Saturday, January 2, 2010

Dancing with my Dad

I showed up late because I got stuck at home taking care of odds and ends in my apartment. I was locked into low-grade-anxiety-zombie-stare mode... Must change cat litter, Must wash stinky dishes, Must find clothes to wear, Must do something with hair...

I got to the hospital at 2:30 PM and found my dad sitting in his wheelchair, facing the window. He was alone in his room. The dusty sunshine spilled in and reflected off his clear blue eyes. I had secretly hoped that he had been asleep instead of wide awake and quietly looking out the window. Whenever I walk into my dad's hospital room and he is already sitting alert and alone in his chair, my heart sinks with guilt knowing that I arrived late.

"Hi, Dad! I had to take Vinny to the vet because he has this little eye infection from dusty cat litter"...(pause for nodding 'Yes')... "It's good to see you up in your chair"...(pause for head tilt to side which kind of means 'Sure' or 'Whatever' or 'Maybe')... "Have you been up for awhile?"... (pause for nodding)... "It is REALLY cold outside today, dad... Guess what? Paul is waxing his cross country skis! And he told me to tell you hi and that he is reminiscing about the wooden waxing bench the two of you made in high school"...(pause for right eye crinkle, which is a big smile.)

I leave the room to allow the nurse and aide to put my dad back in bed. Turns out he had been in his chair for four hours. When I am at home or when I am working late, this is an image that haunts me. I do not like thinking about my dad sitting in his chair alone.

When I come back to his room, my dad shakes his head "no" which prompts me to inquire about his current state. "Are you comfortable?" or "Are you in pain?" are usually the first two questions to ask. Then it might be, "Are you too hot?" and then "Do you want the fan on?" Sometimes I have to pinpoint if he wants the fan pointed directly at him on high, or if he would rather have it oscillating on low. Another important question tends to be, "Are you anxious?" which is always asked with the internal knowledge that this is a ridiculously relative inquiry.

My dad and I stare at each other and he does one of his charming eyebrow lifts which to me says, "So, Here we are." Sometimes I struggle with what to say, or I at least need to warm up a bit to get into one-sided-conversation-mode, so I say things like, "Hi Dad, it's soooo good to see ya...I'm proud of ya!" over and over again until I am ready to perform.

Today happens to be a good day. The sun is shining and my dad is wide awake. I happen to be feeling particularly creative and alive, so I am able to pull up the energy to create some hospital fun.

"Dad! Let's listen to some music."
(He nods 'yes')
I put on the Claude Bolling Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio. I immediately smile at the familiar peppy rhythm. My dad is an amazing flute player (I don't like the term flautist). He played first-chair flute in seventh grade and he performed in many competitions. A natural musician, my dad grew up in a household where his dad, my grandpa, held his doctorate in music. My grandpa was a professional organ player and conductor. He composed many original pieces. My dad carried on his music to his kids - he taught me and my brother to play piano and guitar when we were young.

I decided that it is time for my dad to move a little. He cannot move his body on his own, but an aide normally works with him to do free range of motion in order to keep his joints flexible. I do not know the rules of free range of motion, so I just make it up, bending his knees and wiggling his toes. I move his shoulders back and forth and tap his pinkies for good measure. For once, the music in my dad's room feels cheerful and light instead of nostalgic and somber (I think it is good we are finished with listening to Christmas carols).

My dad knows these songs so well. He could play this stuff on his flute. He watches me as I get a little wackier and start tap dancing by his bed with my salty snow boots on. No one is around. It is one of those lulls in the afternoon when nurses leave you alone and my dad is thankfully stable. The second song comes to a close, and with about seven seconds left, my dad's eyes get really wide and he darts them left, right, then up, down. He stops moving his eyes the second the song is over.

"Dad!? Were you just dancing a little bit there!?"

(He nods 'yes')
I feel thrilled to be spending this breezy afternoon with my dad while he is actually showing his sense of humor despite the fact that he is paralyzed and cannot talk. I pick up his hand and move his arm back and forth, joking with him about how fun it is to be dancing. I remind him of how he used to dance with me in the TV room when I was a kid. He would put on his Beatles and Beach Boys records, and I would twirl around on the brown shag carpet while he would rock from side to side and clap.

I am having so much fun, and Dad feels like Dad and I feel like me. While I am moving his arm side to side and tapping my feet to the jazzy beat, I lean over and whisper in his ear that I am so proud of him for everything.


It is as if the record got scratched or the boom-box became unplugged at a loud party. Because when I whispered to my dad that I was proud of him, he began to cry. I turned off the music and I unlatched the side of his bed. The only way to get right up next to my dad is to unlatch the side of his bed. I looked right at him and told him we should give ourselves a few moments for crying.

I used to not do this. I used to try to hush my dad like a child, as if I could protect him from the constant trauma of his current state. But I have learned over time that it is more of a release and more respectable to him if I let the emotions flow and cry with him.

Instead of always playing the role of premature protector, I have learned to allow myself to still be the daughter to my dad.

So, we cry. Hard. I lean over and hug his fragile shoulders and I am careful not to bump his trach tube at the base of his throat. Both of our faces get red and we both get snotty. I narrate what we are feeling and I promise that I will grab the box of cheap hospital tissues in one more minute. Whenever we cry together, I feel like I have gotten myself up to speed to where I need to be with my dad no matter what happens to him. I force myself to push through the difficulty of telling him important things like, "You are the best dad and you should feel so good about the job you have done." These things take courage to say to him, because I know he knows that I am covering all my bases with him just in case. I would guess that it would be difficult for a parent to hear his kid say things like that. Especially when he can't say anything back.

But somehow I feel better. I feel like I have gotten something off of my chest that I have been struggling to say. I bring over the scratchy box of tissues and I ball one up around my finger as I tell him to close his eyes. There is always a pool of tears that I soak up for him after he cries.

We pull ourselves together. I put on some Vivaldi. I break out my homemade alphabet flash cards and we work on spelling simple words. It is a slow process. I feel frustrated that I cannot chisel my dad out of this invisible shroud of ice.

I decide that we need some couch potato time, so I roll his bed to face the TV. The show Minnesota Bound is playing, and I watch my dad's brow furrow as he watches the Black Lab named Raven. We used to have a Black Lab named Lindy. It occurs to me that I do not need to hear my dad speak, because I often know what he is thinking. The responsibility of being so close to my dad means that I need to keep being there, keep watching the expressions on his face, and keep representing the wonderful human being he is.

I need to keep laughing with him. I need to keep crying with him. I need to keep hoping that I will one day hear his voice again. Until then, I will continue to improvise. I will make up new methods for us to "talk" and I will find new ways for us to solve problems. Until my dad and I can fix this thing, we need to keep dancing together.


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