My dad and I, dancing at my wedding on May, 17, 2014.
Four weeks ago, I was dancing with my dad on my wedding day.
Today, it’s Father’s Day, and I’m sitting in the ICU at Banner Thunderbird Hospital in Phoenix.
My dad is here, but he’s in someone else’s body.
His face is spread out and swollen. Every part of his body is being run by machines. Tubes stretch out from his mouth, his arms, his shoulders, his abdomen, his groin and his legs. Everywhere.
And yet, he is here. He listens to me as I tell him what I ate for lunch; my flight from Atlanta; my exercise classes; and all manner of vapid things that we both know don’t matter to either of us right now.
But I keep talking, because it’s the only thing I can do and because he can’t. The ventilator keeps him breathing, and he can’t speak with it running down his throat. That doesn’t keep him from trying.
He listens. I ask him a question, and he will raise his arm or squeeze my hand in response. He will form the words “I love you,” and become incredibly irritated that he can’t say more.
Nurses hover around us constantly, checking one medication or the other; noting numbers; changing dressings and bedding and bags; pressing buttons on the dozens of machines that are supporting my dad’s broken body.
I smile and try to stay positive for my dad. I keep talking.
I got the call on Thursday night. I knew it wouldn’t be good.
My dad had gone in that morning for a scheduled procedure. When his pacemaker was installed this spring, they had trouble completing part of the surgery. Because of this, the device wasn’t as effective as it should be. Still, my dad was doing much better, getting stronger. He was able to walk and drive and travel. The doctors hoped that finishing the surgery would give him an even better quality of life.
But my dad didn’t call me.
I knew he would update me when it was over. It wasn’t supposed to be a complicated procedure. He always calls me.
When the phone finally rang, it was the cardiologist. I expected bad news—the worst—but not this bad.
He said my dad became very sick during the surgery; that his blood pressure plummeted and they had a difficult time stabilizing him. He had internal bleeding and couldn’t form a clot, so his body was filling with blood. He was on a breathing machine. He was on a ventilator. His organs were shutting down. I was told he may not make it through the night.
So I got online and booked a plane ticket to Phoenix. My husband and I drove through the night to Atlanta, where we got two hours of sleep in a hotel before I boarded a plane at 8:30 a.m. I arrived at the hospital at 11 a.m. Friday.
I had no point of reference for what I would find. I thought I would be prepared and strong when I saw him, but I gasped and burst into tears immediately. He barely looked human, and he definitely didn’t look like a person who should be alive.
They had found the source of the bleeding and stopped it, but his abdomen was still open, swollen and filled with gauze. They needed to go into surgery again to remove the gauze and check for further problems. In the meantime, he was awake and responsive, and I was able to talk to him.
“I’m here now, Daddy. I’m here. It’s going to be okay.”
It’s a silly thing to say—absolutely nothing is okay—but it’s what comes out of my mouth just the same.
I tell him all the things I hadn’t made time to tell him before Thursday. I sign the consent forms for the second surgery. They roll him away, I cry, and I wait.
The doctor finds me an hour later. It went well, he says. There is no more bleeding. Now they must focus on healing and recovery. I return to his room, where he is semi-conscious. I know they will sedate him for the night, so I tell him I’ll be back tomorrow. I don’t know how many tomorrows there will be.
They change his medication to sedate him further. Maybe he can hear me, but he won’t respond now. In this deep sleep, he will be calm, stop fighting the ventilator, be still so he can heal.
There is nothing more I can do here, so I head back to the house we have been renting in town for the past three months.
There are his shoes, right where he left them.
There are the notes he took down from a phone call earlier this week.
There is a pile of clothes he wanted to give to charity, sorted and ready to be delivered when he returns.
Sadness creeps up as I wonder if he will return. I let it wash over me and carry on.
I stayed with my dad in this house multiple times, caring for him while he was ill or recovering from surgery. We made good memories here: we sat on the patio outside watching the golfers on the coarse across the street; we went to the Farmer’s Market; walked around the botanical gardens; watched movies; cooked dinners. We shopped for the shirt and tie he would wear to my wedding. We grilled out back. We went shopping in Scottsdale.
Sadness hits me again, stronger still, because I remember and I miss him. I want to do more things together; make more memories; spend more time. I want to arrive at this house and find him here, just like it was before. I want to call him on the phone and hear his voice on the other end. I can’t understand this new world I am facing, where that isn’t possible, where he isn’t there.
I am sad. I am afraid. I am confused. I am calm. I am everything all at once. It is emotionally exhausting.
And so I keep waiting, but don’t know what I’m waiting for.
I keep praying, but don’t know what I should pray for.
I keep hoping, but don’t know what to hope for.
I keep riding this roller coaster of the unknown outcome without knowing when I’ll be able to get off.
And so, I keep talking.
“I’m here now, Daddy. I’m here. It’s going to be okay.”
Happy Father’s Day to my Daddy, and to all the other fathers out there. If you are celebrating with your whole and healthy Dad today, take a moment to appreciate what a wonderful blessing he is; be thankful; keep making memories.