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More Than Words(15)
Author: Jill Santopolo

Tim had sent her the article when they were in college. Comforting? he’d written as the subject of the e-mail. Nina had done a bit more research and discovered that the doctor, who had conducted the experiment in 1911, had never been able to replicate it exactly. She’d figured, at the time, that there was probably another explanation for the three quarters of an ounce.

But now, sitting in the room with her father who was no longer breathing, she wondered. Was there such a thing as a soul? Was his soul floating out of his body right now? Was it in the room? In the air? Was she breathing in the essence of her father’s life at that very moment?

“I’m supposed to call the hospice center,” Carlos said to her. “But no one has to come for him until you’re ready. You tell me how long you want and that’s when I’ll tell them to come.”

Nina looked at Carlos, her mind blank. What was the correct answer to that question? How long was appropriate? Nina looked over at her father. He was the one she would have asked.

She had the urge to brush his hair before anyone else saw him. Maybe give him a haircut. She’d never given anyone a haircut before. Not even herself. Most kids at some point took scissors to their hair, but she never had. Did you need special scissors to cut hair?

Carlos was looking at her, waiting for her to say something.

“I’m sorry,” Nina said; her mind felt like it was in disarray, like someone had rifled through its compartments and left everything in the wrong place. “What did you ask?”

“Do you want to call someone?” Carlos asked. “It might be good for you to have someone else here with you now.”

Nina nodded. But she didn’t do anything. She didn’t go back to her room to get her phone. The thought of explaining why she was calling, of saying the words out loud, paralyzed her.

“Your boyfriend maybe?” Carlos asked.

Nina nodded again.

“You should go get your phone,” he added. “And call him.”

This time Nina left the room. She dialed Tim as she walked back to her father’s room. But his phone went right to voice mail. She hung up and switched to text. My dad is—she couldn’t bring herself to drop her thumb on top of the d—gone, she finished, the phone blurring in front of her, her nose running. She wanted to add that she needed him. That she was alone. She’d never felt this alone in her life. That her mother’s ring didn’t matter. The romance didn’t either. Or Per Se. They should get married right now.

But she said nothing. He said nothing.

Her phone was silent. Where the hell was he?

“He’s not there,” Nina told Carlos, trying to swallow back her tears but failing, panic fluttering against her ribs.

“Okay,” Carlos said. “Here’s what we’ll do. I’m going to leave the room and make some phone calls. You can stay here with your father if you want, or you can go to your bedroom or sit on the couch or take a walk or call a good friend, whatever feels right. And I’ll tell them we need a few hours.”

Nina nodded. She took a deep breath. Carlos left the room. And Nina walked over to her father. She smoothed his hair into the left part that he preferred. She buttoned the top button of his pajamas that had come loose, exposing the sparse white hair on his chest. Tears filling her eyes, she leaned over and kissed the gray stubble on his cheek.

“You have no idea how much I’m going to miss you,” she said quietly. And then she cried harder knowing he’d never know she’d said that.


Nina sat with her father, holding his hand, which seemed to feel colder and colder as time passed—though she wasn’t sure if that was actually happening or was just what her brain expected to happen. A line from Laberinto de la soledad, which she had studied in college and read many times since, kept running through her mind: La soledad es el hecho más profundo de la condición humana. El hombre es el único ser que sabe que está solo. It felt like it was on repeat, first in Spanish, and then in English, over and over: Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition. Man is the only being who knows he is alone. She just felt so alone.

After a while, she looked at the clock. 3:40 A.M. She knew Leslie kept her ringer off at night but dialed her anyway, just in case she happened to be awake. She wasn’t. Nina hung up before she could hear Leslie’s voice telling her to leave a message. She should call TJ, she realized, since he knew what was supposed to happen next—what her dad wanted to be buried in, who was supposed to get the Gregory Corporation’s press release, what it was supposed to say, which picture should be attached.

Nina looked at the clock again. She could give TJ a few more hours. Let him at least get a good night’s sleep before he had to deal with the death of his best friend for the past fifty years.

She pulled out her phone and instead sent an e-mail to Rafael and Jane with a subject line that said My Dad. The body text said: Nothing’s public yet, but I won’t be at work today. Hopefully she’d be able to finish out the campaign, get Rafael to election day. It was only seven weeks away. Maybe she could do that and take over her dad’s role at the Gregory Corporation at the same time. Would it be that hard to juggle them both? She’d counted on more time. But she shouldn’t have. She was smarter than that.

As she was trying to figure everything out, her phone rang. Rafael O’Connor-Ruiz calling, it said on the screen. She had never spoken to Rafael on the phone before. He had seen her e-mail and called her. The fact that he cared enough to do that made Nina’s throat feel full.

“Hi,” she said, trying to disguise her tears.

“Nina, Nina,” he said.

“It’s me,” she said, wiping her nose with the bottom of her T-shirt.

“I don’t sleep . . . I never sleep these days, but most people do, so I just wanted to make sure . . . is someone there with you?”

“Carlos,” she answered. “My father’s nurse. He’s calling the hospice and I think the mortuary to come get—” But she couldn’t finish the sentence. She tried, but it was impossible.

“Do you want me to come over? If you need someone, I can.”

Nina thought about how nice it would be to have him there, to have someone she could lean on, someone whose opinions she could ask. But regardless of whatever connection they had, he was her boss, nothing more.

“That’s such a nice offer,” she said, “but you don’t have to come.” She paused for a moment, afraid this meant she’d have to hang up, afraid she’d be alone again. “Maybe we could stay on the phone, though.”

“Whatever you want, Palabrecita,” he said. “I know how awful it is to lose a parent. Do you want me to talk? Do you want to?”

Nina sat down at the table where she and Tim had eaten dinner. She couldn’t bring herself to leave her father’s body alone. She remembered the night she and Leslie drove from Connecticut to eastern Massachusetts when Leslie’s mother had died. They’d joined Leslie’s father and her three sisters as they sat in the funeral home, staying with Leslie’s mother’s body. It was a Jewish custom called shemira that Nina hadn’t known about before. Leslie hadn’t either—her family hadn’t been particularly religious while she was growing up, but while her mother was sick, her parents read everything they could about Jewish customs surrounding death and dying. And Leslie’s mom decided that she wanted her family to observe shemira, to sit with her from the time she died until the time she was buried the next day, keeping watch, not abandoning her before she was brought to her new home at the cemetery. There was something initially horrifying about sitting and talking near Leslie’s mother’s dead body—Nina had never seen her own mother after she’d died—but then somehow it became comforting. It had normalized death in a way.

“Have you ever spent the night in a funeral home?” Nina asked Rafael.

“Can’t say I have,” Rafael said. “Have you?”

“Mm-hm,” Nina said. “When my college roommate Leslie’s mom died. It’s a Jewish tradition or maybe more a practice—not one that most people follow.”

“How does it work?” Rafael asked. Nina imagined him relaxed against the pillows in his bed.

“Leslie’s dad said you’re really supposed to pray and read scripture, but we didn’t. Instead we talked about Leslie’s mom. Leslie and her dad and sisters told stories. I told one, too, about how grateful I was for her when Leslie and I moved in together our freshman year. My dad, unsurprisingly, didn’t want to leave. And Leslie’s mom took charge, shepherding him out of the room, convincing him to take her to Mory’s so Leslie and I would have a chance to get to know each other and the people on our floor. It takes a strong personality to boss my father around, and I’d been amazed that she was able to do it after knowing him for only a few hours.”

Nina leaned back in the chair she’d sat down in. It had been Tim’s earlier that night. Forever ago, that was how it felt.

“Do you want to tell me a story about your dad?” Rafael asked. “Or I can tell you one.”

“You can?” Nina asked. All of a sudden this felt incredibly important.

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