face. "Your son who loves you." 

With great effort, the old man inhaled a single breath. All the light drained from his eyes as he pushed out his final words:

"...but I always wanted a girl..."

About the Author

Jacke Wilson attended school at the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan. He currently lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where he hosts The History of Literature Podcast.

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