Student Side

By Sarah Coogan '02 / July / August 1999
November 12th, 2007

The color beige is the only one I can see in the hospital. The walls, the floors, even the doctors appear to be this color. I hear no distinct sounds, only a low mumble. My father's room is full of shadows; the windowshade is partially drawn. Sitting on the windowsill is the jar with the red expanding-foam dinosaur in it. The dinosaur has grown since I last saw it. I run to hug my father, and I remember: not too hard, because he has something in his chest. (Years later I would learn that something's name: a Hickman catheter.) He tells me he will try his best to come home. I assume that means he'll make it.

I don't remember the words my mother chose to tell me that my father had died of acute leukemia. She was sitting on their bed, her legs outstretched, and her eyes were red and puffy. She motioned for me to come near her. I remember that as she tried to explain what a coffin was, my five-year-old mind began to picture a large black traveling trunk with withered leather straps and a tarnished gold lock. I became concerned that my father would not fit inside. He was tall to most people, and in my eyes his legs seemed never-ending. I loved accompanying him to the track for his evening run: he seemed almost godlike, so powerful and strong, so graceful in his motion. Those long legs that carried him around the track would never fit inside the coffin that I imagined.

My father never acted as though he might be seeing me for the last time when I visited him in the hospital. I would sit on his bed, the lower half of my face covered by a mask, and he would ask me questions about my friends and my day at kindergarten. I don't remember seeing him cry. I will never understand how he was able to shield his sorrow from my sister and me; after all, we were the reminders of birthdays and graduations, of the life he was leaving behind.

In his childhood my father would spend hours recreating famous battles with miniature lead soldiers. I imagine him carefully researching a battle and then meticulously placing each soldier on his mock battlefield as the history book dictated. Not until he was lying in a hospital bed years later would he learn the true tactics of war. No books told him what battle strategy to pursue, or where to place the troops. My father was a solitary, untrained soldier thrown into combat without a plan of attack or the knowledge of how to fight.

As an architect he was familiar with the challenge of finding elegance in the simple form and function of a building, but the existential crisis he was experiencing forced him to confront his most difficult design problem - finding the meaning in his life. When faced with his own mortality, what emerged was his simple and pure loyalty and commitment to my mother, my sister, and me. It was the strength and depth of this love that kept him from raising the white flag in surrender to his disease.

When I was five and experiencing the physical death of my father, I could only focus on my pain and on missing him. I had no room for my father's suffering in my grief. I knew that he loved me and that it was not his choice to leave, yet a decade passed before I began to understand the extent of his love. At five I worshipped him because he built giant towers out of blocks with me, taught me to pilfer all the sugarcoated raisins from a box of Raisin Bran, and told me stories while lying next to me at bedtime. Older now, what I admire most is the strength he showed when faced with his own death.

My father had a passion for architecture, fly fishing, hot fudge sundaes, superb wine, and anything Italian; he had an eye for beauty. Yet it was in a hospital with beige walls, floors, and doctors, in a room full of shadows, that my father designed and passed on his most exquisite set of blueprints. He realized for himself and taught me that love and loyalty are the most important values a person can hold. Perhaps my father discovered this while gazing at his hospital windowsill, where the jar containing the red expanding foam dinosaur sat, placed there as a gift of love by his children.

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Related Issue
July / August 1999