His nightcap is baby blue, sitting a little crooked on his head, and his jaw hangs open. He's perfectly still. I check, just in case. Yes, his thin chest rises a little, and falls. Still with us.
I squeeze between the back of the chair and the stair-rail, and gently rub his shoulders. The little muscle left pools in the crannies of the bone like a soft enameling; my fingertips move gently, gently into it. Whether he's really aware of me, with the topmost layer of consciousness, I couldn't say. Martha said later that his face changed, while I was massaging him. His body knew I was there, anyway. You can tell. That topmost layer hardly ever engages now, anyway, and just as well: it would be awkward for him, being massaged by his son in law, if he knew it was happening.
I do the thin sheeting of the pecs, laid over the tines of the ribs. Reach behind to the lower back. All very slow, and very tender. It's hard for some people to understand how little pressure is needed or wanted for someone this old and this close to death. It's more a laying on of hands than anything like kneading. You always need to let go of the urge to do something, in massage, but never more than with the very old. You don't press; you don't rub. You just let your hands settle and sink.
His wife fusses. Such a favor I'm doing! It's not a favor, of course. I'm far happier doing this than “visiting.” I'm good at this. Touching people is what I do. Making conversation, that I do as a favor.
In any case, I owe him. I took his favorite daughter away, when she was 19, and didn't even marry her, for six long years. He never said anything, but it made him unhappy. At the wedding, my own father tells me, when he said something about being glad Martha and I were marrying, Ernie muttered “Well, it's about time.”
That was nearly thirty years ago. We used to go out on the river on his little motorboat: down the Columbia to the Willamette or upriver to Tomahawk Island. Very gentle and unambitious. Picknicking, really. Very unlike my own father's expeditions, where the first order of business was to get entirely away from any trace of humankind, into the wilderness, and then to scale some particular peak, find some particular cave. Ernie liked humankind, and all its works. He loved watching the ships and barges move slowly on the river. The odd riverbank detritus: bits of wreckage, odd-shaped bolts. We didn't try to get anywhere or do anything, in particular. Just pottered about. The point was just to be uncrowded, out in the open, in the free air.
Now he mostly sits in the dim room, watching the television at whiles, but most of the time sleeping, or gliding like this in the in-between spaces of consciousness, not in this world and not in the next. Hovering.
Martha opens the curtains and the sliding glass door. Cool air and light comes into the dim, overheated room. Ernie finally wakes a little, reaches for her hand, and she sits quiet with him a while.
When we go, we close the door and the curtain again. He doesn't like the light and outside air, now. Not for very long at a time.