"Your son is on his way," says the nurse, fussing with the levers that control the height and angle of the bed. Like a bored ride operator at an amusement park, she cranks the bed up and cranks it down, pitches it forward, then a little back. "As I told you, Mr. Asper—five minutes ago when you asked the last time," she says, giving the bed one more jolt.
He was Dr. David Asper when he checked in, Mr. Asper now. So this is how he will die, he thinks, a title at a time.
A cold breeze forces its way into the room from the curtainless window and Dr. Asper shivers.
"More blankets, please."
But the nurse is frowning at a chart on a clipboard that hangs by the door. She ticks something off and leaves the room without a glance backward.
Jacob will be here soon; the nurse said so. They have called him and he is on his way. Dr. Asper looks forward to holding Jacob's hand and staring into the bright brown eyes that remind him of Ruth. The eyes that will outlast, outshine them both. As it should be.
This—maybe even today—is the last and most difficult test of his life, a test of his virtue as a man. Everything else is complete: his house sold, his will specifying every gift. Now he has to be brave for his son's sake. For Jacob.
It has been days now—five or six—since he's had food or even water to speak of; he knows he is weak. Too weak to sit propped up, though he can hold Jacob's hand when he arrives. Which will be any minute.
Jacob has understood everything from one week into this thing. After the accident, when Dr. Asper lay paralyzed from the neck down, Jacob admitted what the rehab nurses wouldn't: he would never walk again and, although he had recovered some hand and arm functionality, he would need someone else to wipe his bottom for the rest of his life.
Jacob understands why his father has recoiled at living this way; he even helped him write to the Hemlock Society begging for death in Switzerland.
But that was before Dr. Asper caught pneumonia, before he arrived at the Massachusetts General Hospital on a stretcher instead of in scrubs, before he figured out that he could refuse medicine, and food, and water, and could die right here in Massachusetts, the journey made bearable with the aid of morphine. He thanks God for morphine.
"Are you comfortable, Dad?"
He turns his head. Jacob stands in front of the window, silhouetted by the sun. A man now, Jacob, the child who used to collect pebbles in his diaper.
Dr. Asper smiles. "Too—bad—the morphine—"
"Hmmm?" Jacob crouches down, inclining his head towards his father's mouth, his own thin lips bent into a smile. "I can't catch what you're saying."
Dr. Asper waves towards the cup of water next to his bed. Jacob picks it up and brings his father's head up gently from the pillow to meet it.
"Here you go."
Dr. Asper sips—enough to moisten his tongue—and Jacob eases the head back down onto the pillow. He has strong, competent hands. Fingers nimble, too. He could have made a good surgeon.
"Too—bad—" Dr. Asper says, grinning as Jacob sits down in the chair next to his bed. "Too—bad—I—didn't —try—morphine—earlier. Good stuff."
"Ha!" says Jacob. "How much earlier?"
It is gratifying that he can still make his son laugh.
The talking has knocked the wind from him, but he takes Jacob's hand just as he's been planning to do. Jacob envelopes his father's in his own.
"Lot—earlier—" says Dr. Asper. "When Ruth—when your mother—died. From then on. Would've helped."
"If you'd taken morphine all those years," says Jacob, "you'd have become an addict for sure."
Yes, but it would, Dr. Asper wants to say, have taken the edge off of being introduced to Martin, the love of Jacob's life. He wouldn't have blurted out the first words that stormed into his brain: "fag," "pervert," "loser." Or he might at least have apologized afterwards.
It's all too complicated to explain now, the chronology too confusing. He closes his eyes and squeezes Jacob's hand feebly, then tries to lift it, wondering if he has the strength and dexterity to bring his son's hand to his own lips.
But now that hand is gone and Jacob's voice is coming from another place, from the doorway where he is leaning on the jamb, talking with the male nurse, a young man named Brian, effeminate, jewelry like a girl's. A good guy.
"I was thinking of writing something like: 'Not a moment too soon,'" says Jacob.
Brian gives a shrill whisper. "You can't put that on your father's tombstone!""Hmm," says Jacob, not bothering to keep his voice low. "Guess you're right. Might upset other visitors to the cemetery."
Dr. Asper rotates his head towards the window from which the shrieks of small children float in on the tails of the wind. So that is how things are. This ache, too, the morphine can dull.
A tribute to Jacob that he's kept the venom to himself during these last few days, that he's come to visit when he could have stayed away.
"How about: 'The way of all shitheads?'"
Brian chuckles softly. "Not better, I'm afraid."
Dr. Asper turns back to the two men in the doorway and Brian signals to Jacob with his chin: Your father.
Dr. Asper smiles at the little world assembled at his threshold: What is important now is to focus on this last test and most lavish gift to Jacob, his beloved, after all.