I brought the rice up to my father on the bright yellow bed tray we served all his meals on. My mother added a tall glass of ice-cold water, which he'd requested at the last minute. When I walked into the room, my father's face lit up, his eyes sparkling with anticipation. He was wrapped in three heavy comforters, which were doing the work that muscle and fat had once done for his body.
As I leaned over to place the tray in front of him, the forward sway of my body spilled the chilled water right onto his chest and lap. The water soaked through the comforters and into my father's pajamas.
My father let out a loud cry. I quickly pulled the tray aside and rested it on the dresser across from his bed. Even as he moaned and tried to wriggle away from the wet comforters, his eyes trailed the plate of rice that was now cooling off just a few feet away.
My mother heard my father's screams and hurried to his rescue. She quickly peeled back the sheets, all the while shouting for me to get her a towel and dry pajamas from the closet.
My father's pained utterances quickly went from moans to wails.
"Oh, God!" he called out tearfully. Because of his illness, he was oversensitive to the cold and must have felt as though he were being drowned in an icy lake.
My mother removed his pajamas and patted him down with the towel. In addition to the fibrosis in his lung, my father suffered from psoriasis, which covered large portions of his skin with dried scaly patches. This was the first and only time I'd seen my father naked. Not only was his body bared but his carefully hidden lesions were, too.
An hour later, he was still shivering under three dry comforters. It took some oxygen and a nebulizer to stabilize him again. By then the rice was cold and he showed no desire for it.
"I'm sorry, Papa," I said.
"It was an accident." He raised one bony hand from under the blankets to grab mine. "I know you didn't mean to do it."
"I ruined the rice for you," I said. "I know how much you wanted it."
He hesitated, then pressed my hand harder.
"I didn't want it so much as I wanted to want it," he said. "The truth is, I don't feel hungry or thirsty anymore. I just wish I did."
It pained me much more to hear this than to hear him saying the day before that he'd dreamed of long-dead relatives standing at his bedside. It pained me more than the way he introduced nearly every sentence with "When I'm gone." I remembered being angry at him the previous Thanksgiving when he surveyed the feast at our family dinner table and curtly declared, "There's nothing here I can eat." After cooking for two days, my mother had been devastated. What we didn't know, however, and what my father himself had no idea of at the time, was that the disease was slowly eating away at his body's yearning for food and quickly wiping out his reliance on it.
Sitting with him that night after the water spill, holding his hand, I could smell it before we saw it—a new batch of long-grain white rice prepared by my mother. This time she brought it up herself, and not on the bed tray but on a round silver server from the special cabinet. My father raised himself on the bed to receive it, and as soon as my mother handed him the spoon—for he always ate his rice with a spoon—he immediately dove in. He barely chewed at all, simply bouncing the grains from cheek to cheek, then swallowing quickly. Had I not known, I would have thought him famished, ravenous, even insatiable. And perhaps he was. Or maybe he was desperately trying to nourish himself with something recognizable and familiar.
We Hear You!