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When a Dying Man in the Hospital Told Me He Wished I Were His Daughter

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I was admitted to the hospital because of a pseudo-obstruction, which happens when my digestive system behaves like there is blockage, but there isn’t one. Basically, the nerves that are supposed to help me go to the bathroom stop working. The result is a painfully distended belly, along with a cocktail of treatments and medications. I have to go into hospital if the distention lasts more than four days. It’s all part of dysautonomia, the diagnosis that seems to define my life.

During this particular admission, the hospital was really short on beds, so I was put in a room with three male patients. At first, I was too distressed to really notice. I waddled my way off my bed as soon as possible and began to pace around the room. Locomotion is supposed to help with my condition, so I was getting mobile. Every time I passed my neighbor’s bed, the old man made a low whistle and winked. He did this whenever any female was in the vicinity, but somehow that whistle just for me made me feel the opposite of the person with the big belly who was waddling around the room. I felt like he saw the girl behind the diagnosis. The real me. It made me feel noticed.

That first night, lying in beds a few feet apart with a curtain between us, we both tossed and turned. I could tell he was in pain, too, but I didn’t know why. Then around 4 a.m., he whispered:

“Are you awake?”

“Yes, can I get you some help?” I whispered back.

“No, I just can’t sleep,” he murmured. “Want to talk?”

So Tony and I talked until the nurses changed shifts. He had just had a tumor removed from his groin. He was worried. He was 68. His family was far away in Italy, and he was afraid of the future. I was half his age, supported by a loving family and dealing with a neurological condition that affected my autonomic nervous system. He told me I was lucky. Lying there in pain as my abdomen continued to distend, I found it hard to agree. But I said I did. It’s all relative, right? I felt fortunate I didn’t have his problems to deal with. He sounded so sad and alone.

In total, I spent a week in that room full of men. It had its ups and downs. There was snoring, wind passing and belching. But there were also cheerful inquiries as to whether my bowels had moved every time I returned from the bathroom. And every night around 4 a.m., there were chats with Tony. We talked about life. We talked about being sick. We talked about the things we loved, and the lives we’d left outside the hospital. We became friends.

A few months later, Tony was in hospital again. He called me and asked if I could visit. He sounded fragile. I made my way up to the neurology department. His neurosurgeon walked into the room within minutes of my arrival. He wanted to talk to Tony.

“Oh, good, we’ve been waiting for you to get here,” the surgeon said to me. I raised my eyebrows at Tony. “What for?” I asked him with my eyes.

“Ah, you’re my support person,” he said, looking at his hands. I was shocked. I’d met him in the hospital just months earlier. Did he really not have anyone else in his life who knew him better than me? Who cared for him more than I did? For the next 10 minutes, I held Tony’s hand and listened with horror as his neurosurgeon updated him about his condition. They couldn’t remove the additional tumor they had found in his head. He had weeks, not months. It was unlikely he’d manage an overseas trip to see his distant relatives. He should get his affairs in order. The young neurosurgeon looked at me, nodded and held my gaze for a little longer than was comfortable. And then he asked Tony if he had any questions. After the surgeon answered all of Tony’s questions, he turned towards me and said to Tony, “And your daughter?” I was floored.

In the weeks that followed, Tony and I stayed in close contact. I visited him in the hospice as his time drew closer. It became clear to me he truly had no real friends. He cried a lot. He cried he wouldn’t be able to see his elderly mother one more time. Cried that his wealthy brother was too busy to fly over and see him. Cried with regrets for all the things in his life that hadn’t worked out. He asked me to write his life story, and so I did, sentence by painful sentence, as he rasped or slurred his words. The tumor was beginning to take his ease of speech; his fragmented final memories were pieced together by this random girl he’d met in the hospital. I emailed it all to his brother but got no reply.

The last time I saw him, I kissed him on the forehead as I said goodbye.

“Sleep well,” I said.

“Wish you really had been my daughter,” he murmured back. I think I saw his good eye wink. I’m sure I heard a low whistle follow me out the door. I smiled then. And that night, he passed away.

Tony was right. I am lucky. Lucky our illnesses brought us together in the strangest of ways. Lucky I had the chance to meet someone who made me feel like a girl who still had something to give, not just a sick person. And lucky I got to spend time with another human being through the darkest and most dignified days of his waning life. I will never forget the things I learned from Tony.

Life is short. Luck is relative. And family can be found in the strangest of places.

Follow this journey on The Chronicles of Rach.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Originally published: February 23, 2016
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