Page 73 of The Protege

How much brain function? I wonder. Why did he finally let them tell Laszlo he was dying? Did he want to see me one last time?

The doctor takes me to Dad’s ward and leaves me sitting by his bedside. He’s asleep, or unconscious. I can’t tell which. I sit and watch him as he breathes. I watch the machines measuring his heartrate. The drip with the long, clear cord going into the back of his hand. The waxy pallor of his face, roughened by gray whiskers. I remember the photograph of my parents on their wedding day that used to sit on the mantelpiece, my mother in a lacy white dress and my father in a gray suit and tie. Both so young and healthy. Both beaming with happiness.

What did he really feel about her death? Why did he have to get hurt, too? And as I look at him I wonder, what hurt more, the pain in his back, or the pain of losing her? Because it hurts, losing someone. It hurts like cold wire stitching your organs tightly together, squeezing, mercilessly shredding your insides.

Hours pass and I must fall into a doze, my head resting back against the wall, because the next thing I hear is, “Issy.”

I snort into wakefulness and look around, confused. Dad. The hospice. I stand up and go to him. He looks so small in the bed, his eyes yellowed and watery, his skin yellowed. I have my mother’s nose, I remember, but I have his eyes and chin. Even through the sickness I can see the resemblance.

“The doctor said this has been coming for a long time,” I venture at last. “Why didn’t you let them contact Laszlo sooner?”

“Didn’t want to disturb your tour. Got one of them internet alerts set up for your name. Saw you was with him again.”

“Again? How did you know I wasn’t?”

But he closes his eyes and takes a few breaths, as if these sentences have taken a lot out of him. I pull the chair up and sit down, wondering how long he’s had an internet alert set up for my name.

“Did you finish the tour? In China or whatever.”

“Southeast Asia. Almost. We had one more night, but there are lots of cellists.” Maybe Laszlo found another to fill in for me or maybe they went on with only seven. It hurts so much to think about Laszlo right now. I want only to think about Dad, but then I remember something. “He was always urging me to come and see you. On my birthday. Near Christmas. I always said no.” I examine Dad’s face carefully, looking for condemnation, but his expression of blurry concentration doesn’t change. “I think I was afraid. I didn’t understand why you were the way you were. Later Laszlo explained.”

There’s a few seconds’ lag, and then Dad’s eyes narrow and he asks, “What did he tell you?”

“That you took heroin because it was the only thing that took your pain away.”

His expression eases. “Good of him to tell you, once you were old enough to understand.”

“But I didn’t understand.” The anger rises up again. Thirteen whole years in which we were absent from each other’s lives. What would it have looked like if he’d reached out to me? If I hadn’t been such a coward? “I still don’t.”

“You were a kid. Don’t matter. Better this way.”

It doesn’t feel better. My mind is filled with what-ifs. “I haven’t been a child for years,” I whisper. “What’s my excuse now?”

He fumbles for my hand and I give it, looking at the IV needles taped to the back of his. “You don’t need one, love. You’re here.”

But I’m here at the end. There’s nothing to be done at the end.

He closes his eyes but keeps talking in short, mumbled sentences. “I’m right proud of you, Issy. So much like your mum. Do you still play her cello? I never saw a sight so beautiful as your mum. Sitting at that instrument playing that song. Filling the air. I could even see the bird. Do you remember, Issy? ’member how she sounded…”

He lapses into silence and I see it too, the white swan on the water, almost painfully bright in the sunshine, swimming, swimming.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Isabeau

Now

The funeral is held at a church in South London, not far from where Dad lived most of his life. There aren’t many people there to pay their respects and I recognize none of them. He was an only child and my mother’s side cut ties with him a long time ago. Hayley wanted to come with me but I made her stay at home. I don’t know how to bring people into this part of my life.

The salary I was paid to tour with the RLSO was very generous and I see to it that there are lots of beautiful flowers inside the church and on the coffin. I feel like it’s what my mother would want. She loved him, once.

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