Everything I Thought About While My Dad Was in the Emergency Room
“Hold nice and still. Are you in any pain?” the medic asks my 87-year-old father. Pain is not the reason we’re back in emergency room after being released one month ago from this same hospital. “104,” the nurse exclaims. A high fever. The doctor on duty wants to ask me a few questions.
“Has your father been sick?”
I chuckle under my breath as I respond, “He’s had six months to live for the last 40 years.” The man is amazing in so many ways. Longevity is just one.
I met my father when I was 7. Even at that age, I was stricken. It was love at first sight. Instinctively, I recognized tall, dark and handsome. I’ve always been a problem solver, so in my great wisdom of less then a decade of existence, I recommended that my mother marry this man immediately.
He brought a calmness to our family. We’re Irish/German/Midwest farm folk. He’s British aristocracy. He wasn’t comfortable with contention. We thrived on it. He demanded we keep our elbows off the table and asked to be excused. We introduced him to huge family picnics with fried chicken and potato salad. He taught me how to swing dance. Jazz was his music. He once danced with Joan Collins.
I was serving in the U.S. Navy and living in Japan as a newlywed when I got the letter telling me my father had been diagnosed with lymphoma. My parents were living in California, relaxing by their pool and while applying sunscreen to my father’s back, my mother found a large lump. Doctors were still running tests, but it wasn’t good. Best case scenario, he’d have two years to live. I received an emergency discharge and returned to the States. That was 40 years ago. His cancer comes, he gets treatments, it goes back in to remission, he survives.
The nurse just informed me his white count is 1,000. He doesn’t have any immunity left. His chemotherapy has kept his cancer at bay but destroyed his body’s ability to fight.
He’s living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which we believe is the result of years of smoking as a young lad. He stopped smoking almost 50 years ago, but the damage was done. He survived Stevens-Johnson syndrome in the 1950s. The condition is a rare skin and mucous membrane disorder. He was in the hospital for months in a coma as his skin shed and his fingernails fell off. His fingernails now are ridged, thin and small, a reminder of this chapter in his life. But he survived.
“His temperature is 105.5,” the nurse now calls out with concern. They rush and now have him lying on a cooling blanket with ice packets. His white cells are so few that his body’s only recourse is to turn up the heat on the infection. Tylenol, aspirin, antibiotics, steroids — it seems to be working. His breathing is slowing down, his blood pressure had dropped for awhile, but it’s better now.
He’s worse than he was when we were here a month ago. I can tell because the nurse has barely left his side; the doctors routinely pop in and out.
In spite of his breathing apparatus, the IV tubes, the mashed pea-colored half-draped robe, he’s still a fine specimen. Visualize Jack Lemmon. No one believes he’s 87. His legs are long, and he’s stayed slim. My father carries himself with dignity. His shoulders have only just begun to hunch. It isn’t age that’s lowered his gaze but rather a neck injury he suffered a few years back. His British accent adds to his allure, no doubt. Even a proper tongue lashing from him hits the ear with rhythm and a strange peacefulness. I must throw in the proverbial, “Don’t you agree?”
We love to tease him. His properness gives us so much material; this family of Chicago comedians he married. He hates popcorn, root beer, and nuts in desserts. He loves chocolate. In spite of stern direction and efforts to conceal, we always found his stash of KitKat bars.
My dad gave up a lot to head this family. He gave up his bachelor pad, his Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, his homemade sound system. He brought with him his reel-to-reel tapes, his albums: Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Jonathan Winters. His sports car was replaced with a Volkswagen bus.
I wish I was genetically linked to this man; if I had a tenth of his stamina, his morality or his inability to lie, I would be a better person tenfold. He will step aside, turn the other cheek, give you the coat off his back and let you egg his house. What he will not do is let anyone show any kind of rudeness or disrespect for his wife. He loves my mom more than air, more than the air he cannot get enough of these days.
A week later, he’s home. A few more meds, tired, more equipment, but he’s home. He survived. I say, “Good job, Governor, you did it again!”
Thank heavens you’ve survived. I don’t know what I will do without you.
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