'ARE YOU going to Poland to see the pope?" asked my American friends in early June. I told them I would be thrilled to meet the pope if our paths happened to cross, but primarily I was going to visit my father, who had lung cancer. "You must come down this year," he wrote in what turned out to be his very last letter. "I would like us to go to the beach, somewhere on the Baltic Sea."
"The pope has brought us a true hot spell," said my brother Stanley at the Warsaw airport, stuffing my blue suitcase into the trunk of his Polish Fiat. "Don't act upset when you see father -- he looks perfectly awful. The doctors think his end is near; we have resolved to care for him at home. You cannot imagine how much father hates the idea of going to a hospital. I guess he is too much of an individualist . . . "
I noticed that the car traffic had doubled in the two years since my previous visit. "Don't you have gasoline problems?" I asked Stanley."We are expecting some price increases, but we do not anticipate a shortage. Ninety percent of our oil supply comes from the Soviet Union; we are fortunate in that we do not depend on OPEC as heavily as you do. If I were President Carter . . ." The Fiat was being expertly parked in front of the familiar gray townhouse.
Father smiled and waved as I entered his bedroom, decorated with deer antlers, boar tusks and various hunting paraphernalia. "I wrote to you, and you came. I am so very glad . . . " He was out of breath, panting. The large mahogany desk next to the bed was laden with drugs of all sorts; a plastic tube appeared from under the blanket, ending in a bag half-filled with urine. Mother, silver-haired and elegant, observed the expression on my face.
My younger sister Ewa, who lived nearby with her husband and daughter, came over after work and offered to produce a gourmet welcome dinner. I took a nylon shopping bag and ran to a corner grocery, where I purchased two bottles of wine: a sweet sauterne for father, who never believed in dry wines, and a Greek burgundy for the rest of us. That first evening I heard my father cough. It was a hideous sound, which seemed to be coming from lungs filled with crabgrass. At night a nurse came and took up her position in an armchair in father's room. Mother swallowed a sleeping pill and opened the sofa-bed for herself in the living room.
I fell asleep late, and woke up at 11 the next morning, which turned out to be perfectly in tune with father's schedule. "The nurse left at 6," mother said. "Your father took some codeine and fell asleep in the middle of the night. He is just beginning to wake up." I took a bath and put on a pair of jeans and a fluffy blue blouse. Father raised his hand in welcome and smiled. "My, don't you look pretty this morning! Where did you buy this adorable blouse?" "At Woodward and Lothrop, father," I answered and blushed like a teenager. During that first week I was turning my head away in embarrassment whenever mother pulled down the sheets to adjust the catheter.
Every day, assisted by a member of the family, my father made a slow pilgrimage to the armchair in the living room, where we all gathered, glasses of tea in hand, to watch the pope on TV. The sermon at Auschwitz was particularly applauded."Listen to this man," father exclaimed. "What wisdom, what ability to take verbal risks! Did you all hear what he said? 'I honor the Soviet nation' -- mind you, not state , but nation . I like that!" "What a beautiful, deep voice, what charisma!" added mother, between sips of tea. My brother Stanley was busy recording the sermon on tape. He played it to father later again and again.
I watched Stanley take care of father with the skill of a professional nurse. "I have always wanted to be a doctor, but my chemistry score was too low, so instead I became an economist," he told me. Soon I met the three physicians involved in the case. The principal doctor, a young hematologist, came often and prescribed a plethora of drugs. This man, a salaried hospital employe working under the socialist medicine system, refused to charge for the house calls, which he performed as an act of friendship. "I like your father," he told me once. "I got to know him in the hospital a while ago. He is a neat old gentleman."
The urologist was found through a medical cooperative, listed in the phone book. He worked full-time for the army and moonlighted on the side as a co-op specialist. "Doctor, am I ever going to be all right again?" I heard father ask him once. "Are you a believer or a nonbeliever?" snapped the urologist. "Believer yes, practitioner no" my father answered. "If you believe, you must know that it is written UP THERE whether you shall recover or not."
The third doctor was a 70-year-old surgeon, a cousin of my father's, who had discovered Tadek two years before by looking his name up in the phone book and discussing the family tree.The cousins fell for each other and went on a trip to visit additional rediscovered members of the family. Uncle Tadek did not approve of the treatment prescribed by the young doctor. "Your father does not need all these heart and blood-building drugs any more," he kept saying outside my father's earshot. "Load him up with codeine and sleeping pills, make him as comfortable as possible." The family members, gathered in the kitchen, argued fiercely over the validity of either method.
The pope was leaving Poland. We gathered once again in front of the TV to see the emotional farewell at the Krakow airport. When, after hugging countless bishops and clerics, the pope kissed a high government official on the cheek, father remarked from his armchair: "I bet this official will be fired from his job tomorrow!"
I often sat on father's bed, holding his hand, conversing. "I like the way you dress," he told me. "Your life was packed with adventure and professional success," I said. "You fought in two world wars, and survived different political upheavals . . . I respect your ability to survive." He had been a cavalry officer and a forestry engineer, and at 79 he was still working as a wood quality expert for the Polish bureau of standards.
"Don't forget that I put myself through college as a waiter," father said. "I want your children to know that. Did I ever tell you the rat story? Once, when I reported to work in the morning at a well-known Warsaw cafe, I saw a dead rat floating in a large pail filled with the mixture for ice cream about to be frozen. The owner came over, picked up the rat by its tail, deposited it in the garbage can and said with authority, 'What the guests don't know won't hurt them.'"
Mother was beginning to show signs of emotional and physical exhaustion. I made an effort to go out with her, to visit places which might offer mental and emotional nourishment. We saw a magnificant collection of French medieval books, an avant-garde play. We paid a visit to the Botanical Gardens, where we encountered on display a healthy specimen of poison ivy. We filled the apartment with fresh flowers, drank a little wine with our meals and watched some funny shows on TV -- all to keep our spirits up.
Toward the end of my second week in Warsaw, father suddenly lost all of his appetite. "Don't stuff me like an Easter goose," he snapped angrily at mother, who sat on his bed, armed with a spoon and a bowl of chicken soup. He began to live exclusively on mineral water, tea and a few sips of wine. At that time, I was able to join the family in the performance of all nursing duties, the most difficult of which consisted of being father's guide and support on the way to the bathroom. All my long-standing childhood anger and resentment began to dissolve as I led this once powerful, frightening man on his exhausting journey to the toilet seat. I stopped turning my head away at the sight of the nude, yellow, emaciated body. "Here goes the biblical Job, a man stripped of all power," I thought, afraid that we might trip and fall over.
Father's breathing became hard work. The night nurse administered glucose through the IV suspended from the antlers of a deer. We all camped in the apartment, worn out from lack of sleep. For 36 hours father remained awake, alert, often angry. "You can't imagine how lousy I feel," he told me. "I hate being so totally weak . . . "
A handsome, elderly professor came over with three carnations. I pushed aside the drugs and put the flowers up in a tall, narrow vase. Later that day, as I sat on the bed and listened to the hissing sound in father's chest, he pointed a finger and said very clearly: "Look at the magnificent red of that carnation."
At bedtime, we were successful in convincing mother to leave; she would try to get some sleep at my sister's. The nurse was hovering about quietly when I feel asleep on the living room sofa. I woke up in the middle of the night to a loud, gurgling sound of breathing. It went on for a minute perhaps, and then it stopped. The nurse dashed off somewhere. I entered father's bedroom and noticed the lack of any motion, any sound. I ran and put on my bathrobe; somehow it seemed the proper thing to do. Father's mouth was wide open. I kissed his forehead and squeezed his warm hand. "Goodbye, father," I said out loud. My brother Stanley and I hugged. He grabbed an old prayer book off a shelf, knelt down and read a prayer for the dying. I stood by his side and thought about an article by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross. "Can father hear us now? Does he float somewhere above, looking at his body?"
Stanley took a pencil and wrote down the hour and the date of death inside the cover of the prayer book. "Look!" he called out, "great-grandmother Ophelia also died on June 28, at 2:30 a.m. I know it means something, it cannot be just a coincidence . . . "
"I am going to bandage up your father's jaw, so that he shall have a closed mouth," said the nurse, matter-of-factly. "Please put in his false teeth. We must hurry, before the rigor mortis sets in. We must wash his body and dress him in his best clothes. Please bring me a basin with water, a sponge and a towel."
Stanley and the nurse washed father's nude body. His beautiful hands, soft and passive, assumed graceful positions. I touched father's belly; it was still warm. I examined the closet and selected a white shirt, a silvery tie and a black wool suit. The nurse had a difficult time getting father dressed, perhaps because he was such a tall man. I took the red carnation and put it between his fingers. The nurse began collecting used medical supplies in a brown paper bag. "You are going to have a difficult time taking this body down the stairs," she said. "I am sure the coffin is not going to make it; you will need one extra long. Make sure your mother is not around when they take this body down. I can take the bandage off now, the mouth is closed." She took a fresh sheet and covered the body. "The flies are beginning to arrive," she remarked.
"Go now and bring mother," said Stanley. "Be back soon, so that I can begin to make all the arrangements." I rode the streetcar through the quiet city. A line was already forming in front of the meat store. It was 6 a.m. I knocked on the door of my sister's apartment. Mother stood in the hallway, looking frail, in a long nightgown. "Father died," I whispered. Mother took me by the hand and led me to her bed, where we sat in silence for a while. Back at the townhouse, we climbed the stairs very, very slowly. Mother approached father's bed and pulled down the sheets. "Oh my God," she exclaimed, "this is a strange gentleman! Waht a change . . . "
At 5 p.m. two men came in a gray city van and unloaded a cheap-looking coffin, extra long. Mother was taken out on a walk. Ewa and I were instructed to stand guard in front of the house, shielding the coffin from view with a large blanket. The body was brought down in a sheet and placed in the coffin. My brother put a small bronze sculpture of a boar in father's pocket. He put a small copy of the Bible in the other pocket. The red carnation was between father's fingers. We followed the van to a historical cemetery, where the coffin was placed in the catacombs of an old church to await burial in the family grave.
After the funeral, we invited the relatives to a reception at the apartment. Mother found the idea rather odd, but worth doing. I asked the guests, Quaker-style, to share some memories of my father. Cousin Julisa raised her hand: "Your father appreciated beauty . . . Once he came to dinner at our house. We sat on the sofa and chatted, when suddenly your father pointed his finger at my foot and exclaimed: "Look, this is the most beautiful foot I have ever seen!'"