My father is in the hospital right now recovering from a traumatic brain injury.
About 10 minutes prior to receiving the frantic call from my stepmom, I was listlessly laying about the pool on a self-selectedly lazy Sunday afternoon. I had called in a pizza for carry-out and realized I should probably begin the long slog to my vehicle parked outside my sister’s fancy apartment complex. My empty stomach was doing that thing it does where it hurts from intaking a heavy-handed triple serving of alcohol over a short period of time. Some would call this a normal physiological reaction. I consider it one of my many weaknesses.
I charge my phone in the cigarette lighter while I step inside to retrieve the soon-to-be-free ‘za from Pizza L’Vino. My order’s not ready, so I sit down. I notice they sell beer. Knowing beer will resolve my alcohol-guided stomach cramps, I grab six. It’s only 3:00 pm, so what’s the harm.
As I place my newly filled cooler into the back of my vehicle, I check the percentage of my phone. A missed call and a new voicemail from my stepmom. She never calls me. The only reason I have her number saved in my phone is due to my Mom’s hospital incident 5 years ago. The voicemail is breathy and frantic. I hear “your dad”, “fall off a ladder”, and “life-flighted.” I sigh a “not again” and return inside the pizzeria. My free ‘za is still a few minutes from coming out.
My family has been through this hospital ritual before: 10 years ago with my grandfather, 5 years with my mom, 3 years ago with my grandmother. Despite my closeness to the actors in previous plays, I’ve always had seats in the nosebleeds, by choice and by not. This is my first time to have front row seats to this production.
The previously friendly and gregarious pizza manager notices the change in my demeanor upon returning from my car. He reiterates that “it’s coming right out.” Having grown up in restaurants, I’ve used this line a million times before. So I’m inured to it correctly predicting my arrival time to the Med Center ER. So I sit in silence. I don’t feel like telling a complete stranger that I’m waiting for my pizza to finish because I’m not a neurosurgeon. Also, a scene change requires a wardrobe change, especially out of this particular bathing suit.
Too many steps to explain. Too many steps without dutifully wordsmithing that particular type of presentation. So I sit in silence and wait.
When you’re in the neuro ICU, you quickly acclimate to the atemporality of hospitals. There is a circadian rhythm to the entire place, but the fundamentals don’t change. In to check the monitors, check his body placement, adjust his head, confirm the IVs aren’t blown, check his diaper. With a childhood spent in a restaurant, the perfunctory nature of the room checks is not lost on me. But unlike making sure someone’s water glass is filled, the eye movements of my Dad’s charge nurses don’t simply scan. They examine. They search and actually inspect my Dad’s infrastructure of ductwork, wiring, sewage, and foundation.
The walk from the parking garage takes eight minutes and forty-five seconds, plus/minus one minute for parking on a higher level, a group of slow-walkers, or a dilly-dallying elevator. It takes eight minutes and forty-five seconds to walk through the labyrinthine neutral-tone walls and floors with subdued greys, maroons, forest greens, navy blues, and mustard yellows. I memorize the route to and fro by a series relative directions, not by landmarks nor by cardinal directions. The journey always feel spiral-y.
I realize that hospitals aren’t really designed for humans. We’re in probably one of the best hospitals in a thousand miles, and this hospital is not designed for us. Dad’s hospital room is not our pastoral corner of the earth. It is a bathtub in the middle of an ocean.
These cream hospital floors, the roiling ocean of gainsboro striated waves. Each tile is another crest. Each break in between, another trough. No differentiation between any of them. Functionality in a hospital room is the guiding current. The walls accent the overcast sky of the wide ocean. A minimal amount of aesthetic contrast necessary to overshadow how irrepressibly choppy the sea is.
As I pass each tile on my way back and forth, I can feel that rocking motion in the bathtub. Each step is a step closer somewhere, hoping I don’t have to bucket out any more water. But despite knowing we’re headed toward the shore, we really don’t know which strokes of the oar are getting us there. Or how much water in our makeshift boat is too much. You try to keep each oar push as effective as possible.
You make sure you’re polite and positive to everyone. You show empathy. You spark conversation. You take phone calls from extended family to get them up-to-speed. You talk about what other people want to talk about. You crack your stupid, dry jokes whenever possible because that’s your role in the family. You make sure you say thank you.
I stare at the horizon from my lower vantage point, and all I see is more bleariness. The clouds above diffuse the light enough to keep you guessing. A doctor or nurse will do a clinical cognitive test, with no discernible change from one hour to the next. No one in the family remembers much of their high school anatomy. Except me. I’ve already Googled and read up on these clinicals they’re doing to Dad to better understand where our lodestar is. I learn how to use the astrolabe in the crepuscula of mornings and evenings. I don’t need to tell anyone about any of this throughout the day but need it for my own understanding. To feel in control. Maybe I’ll think of one more incisive question about what’s going on inside my Dad’s head.
My dad never does yardwork. He never has. My mother used to lean into the presumptions of gender roles in order to emasculate him. I never thought anything of it at the time. I was 12 (or younger). None of this has ever really changed. Flashes of outside house work glint and gleam through my Dad’s storied history. But he is generally past torturing himself for those temporary victories over his suburban fiefdom.
I blame myself for adversely motivating a 66-year-old man to clean out his own gutters while his wife ran some weekend errands. Writing it out, it sounds more ridiculous than it really seems in my head. In my head, this contention seems firmly planted in cold-hard logic.
His daughter had her 12th birthday party the day before his accident. All of the aunts, uncles, and cousins were there. I showed up an hour late, but came out of the gate riding hot. I made fast friends with my half-sister, her friends, and her comparably aged cousin. It’d been a while since we chatted. They joined me as I ate late in the newly built backyard patio. I see all the children running on and around the jungle gym, climbing the slender 20-year-old live oak, and the playing pseudo-stickball in the open grass. I’m cracking jokes to 12-year-olds who are dazzled by my ability to “making anything a joke.”
My half-sister’s younger brother had a Saturday commitment, so Dad had disappeared from the party with him before I arrived. By the time he returned, I was in rare form. I started giving him shit for not tending to his gutters well enough. We can all see some frisbees in them from our vantage point. The first party of the season and he “had fucked it all up with his new patio.” My Dad had his classic averbal open-mouthed smile, knowing a clever retort will come to him. He holds me in suspense as I wait for his response.
“Well, it’s tax season!” is what he comes up with after a 6-second pause.
Good one, Dad.
He discusses what he wants to add to his patio: a wooden picnic table. I quickly pull out my phone to show him a new feather in my dinner conversation hat: a 14-foot long wooden picnic table. I helped build it for a friend’s backyard with 2x4’s and 2x6’s, guessing our way to the finish line. My Dad is excited in the way that made it seem like he was actually excited by my creation. Not the excitement I received after bringing home artwork from elementary school.
“That’s what I should do: build a picnic table back here. That’d be a fun project,” my Dad exclaims.
“Uh, have you ever worked with wood like that, Dad?” I ask having acquired my woodworking skills in high school and college.
“You should probably just buy one. They’re reasonably cheap,” I jab him back with.
“Well, I’ll look in the garage to see what tools I have,” he tells me again after another 6 seconds.
Like I said: “firmly planted in cold-hard logic.”
That was last Saturday.
It’s been Sunday twice now. Easter Sunday this 2nd time around.
He has risen!
My father… not so much.
My older brother Mason went to work this morning and agreed to watch over him. A particular devote Christian now, I expect my brother to leave as soon as I arrive. He’s penning some notes in the running log we have, in the chair close to the door. None of it is truly noteworthy. It’s more of stock ticker, minor oscillations toward an end-of-day closing bell. I haven’t written in it since Wednesday.
I expect my brother to leave so he can be with his family on Easter. He finishes his notes and stands up. I set down my backpack and sit across my Dad from him while he comes over to hand me the black & white composition notebook. He walks back toward toward the door and sits back in his chair. He pulls out his work Blackberry. I realize he is spending time with his family on Easter.
Expecting solitude, I emotionally change gears. Thumbing the notebook just handed to me, I ask Mason, “Anything new on Dad? Or just the same ol’ same ol’?”
“Yeah,” he says without eye contact as he finishes managing directing whatever an investment banker manage directs on Sundays.
Mason updates me on Dad’s breakfast. His visitors. Any of the clinicals. His last BM. Dad’s been more aware than he was since the last time I saw him on Friday morning. Still conversationally resembling Dory from Finding Nemo, though.
I ask Mason about the kids and their plans for the summer. He leans back in the chair. We let our conversation wander a bit, but we just sit in silence and wait.
This is not a definitive moment in the story. There are no moments of confessing to my Dad all deepest, darkest secrets. No moments of huge revelations about the direction of my life. There is no grand reconciliation between strained familial relationships. Nothing is resolved. This is real life.
My Dad’s recovery isn’t waiting for timing convenient to the type of story we want to tell at a dinner party. My Dad’s recovery doesn’t care about Christian motifs which more firmly cement the corporeal to the spiritual and the hope derived from. My Dad’s recovery doesn’t know the actors or their motivations. My Dad’s recovery doesn’t care about us.
Dad doesn’t even know we’re there most of the time.
When my Dad’s more awake, he’s in that liminal cognitive state where you have to get to know the same familiar building while realizing it’s no longer the home you grew up in.
He’s now in the rehab unit of a different hospital closer to his home, regaining his physical abilities more each day. I see the knowing tender look in his eyes, but he’s not the same person. I ask him where he thinks he is, and he’ll have that open-mouthed smile waiting for the response to come to him. It’s nice to see a familiar contortion on his face, but the answer never comes.
No one’s home. Yet.
“Yeah! Uh huh,” maintaining that encouraging intonation in my voice, like I’m sure my Dad’s done for me a million times.
(I’m so sorry for pushing my Dad away when I was in middle school and high school. I pushed a lot of people away during that time. He was just an easier person to push away at the time. I’ve been making up for being a shitty son and brother ever since then. If you’re someone in my life who finds me to be quite a pleasant, caring friend, you are getting the residuals of this shift in general outlook.)
That isn’t why I’m here, though. I’m here for everyone else.
There’s a long poem I had to memorize while doing a high school summer program at the U.S. Naval Academy. This particular quatrain always stuck with me:
On the strength of one link in the cable,
Dependeth the might of the chain.
Who knows when thou may’st be tested?
So live that thou bearest the strain!
So I wait and bear the weight of the oar. The feel of resistance as you push it against the enormity of the sea. The strain of bilging with my arms. Removing each bucket, realizing it’s merely a collection of drops. This isn’t sacrifice. It doesn’t feel like sacrifice. It always feels like not enough. Because I’m not in control. None of us are. Only the ocean is. So I hope for a big day.
Big days are miniscule in the grand scheme, but oh-so very important in a micro. And when you’re laying vigil over an infirmed loved one, your bathtub is all you have. We’re all in it together, still getting hit by the sloshing, salty waves, hoping for calmer seas and a bigger bucket,
Sitting in silence and waiting,
Waiting for him to come home.