My dad’s decline was rapid and dizzying: He bounced from a routine chemo visit to an outpatient transfusion to the ER to a hospital room to the ICU in the course of 12 hours on a Thursday a few weeks before Christmas. We’d driven to his oncologist’s office for a morning appointment, telling his wife we’d be back by lunch with plans to catch a matinee of Brooklyn that afternoon, unaware he would not be coming home again.
My dad’s new wife and I spent the days that followed by his bedside, spelling each other as we padded down the hall in our socks to make calls to the people who wanted progress reports or whose voices we needed to hear most.
My sister flew in to Chicago for the weekend, a long-planned trip to see dad in his recovery from a recent cyber knife brain treatment that had drawn me there as well, a visit that went swimmingly by all accounts but may simply have been too much for him. My sister’s presence perked him up and on Sunday he seemed much like his old self, chatting and eating full meals and lemon meringue besides. She sat next to him and they watched football on TV and laughed about the players and swapped details about the game.
She was hard pressed to see the dying man I’d described. There were moments I found myself sulking in the corner when I thought of how his blood pressure had spiked to 225 over 110 and panic lit his eyes and I’d climbed in his bed at 4 a.m. I’d pushed tubes aside and stroked his face and told him I loved him and heard his words that sounded a thousand miles away through the bipap mask: “It’s not that I loved your sister more, we just had more time together,” and I had nodded and said I understood and it was all okay except now he seemed fine, only he wasn’t.
I took my sister to the airport Sunday afternoon. By the time I got back to the hospital he was slurring his words, something he hadn’t done before.
By Monday he’d taken a nose dive. He was convinced he was a prisoner and the nurses were his jailers. He took swings at the staff and called them bastards. When I walked into his room at 3 a.m., summoned by the nurse who’d called the house asking if a family member could please come help, he looked at me with wild eyes and ordered, “Gemme outta here!” A few minutes later, calmer: “Jill,” he nodded toward the door, “lezz go home.” When he saw in my eyes that even I couldn’t spring him, he growled all too clearly, “Then I’ll kill myself!,” words that earned him 24-hour suicide watch. From that point on he would not be left alone; we’d have a string of companions assigned to sit at his bedside in eight-hour shifts to make sure he didn’t off himself when no one was looking.
I brought his wife of 11 weeks back to the hospital mid-morning; she told me to stay at the house and get some rest but I couldn’t. I made myself some eggs and drove the mile back to the hospital by noon.
Around 2 p.m. I told his wife that I would go down to the Starbucks on the first floor and get us coffees. Not just any coffee; I told her we should each drink a lucky “flat white” for him, and she agreed.
For years I’ve associated flat whites with my dad. It’s the Australian equivalent to a latte. My globetrotting sister used to work in Melbourne, and my dad and I each made separate trips to visit her while she lived there. On her advice we each read Bill Bryson’s In A Sunburned Country on the long flights south to get the lay of the land. Bryson explains you order coffee in Australia by different names than in America, using terms like “short black” and “long black.” If you like milk or cream in your coffee, you’re best off ordering a “flat white,” Bryson advised; my dad did so and loved them and I followed suit. And just last January, Starbucks began offering a flat white.
So in honor of my dad I went down to the hospital Starbucks like a woman on a mission: I would order two flat whites and bring them back to his room and share my cup with him in hopes of reminding him who he was.
But the mission pushed me to the verge of weepy. I made my way down the serpentine corridors to the café near the oncologist’s office where we’d begun our journey, emotion pushing just beneath the surface.
As I stepped up to the counter before the slight, ponytailed woman at the register, the sentimentality and silliness and weight of the errand hitched my heart, and it was all I could do to get the first word in my order out:
“Two…” I started, then stopped, my voice caught somewhere in my throat,
“tall….” I managed, and now the tears were forming, hanging heavy in my lids. It took everything I had to choke out the next word,
“flat…” and I could see kindness in the barista’s eyes and that made the tears spill over and drip onto my fingers clutching my wallet,
“whites,” I croaked, and then my throat clamped shut altogether.
Thank god she understood me because I could not have said them again. I stood there at the counter staring unseeing at the bottles of syrups along the wall. Not quite crying, not together either. She passed along the order to her partner behind the counter before turning to me to ask, “Can I get you a glass of water?”
I tried to nod, to say “yes please,” but the words would not come out at all. She mistook my tortured sounds for “no.” I realized as the promised water didn’t appear that I didn’t need water after all; I needed two magic flat whites that might somehow restore my father’s mind to him, restore his sanity, his clarity, his dignity. Do what the doctors couldn’t: Bring him back.
I carried the coffees back to his room and gave one to his wife. I took sips of mine, and after the nurse left the room I offered the cup to my dad.
“Da,” he nodded, reaching for it, and before I knew it he drained the cup.
My sister flew back to Chicago the next day, barely making it out of Denver in a snowstorm. By then he was largely incoherent and his hands drifted across the covers, reaching for things that weren’t there. I led the way to Starbucks at two that afternoon.
“Two flat whites?” the woman behind the counter smiled sweetly.
“Yes, please,” I smiled, grateful she remembered. We took our drinks to the counter and sat on stools by the window facing the parking lot.
“Does it strike you as odd,” I asked my sister, “that a terminal cancer patient with days left to live is on a 24-hour suicide watch?”
She nearly spit out her coffee. We laughed until our shoulders shook and tears ran down our cheeks. We shook our heads in disbelief and drank our tall flat whites that had no chance of saving our father but might have saved something in us, at least, and maybe that was enough.