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Brother, I'm Dying

Edwidge Danticat


  Title Page




  Have You Enjoyed Your Life?

  Brother, I’m Dying

  What Did the White Man Say?

  Heartstrings, Shoestrings

  We’re All Dying


  Giving Birth

  The Return

  One Papa Happy, One Papa Sad



  Brother, I Can Speak

  The Angel of Death and Father God

  You’re Not a Policeman

  Brother, I Leave You with a Heavy Heart

  Beating the Darkness



  No Greater Shame

  Alien 27041999



  Let the Stars Fall

  Brother, I’ll See You Soon



  A Note About the Author

  Also by Edwidge Danticat


  For the next generation of “cats”:

  Nadira, Ezekiel,

  Zora, Timothy

  and Mira

  To begin with death. To work my way back into life,

  and then, finally, to return to death.

  Or else: the vanity of trying to say anything about anyone.


  The Invention of Solitude



  This is how you can show your love to me:

  Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”

  GENESIS 20:13

  Have You Enjoyed Your Life?

  I found out I was pregnant the same day that my father’s rapid weight loss and chronic shortness of breath were positively diagnosed as end-stage pulmonary fibrosis.

  It was a hot morning in early July 2004. I took a six thirty a.m. flight from Miami to accompany my father on a visit to a pulmonologist at Brooklyn’s Coney Island Hospital that afternoon. I’d planned to catch up on my sleep during the flight, but cramping in my lower abdomen kept me awake.

  I interpreted the cramps as a sign of worry for my father. In the past few months his breathing had grown labored and loud and he’d been hospitalized three times. During his most recent hospital stay, he had been referred to a pulmonologist, who’d since performed a new battery of tests.

  My father picked me up at the airport at nine a.m. We hadn’t seen each other in a month. Two years before, in August 2002, I had married and moved to Miami, where my then fiancé was living. Fearing my father’s disapproval, I hadn’t announced my intention to leave New York until a month before the wedding when my father summoned me to his room for a chat.

  “How can you leave New York?” he asked while filling out a check on top of a book on his lap. Back then he was still healthy, yet lanky, with a body that looked and moved like an aging dancer’s, a receding hairline and half a head of salt-and-pepper hair.

  Removing his steel-rimmed bifocals so I could better see his amber eyes, he had added in his slow, scratchy voice, “Your mother’s here in Brooklyn. I’m here. Two of your three brothers are here. You have no family in Miami. What if this man you’re moving there for mistreats you? Who are you going to turn to?”

  The lecture ended with his handing me the equivalent of five months of his mortgage payments toward the wedding reception costs. Looking back now, I wish he’d simply said, “Don’t go. I’m going to get sick and I might die.”

  At the airport, my father was too weak to get out of the car to greet me.

  The blistering heat made his breathing even more difficult, he explained on his cell phone, while waving from the driver’s seat of his apple red Lincoln Town Car, a car he used as both a gypsy cab and a family car.

  When he leaned over to open the door, he began to cough, a deep and hollow cough that produced a mouthful of thick phlegm, which he spat out in paper napkins piled up in a plastic bag next to him.

  During the six months that he’d been visibly sick, my father had grown ashamed of this cough, just as he’d been embarrassed about his arms and legs over the many years he’d battled chronic psoriasis and eczema. Then too he’d felt like a “biblical leper,” the kind people feared might infect them with skin-ravaging microbes and other ills. So whenever he coughed, he covered his entire face with both his hands.

  I waited for him to stop coughing, then leaned over and kissed him. The blunt edge of his high cheekbones struck my lips hard. He had taken to wearing a jacket even on the warmest days because he wanted to hide how much thinner he’d become. That morning at the airport he wore a gray sweater, a striped blue shirt and navy pants that looked like they belonged to someone twice his size.

  “I’m happy to see you,” he said while tugging at his too wide shirt collar.

  Merging into traffic at the airport exit, he asked about my husband and the house we’d been renovating in the Little Haiti section of Miami for the past two years.

  “Any new developments?” he winked. “Baby?”

  Fedo, my husband, and I were waiting to complete the renovations before trying to get pregnant, I told him.

  “You’re thirty-five years old,” he said. “You have more childbearing years behind you than you do ahead.”

  Watching him effortlessly drive the same car he’d been driving for nearly a decade, I felt my stomach cramp again. We had a few hours still before his doctor’s appointment, so he suggested we visit an herbalist that his pastor, a minister whose Pentecostal church my father had been attending for more than thirty years, had recently recommended.

  “Maybe the herbalist can examine us both,” I suggested. At that point, I still wanted to believe that our discomforts might be comparable, something that a few herbs and aromatic plants could fix.

  The herbalist saw us immediately even though we didn’t have an appointment. A large Jamaican woman with a knit rainbow head wrap, she motioned my father to a chair next to a machine that looked like it was set up for an eye exam.

  Before our iridology scans, she made us sign disclaimers saying we knew she wasn’t a medical doctor and could not cure any illness. This, she explained, was a legal necessity even though she had healed many people—as my father’s pastor had told him—including some terminal cancer patients.

  She snapped a picture of each of my father’s pupils, then enlarged them on a computer screen. Leaning in, she examined the whites of his eyes on the screen.

  “You need plenty of vitamins.” She pointed out some tiny spots to prove it. “You need to cleanse your system and unblock those lungs.”

  When she was done with him, she handed my father a printout listing some syrups and pills she offered for sale.

  After my own eye scan, she told me I had an imbalance in my uterus.

  Had I ever missed any periods? Had I taken a pregnancy test?

  My father, who’d been examining a catalog filled with pricey herbs, suddenly looked up.

  “I have no reason to take a pregnancy test,” I told her. “My husband and I, well, we’re not trying.”

  My father opened his mouth to say something, but his words dissolved into a long coughing spell, which led her to add a few more recommended items to his list.

  “Something’s going on with you,” she told me, as we left with two hundred dollars’ worth of vitamins, coenzymes, liquid oxygen, and natural cough suppressants for my father. “The eyes don’t lie.”

  Dr. Padman’s office was a sad and desperate place. Everyone in his waiting room, mostly Caribbean, African, and Eastern European immigrants, seemed to be struggling for breath. Some, like my father,
were barely managing on their own, while others dragged mobile oxygen tanks behind them.

  My brother Bob, who taught global studies at a nearby high school, was, because of his location and the free afternoons his work schedule allowed, my father’s most frequent waiting room companion. After a few visits, however, he too began dreading that gray and dingy room, its stale and stuffy smells, its peeling beige paint and anti-smoking posters, because it was the one place where our father’s predicament was most unambiguous, where his future seemed most uncertain. At the same time, it was where Papa appeared most comfortable, where he could cough without being embarrassed, because others were coughing too, some even more vociferously. In the skeletal faces and winded voices around him, he could place himself on some kind of continuum, one where he was still coming out ahead.

  A nurse asked my father to step on a scale soon after we arrived. This was the part of the visits he would come to dread most, for it offered proof that he was indeed shrinking. Before he became ill he had carried 170 pounds on his five-eleven frame. During that July 2004 visit he weighed 128 pounds.

  When we stepped into his office, Dr. Padman quickly introduced himself. A short, bespectacled South Asian man with only a trace of an accent, he seemed, like my father and me, to have spent part of his life in a section of the world that still echoed in his voice. With the examining table and a full-size scale filling up the tiny room, there was space for only one seat across from his desk, where a computer screen was angled toward a barred window, away from the patient.

  I stood behind my father’s chair and looked down at both him and the doctor, like a workplace inspector taking everything in while doing her best not to interfere.

  “How are you doing, sir?” Dr. Padman asked.

  “Not so good,” my father answered.

  Throughout his illness, my father never told his doctors he was feeling “bad.” It was either “Not so good” or “Not so bad,” a literal translation of the Creole expression “Pa pi mal.”

  “And how is the cough, sir?” Dr. Padman continued.

  My father replied, “The same.”

  I wondered whether Dr. Padman’s calling my father “sir” was an affectation, a point of effort in his bedside, or desk-side, manner or something he did naturally. Maybe he was one of those people who called everyone “sir,” especially those who were least likely to be addressed that way. Or maybe it was simply a way of not having to remember names.

  Dr. Padman quickly scanned the computer screen, then pulled my father’s X-rays and CAT scan film out of a mustard yellow envelope. He held them up to the window light, then, glancing at the computer screen, asked my father, “Are you still on the codeine, sir?”

  My father had stopped taking the codeine, which an emergency room physician had prescribed for him, because the codeine had caused him to fail the yearly drug test required by the Taxi and Limousine Commission for the renewal of his cabdriver’s license. He took advantage of Dr. Padman’s question to ask if Dr. Padman would write a letter for his Taxi and Limousine Commission appeal, stating that he was taking the codeine for legitimate medicinal purposes.

  Dr. Padman nodded and made a note on a yellow pad. Then he picked up the phone and buzzed his assistant.

  Edie was a skinny, perky Filipina who spoke every sentence at the top of her voice, as though it were being broadcast through a bullhorn at a pep rally.

  “Good afternoon,” she bellowed, startling my father.

  “Edie’s going to check your breathing, sir,” Dr. Padman told my father.

  My father looked up at Edie, then back at the doctor with equal helplessness. He slowly pushed himself up by holding the back of the chair.

  “We won’t be long,” Edie said, grabbing hold of one of my father’s elbows.

  As my father disappeared from view, I slipped into the chair where he’d been sitting and tried to sneak a look at Dr. Padman’s computer, but the tilt of his screen was designed to give maximum view to the doctor and limited view to the patient.

  “Edie is going to do a pulmonary function test,” he explained. “The test will require your father to blow into a tube so we can find out how much air is in the lungs.”

  I imagined my father with this tube in his mouth, trying to fill it impossibly with air and failing over and over again. One did not have to be a pulmonologist to see that he couldn’t even blow out a small candle. He had no air to spare.

  “I’m really worried about my father,” I said.

  Perhaps thinking I was talking only about the test, he said, “Don’t worry. Edie will take good care of him.”

  “In general,” I said. “I’m worried about his condition.”

  “Your father has a very bad disease,” he said. “It’s called pulmonary fibrosis. You can look it up on the Internet. You’ll see it’s not very good.”

  Suddenly it was as though we were discussing someone both of us barely knew. I almost expected to go home and look up the disease and find my father’s name listed under its many definitions and examples. With no better choices of words, deeds, or prayers, I resorted to a cliché, a common line from soap opera sickrooms.

  “What’s his prognosis?” I asked.

  “It depends on a lot of things,” he said, “but most people who are resistant to treatment live anywhere from six months to two years.”

  My father’s body was resisting treatment. The codeine and prednisone he’d been prescribed by the emergency room physician were neither relieving his cough nor slowing down the gradually irreversible stiffening and scarring of his lungs.

  “You should tell your loved ones about your father’s condition,” Dr. Padman said, as though this was the kind of information one could keep to oneself.

  Was this the standard way to tell a family member (without the patient’s permission) that the patient was dying? Perhaps he didn’t want to add to my father’s stress by telling him directly that his disease was incurable. Later, however, he would plainly write it in his letter for my father’s appeal to the Taxi and Limousine Commission: “My patient André Miracin Danticat suffers from an incurable condition for which he is required to take codeine.”

  My father never discussed the letter either before or after he xeroxed it and sent the original to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which denied his appeal.

  What causes an illness like this? I wondered as Dr. Padman and I waited for my father to return from his pulmonary function test. Could it be the persistent car fumes from the twenty-five-plus years my father had worked as a cabdriver? Carcinogens from the twenty-plus years he smoked as a young man, even though he hadn’t smoked in more than twenty-five years?

  “What about a lung transplant?” I asked Dr. Padman. “Could my father have a lung transplant?”

  “He’s sixty-nine years old,” he said, as though this too was news to me. “I’m afraid he’s past the age where he’d be put on the list. Besides, the transplant is no guarantee. There’s a very high probability of rejection.”

  “Can he have surgery to cut out the bad part of the lung and leave the rest?” I asked.

  “Both lungs in their entirety are scarred.”

  I was beginning to feel that whatever I told him would be countered by some unworkable obstruction.

  I heard my father’s shoes dragging across the floor, heading back toward us. I had come to recognize the sound of his loafers since he’d stopped lifting his feet while walking, to alleviate the pressure of literally having to carry his own weight.

  Edie was standing behind him when he appeared in the doorway. Her shoulders drooping, she momentarily seemed as breathless as my father, who had been unable to get through the test. Each time she asked him to breathe into the tube, she reported, he would nearly collapse from coughing.

  In the past two months or so, when my father stood for too long, his body would shake as though he might suddenly fall over. His body was shaking now. I got up and helped him into the chair across from the doctor, whom I expected to beg
in talking again, explaining my father’s condition to him. Surely he had only been practicing on me and was going to also tell my father, how “bad” the disease was, how many months he might have left to live.

  He didn’t. Instead he prescribed more prednisone and codeine. My father didn’t say anything. He pushed his head back against the wall, closed his eyes and tried to take deep breaths, which came out as gasps.

  Going down in the hospital elevator, still not fully understanding all that had taken place, I kept my eyes on the flashing numbers and avoided looking at my father, who even before he was sick had always been uneasy in unfamiliar surroundings. Now he seemed even more apprehensive, lost in the isolated world of the unwell.

  In the car I broached again the very first question Dr. Padman had posed to him.

  “How do you feel, Papa?” I asked in Creole. “Ki jan w santi w?”

  Nou la, he said. Not bad. Okay, even. Not by usual standards, but what he’d come to consider okay. Not coughing too much. Not breathing too hard. Driving was fine because he was not exerting too much energy, but walking was difficult. Walking was hell.

  “I’m going to drop you off. I’ll be home a little bit later,” he said as we approached his and my mother’s house, a four-bedroom, two-story brick single-family they’d purchased eighteen years ago, after living in a series of small apartments all over Brooklyn.

  “Come home and rest,” I said.

  He had a meeting at the car service business he ran with my uncle Franck, the younger of his two brothers and the only one of his four surviving siblings living in the United States.

  My stomach was cramping again, so hard and so frequently that I wondered if perhaps the herbalist might be right after all. Was something going on with me? I asked my father to drop me off at a nearby pharmacy, where I picked up a pregnancy test.

  My mother wasn’t home when I got there, so I locked myself in my parents’ tiny guest bathroom and let a stream of urine run over one of the two plastic sticks in the package. The frosted glass on the bathroom window kept out the afternoon light, and the small space, crowded with my mother’s vases of dried roses and potpourri bowls, seemed dark, even with the light on. I squinted to examine the results. One pink line popped up, then two. I examined the box again to make sure I was interpreting correctly. One line meant not pregnant, two meant pregnant, a symbolism that of course made sense. Before the results, one believed oneself to be one; then suddenly one was two.