He was Kshatriya at heart, a warrior in mind and body who could use his enormous strength for cruelty, kindness, and justice alike. Life, to him, was a battle with the forces of evil, characterized for him by the forces of fear, chaos, and unapologetic hedonism. As a child, I remember him as a strict disciplinarian whose actions trained me in the development of both Spartan habits and the careful keeping of deeply closeted secrets. As a teenager, I remember him as a fascist who mocked the protesters as they attempted to initiate their proletarian revolution, painting them as naive hippies and societal parasites over dinner. As an adult, I hardly remembered him at all and that has bought me here, to his sparse and lonely deathbed.
The room is brightly lit, it catches his wrinkles in the harsh fluorescent light in a hollow attempt to shock me with just how old he has grown in my absence. My mother sits beside him, holding his frail and trembling hand as we await the end in this sterile, spiritually desolate place. Doctors and nurses shuttle past the door with patients as we mutually bemoan the lack of privacy and common courtesy in modern medical facilities. Death is a sacred experience, my mother postulates. We should have the choice of dying in a place holy to us. I agree, and admit to her that I have arranged our departure from this place in the company of a qualified physician and a well-paid chef. All we are waiting for is my father is to achieve the level of lucidity he requested possession of in his living will before being offered the option of euthanasia. This surprises mother and she asks how I managed to achieve such a thing. I say nothing and smile lovingly into the face of the man who taught me to keep secrets.
We wait for hours then, alone in that miserable room before my father stirs enough to open his eyes and tighten his grip on the hand of his wife once more. If he is surprised by my presence it does not show, despite our being separated for more than a few decades now but he greets me and seems happy that I am there nonetheless. We talk briefly, asking about how I have been, what my wife is like, assuring me that I will never have a woman as good to me as my mother was to him (she smiles and reddens slightly but is unashamed by his frank manner), and then requests a glass of apple juice. Hospital staff produces one and I explain my plans to him as he nurses the drink like something far more alcoholic. We will go to the hill, I tell him, the one he fought for in the war. There will be a doctor to supervise and a piece of specially cultivated steak. A trained chef will cook the steak for him, as well as any side dishes he may desire. Then all he has to do is eat as the sun goes down and it will all end slowly, comfortably, and beautifully in the company of his family. He smiles and nods throughout my expository nonsense. I cannot help but imagine what is going through his mind; his entire life has been spent looking for a way to sacrifice himself nobly, to throw it all away for the cause... and yet here he is, all his friends and comrades dead, living into a world where everything turned out in ways unexpected and strange to him. He probably never imagined even having a family in those early days and yet, here he is, discussing his death with them. I doubt he cares if he is going to Heaven or Hell, either one will be a joyous reunion for him. He signs the papers with a laugh and we set out for the hill.
The drive is not a long one, even in the clunky van provided by the hospital. The euthanologist joins us by the door, three minutes early. He is a clear-eyed, respectful man who takes my father's good-natured ribbing about being a hardened killer without complaint. We detour shortly into town to pick up the chef and the steak as well as a portable grill and the side of macaroni and cheese my father requested. She meets us in front of the restaurant, a sprightly young thing who meets my gaze sheepishly. I find myself wishing I was ten years younger and unmarried again, but there is no time for that... The meat is packed into the back of the van where my father sits, strapped into a parked and anchored wheelchair. He can't help taking a peek at the cut, lifting the cover of the styrofoam cooler. It's a huge, juicy porterhouse that I ordered marinated to the exacting standards I remembered him demanding in my youth. He closes the lid and jokingly asks if i bought ketchup, setting off a unanimous groan throughout the vehicle. The rest of the trip passes quickly, as my mother and I catch up and my father splits his time between mocking the increasingly stern looking doctor and flirting with our delightfully tolerant chef.
The hill itself is an unremarkable thing, greener and more rounded now than it had been in my father's youth. It's strategic importance during the war had derived from exclusivity, a mundane little ripple in the landscape that had just happened to be the only elevated postion available from which officers could survey their opponents and order accurate artillery strikes. Deeply coveted by both sides, waves and waves of men had been given over to it only to be ruthlessly mowed down. So many, in fact, that a fair number of men had made their living after the war scavenging the metal from bullets and other equipment that had been buried in the mud. I tell my father about this as it came into view and he grunts in what I take to be disapproval but, after some consideration, he surprises me by muttering that he hoped only that the scavengers spent their findings in a way worthy of the dead. Such perspective clashed with my internal portrait of him as an uncompromising old bull but there was little time to resolve such internal contradictions before we arrive and I am forced to disembark conflicted.
At half past noon on a bright spring day I watch the terror of my childhood descend from the back of a van by automated lift. He has finally stopped joking with the chef and now turns lovingly to my mother as his wheelchair touches down on the parking lot asphalt. She walks beside him, stroking the scraggly white hair on his head back with her hand as I push him up the hill. He enjoys this now just as much as he had when his scalp had been fuller and darker, always curiously animalistic and innocent in the pleasures he takes. I remain silent as we climb, the happy, passive son. The doctor keeps a close eye on my mother to ensure she doesn't trip or stumble (there is no danger) and the chef straggles along behind us, weighed down by her various implements and the meat itself, which balances precariously in its cooler atop everything else.
When we finally arrive at the peak, everything seems to freeze for a moment. My father looks down, then up, as if wondering where he will go. My mother ceases running her hand through his hair and lets her hand fall to her side, where it does not remain long before he reaches out and claims it for his own. I realize for the first time, my father is afraid. He always knew he it would be his destiny to die someday, just like the rest of us, but unlike us he had anticipated it with the fervor of young man his entire life. Now that he finally faces it with certainty, he is frightened, though he tries not to let it show on his face or in his manner. Cook the damn steak, he gruffly tells the chef, doing his best to break the spell of melancholy that has unexpected claimed us. It works, somewhat; the movements and ritual of the chef as she sets up the grill and prepares the meat help distract us from the reality of the moment. I take this opportunity to remind my father that he will have time. The process will not be totally painless but the mild discomfort will be the price he would pay for the benefit of the worms. Just as he did when I explained this the first time, he nods and then waves his hand dismissively. His moment of terror has passed; he can assume superiority once more.
The steak sizzles on the grill and gives off the most wonderful smells as the chef coats it with a variety of sauces, some for flavor and others for making sure the worms don't hatch and wriggle out prematurely. My father begins to talk about the hill, beginning with how he remembered when it was much taller and steeper than it was now and how he and the boys from the nearby village (since paved over to build a shopping mall) used to call it "The Mountain" and fight mock wars between it and the nearby forests long before men began to give their lives to it for real. There was a big oak tree growing on top of it then and the boys would retreat up there by means of a rope if the forest troops managed to push them back. From there they would take to pelting their foes from above with handfuls of acorns. My mother asks him which side he had fought for and he grins, telling her that he'd been a romantic little bastard who couldn't help but choose the losing side. I butt in angrily at this, asking why he had never defended me as a child then, from himself or others. He falls silent, but continues gazes into the distance unperturbed. My mother starts to scold me for being so harsh but he stops her with a sudden squeeze of her hand. Another half a moment of silence passes as he thinks and then finally speaks again.
He tells me that when I was born, when he saw me in my mother's arms, he knew he had taken a piece of himself and placed it inside my soul. He knew that I held within me all the fury and anger and hate that had dragged down his life before he met her and that, if unchecked, I would grow up to be just like he had been, a warrior with no place in the modern world. And yes, he had tried to exorcise me in the only way he knew; more violence. He regretted that, honestly. And yes, he had let the bigger, meaner boys at school beat him up everyday for years because he hoped the exposure to brutality would tell me something about the pointless injustice of it. It had worked too; look at what a successful, peaceful young man I was! I spit on the ground in response, but he grins again and pulls me close and whispers into my ear, with the disclaimer that I must never tell my mother what he is about to tell me. When I had graduated high school and run off to college, he had pulled out a list that he had written in everyday I told him about the beatings and assorted torments inflicted on me. On that list he had carefully documented all of my assailants and, on Friday nights when he told my mother he was going to his weekly poker game, he had gone out and tracked them down one by one over the course of two years. He found them in bars, clubs, wherever and beat the daylights out of them. He grinned even broader as I drew back, partly horrified and partly amazed. He was just a fragile old man now but then he had been an enormous, musclebound brute. I ask covertly exactly what he did to them and he replies mischievously, "I doubt they remember much of it at all".
The chef drifts over to us and politely explains that the steak is done. My father rubs his hands together and licks his lips in a show of mock enthusiasm but my mother does not react much at all. She is still afraid, not yet ready to lose this man who has been her best friend for so many years. I remembered that as rough as he had been on me, he had always been tender and respectful to her and her opinions in a way that seemed to contradict his otherwise conservative attitudes towards women and society in general. But I suppose, as I am now learning, my father is full of contradictions.
A little foldout table thing extends from his wheelchair and over his lap at the push of a button, electronic motors whirring furiously to move at a snail's pace. The chef brings over the plate, the slab of beef dangling a single corner ever so slightly over the edge. It smells delicious, my father and I agree and my mother just laughs at our simultaneous exclamation. He's so much like you in some ways, she says. Oh no, don't say that, he responds in good humor. Arthritic but still agile hands grab utensils and dig in, without delay. He begins with the steak, cutting off a big chunk for himself, examining it, and then stuffing it unceremoniously into his mouth, where he savors it. I thought you said there were worms in here, he asks, then continues.
This doesn't taste like worms at all. Not even a little? Nope, practically melts in my mouth.
He takes a scoop of macaroni, then asks what we have to drink. I have the regrettable duty of explaining that he can only drink water during the meal, so as not to disrupt the hatching with changes in pH or the addition of alcohol. 20 minutes afterward however, we have some beer and wine packed in the back of the van that we can share. He scowls at this but concedes to having a glass of water with his last meal. We continue to talk sporadically throughout the meal, all a little uneasy and unsure what to expect. The conversational ground tread is old, not that different from being home at dinner with my parents as a boy: sports, politics, and the weather are all covered in due. Finally he finishes, and the hatching begins.
The worms are bizarre little parasites, taken from the untamed jungles of South America where tribal wise men would use them to pass on their oral traditions before death. They follow a simple lifecycle, being laid as microscopic eggs upon various leaves and grasses by the adult worms in the final phase of their lives. These eggs are eaten by larger creatures and taken into the stomach, where they hatch and swim instinctively through the murky acid to the muscular walls of the organ where they attach themselves and prepare to undergo a metamorphosis that will turn them into vicious carnivores that will burrow into the body and feed to provide the necessary protein for their eventual offspring. During the change, they also emit a number of interesting waste chemicals, anesthetics, and a slow acting poison that will kill the creature before the devouring begins. This poison in particular has the remarkable effect of creating a state of perfect mental clarity for the victim and has, in the up-and-coming field of euthanology, become a godsend for patients suffering from severe senility or Alzheimer's. Because no effective method has yet been derived for harvesting the poison from the worms it has instead become common protocol to feed their eggs to the patient and let nature perform the delivery process instead.
Nature's delivery process is not kind. I watched as my father flinched and moaned as a swarm of parasitic worms began a disco in his stomach. The pain soon subsides and I see the clarity sweep over him, making him seem a little younger and more virile, if only for a moment. He closes his eyes and then laughs, exclaiming that he can see it all now. Then the euphoria passes and he suddenly frowns. My mother reacts unexpectedly to this, dropping to her knees and asking what's wrong. He doesn't answer her directly, instead he opens his eyes and shoos the rest of us away for a moment. He needs to be alone with his wife, to talk about life without him. They'll call for us together when they're ready. The doctor, the chef, and I all depart respectfully for the bottom of the hill. There we spend the next three hours waiting, talking to one another, trying to pass the time, wondering when they will cal us back up. At the two hour mark, the euthanologist tells me that my father has about four hours left and that I should tell him if he doesn't know. I assure him that he does and turn my attention back to the chef, who is eagerly asking me questions about married life. When we are finally called back up to the top of the hill, it is by informal means of my fathers request for alcohol, which we oblige.
At the top of the hill, he greets us, happy but not entranced by the same euphoria he had been earlier. There is sadness in his eyes but also acceptance and just a bit of that old enthusiasm. There is no such enthusiasm in my mother's eyes; I notice she has been crying but is now putting on a remarkable show of wifely stoicism. We open a bottle of wine, and share it with everyone save the poor, miserable doctor, who cannot drink on duty. My father tells a broad mix of tales of my youth and his, mostly humorous in nature but sometimes touching on the war and the people he lost in it. He tells us he is recollecting for our benefit one last time; like the wise men of the rainforests, these are the stories he wants to preserve for posterity. He is thankful for my suggestion of the worms, they may consume the body but they free the soul for death. My mother chokes a little, and I can tell she's still not completely ready for him to go. My father can too, but apparently he has managed to ease her anxiety slightly because she straightens out when he gives her a tender look.
Before long we are all drunk together, my parents, the chef, and I laughing and sobbing alike. My father passes in good company as the sun sets of a brisk April day. The sober doctor carries the body to the van and drives us, still laughing at dad's last joke, to the funeral home.
Based on an old nodeshell I made which got deleted called a swarm of parasitic worms were having a disco in his stomach. It linked to something I can't remember or find now, but I guess the phrase struck me because this has been sitting in my drafts for what must be years now.