(This is a continuation of my last post.)
After a frantic, exhausting trip, I’ve just arrived at my father’s room in the ICU. I know, from text updates, that Dad’s still with us; we just don’t know how much so.
I find Mom, completely drained, still in her workout clothes from earlier that day. She had just gotten home from the gym (yes, my 70-year-old mother goes to the gym five times a week and can probably bench press me on a fat day. Puts me to shame, for so many reasons.) She had poured my dad a cup of coffee and had just sliced a grapefruit in half when he gave a small moan and collapsed in his recliner – so gently that he didn’t spill a drop of coffee.
911. The stretcher. Grab the medications. Follow us, ma’am. Why aren’t they moving? Start CPR – charging. No, wait, he has a rhythm again. Stroke. Heart attack. We can’t move him. Now we wait. Transfer. Stabilize. Wait, stroke or heart attack? Yes. Wait. Wait and see.
We’re a little unclear on the details, but Dad’s in a medically-induced coma at the moment, and we have a consult with the cardiologist in the morning. Mom camps out on the questionably-comfortable pullout in Dad’s room while the rest of us head back to Mom’s, dazed and exhausted.
The next few days are filled with ups and downs. Dad wakes up. He doesn’t know what happened, even though we’ve repeated the story several times. He thinks he’s back in his college dorm. He thinks he’s back in the Army. He thinks I’m his wife. (That added an extremely awkward and bizarre twist to the whole dealio.) But there are other times where he knows exactly who we are and where he is. He worked in maintenance at that hospital for over 30 years, and even though he retired seven years earlier, he recognizes several of the nurses who come to care for him.
There are also times – MANY times – where he thinks it’s time to go home. Like, NOW. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen your father in a hospital gown, fish sticks and tartar sauce a-flapping in the breeze, vehemently fighting through the tubes and wires trying to leave the ICU.
My sister: My eyes! MY. EYES!!!
Me: He MADE you with that. WITH MOM.
Sis: EWW EWW EWW <whacks me with bedpan>
Dad sees several specialists. They all agree – he should be dead. They marvel at the angiograms. “Never seen anyone walking around with this, this, these, that, and those all blocked up.” Four highways to the heart; three are permanently closed. They debate about whether to attempt to open up the fourth – aptly named the widowmaker – as it will most likely kill him.
We decide to proceed. What choice do we have? My sister and I walk Mom down the hall, shoring her up on each side, and start planning his funeral, start making lists of who to call and where to start.
But Dad isn’t done yet. (Stubborn old coot.) The procedure works, and when we go back to see Dad, he’s telling the surgeon some elaborate story, gesturing with his hands to illustrate.
Two days later, another setback. The left side of his body droops; we can’t understand his words. We Skype in with a specialist who confirms, after watching him raise his arms, speak, and stick out his tongue, that yes, he has had another stroke, albeit a mild one. (Mild? Is ANYTHING “mild” at this point? Every step feels like a mile; there are no slopes, just mountains and canyons pocked with prickerbushes and mudpuddles that leave marks and tears as you go.)
And so it goes for several days. Ups and downs. Adjustments to medications. Him trying to bribe me to bring him a beer. My sister and I having chair-spinning contests. (Hey, we were exhausted. And it’s a lot harder than it sounds. YOU try staying up for three days straight and completing FIFTEEN rotations on a backless stool without tumbling to the floor. I’ll wait.)
Countless friends and relatives stop by; Dad tells them one by one about his new pacemaker. Sometimes, he stops suddenly mid-conversation and jerks about, faking a shock “event.” (This only fools me the first time. I punch him in the arm. Too soon, Dad. Way. Too. Soon.)
In between these visits are rounds of physical and mental therapy:
Nurse: I want you to tell me something that begins with “B.”
Dad: <cold stare at nurse> BATTLE-AX.
(Hey, I come by my smartassery honestly.)
The good news: Dad went home a couple of weeks later. And this is a blessing, I know. He’s supposed to be dead. All the doctors said so.
But over the last year, he’s gotten progressively weaker. There’s nothing else to be done for his condition. As the cardiologists so eloquently put it, “Surgery is contraindicated.” His veins are too weak to reinforce.
So now, we wait.
And every morning, I check my phone for news. He could have a few weeks, a few months….he’s had a year now. The man who could fix any engine, appliance, or sticky door – the man who somehow managed to restart his own heart the day he collapsed – is dying.
But every morning, he’s still alive. So far.
My mother is caring for him at home. Once overweight, he now needs to be cajoled into eating. (Last weekend, he had pie for breakfast AND lunch. We were thrilled to get two meals into him. AND PUMPKIN PIE IS TOTALLY A VEGETABLE.) He takes dozens of pills a day. He sleeps a lot. He falls out of bed a lot.
Mom’s also trying to slowly transition his business to another dealer. Dad’s had his own business for decades, selling and servicing lawn and garden equipment. He was running this business until the day he collapsed. He tried to run it after he came home, too, but two hours in the shop required an eight-hour nap. And the risk of a laceration is just too great. (Being on powerful blood thinners can turn a paper cut into Niagara Falls. He can’t even use a manual razor anymore.) Yet, Mom doesn’t want to move too fast, throwing out too much of his life’s work too soon. “It’ll only upset your father.” I know this is true. But being in limbo for a year takes its toll.
We had Christmas with them last weekend. And it was bittersweet. We won’t have another. This, my friends, was it.
But there were blessings.
The hubs came along and, since he’s incredibly handy, he helped Mom out by fixing the sink and the lights and doing a bunch of other things Dad has always handled. The hubs has been working really, really hard to rebuild my trust and to repair our relationship – and last weekend, I saw him at his best. (Oh, and in his down time, he bought me a seat warmer and steering wheel heater for my car. THAT’S LOVE.)
My siblings and I got to make dinner together and open presents together and laugh together, as a family, one last time.
And I got to watch the love my parents have for each other – after over fifty years of financial ups and downs, three surly, unappreciative teenagers, polar-opposite political opinions, and the general irritation that comes with having to wash your husband’s socks:
Mom: Do you need anything else, dear?
Dad: Just you.
And then I had to leave. And as I dropped the kids off at their father’s house, and drove off, I was inundated with Christmas music. Every station was jingling their bells, rockin’ around their trees, and lettin’ it snow.
And I lost it.
Over the stupid radio.
As I started to hyperventilate, heaving great, big, mountainous sobs, I told the hubs to find something, ANYTHING, that was just people talking, because If I had to hear “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” ONE MORE TIME I WAS DRIVING OFF AN EFFING CLIFF AND LIGHTING A COOKIE FACTORY ON FIRE.
Holly Jolly Christmas? More like…
(I actually found this “gem” on The Hymns and Carols of Christmas. Clearly, not everyone in history was decking the halls with marshmallow cheer and boughs of jolly. To be fair, though, there was more plague back then.)
The holidays are hard on a lot of people. We have dysfunctional families; we lose loved ones. Yet society has established this Great Expectation of what we’re supposed to do and feel. And it sure as heck ain’t a gray funk of no.
Years ago, I got overwhelmed by the obligation of it all – the cards, the decorating, the baking – and I quit. Voluntarily resigned from the madness. I bought a pre-lit plastic tree, and topped it with an angel that makes me laugh. I gave my unused Christmas cards to Goodwill, and only ate cookies that other people so generously baked and shared. I made reservations for Christmas dinner OUT. I relaxed and enjoyed the season.
It was very freeing.
This year, I’m struggling to find my joy.
Last Christmas didn’t go as planned. That happens sometimes. There are things in life that you just can’t prepare for. But life happens, and you find a way to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
That Christmas wasn’t the one I wished for – but it happened. And we’re going to be okay. We aren’t the same. But we’re going to be OK.
And as painful as the whole experience has been – as heartbreaking, terrifying, exhausting, unfinished, and messy as it is – it was beautiful in its own way. It’s OKAY to be sad. It’s OKAY to be afraid. That means we’ve been blessed to know things when they were different – and I have had, and continue to have, a life full of blessings. It’s also okay to hope and dream and wish. That’s part of the magic.
Christmas last year didn’t go as planned. But it is one I’ll remember forever. I learned more about love, forgiveness, and family than I think I ever knew – and I had no idea how badly I needed the lesson.
When I was a kid, my parents took me and my siblings to church faithfully every Sunday. Sometimes, during one of the prayers, Dad would be standing next to me, serene….then, without warning, he’d uncross his arms just enough so that he could punch his right hand with his left fist. This sent his right elbow swinging….into my hymnal, into ME, or into the collection plate. As the coins danced dangerously to the edge, I’d giggle. And once you start laughing in church…there’s no stopping it. The floodgates are opened, the dam is broken. Mom would glare, and it was like kerosene on an open flame. BOOM. Muffled snorts would sneak out from the hands tightly clamped to our faces, fueled by the dirty looks and stares from <gasp!> other families.
So tonight, at the candlelight Christmas Eve service, I’ll be thinking of my family. I’ll pray for my dad, and for my mom – for strength and happiness while those last few sands in the hourglass fall. I can’t quite capture that bubble of lightness and joy this year, but maybe, that’s OK. This year, maybe my gift isn’t meant to be flashy, heady buoyant exuberance -maybe it’s a solid, calming classic peace.
But the man who taught me that laughing in church is totally OK once in a while would want more than that.
So, if I haven’t found my joy before I’ve blown out my candle tonight, I’ll make it my mission to find a solid belly laugh before the lights go out.
I’ll find just one shiny bauble of joy, and hang it on my mental tree.
Whatever you celebrate, I wish you and your loved ones the brightest of blessings.
P.S. 2015? You can suck Father Time’s little second hand. Baby New Year has a steaming pile for you at the back door, yo.