Saturday, February 16, 2013

Alarms and Hearts

Valentine's Day was shitty.

Or, let me back up. The actual holiday was nice – I got a wonderful meal of mini pizzas and chocolate-dipped strawberries. What I mean is that the actual day was bad.

Since starting in the field eight months ago, I have had good days and bad days working in Advertising. I honestly cannot even remember what made Thursday, February 14, 2013 a bad day in Advertising, but it was.

But that is still not the point. Here is where the story starts:

It was close to the end of the workday. I was in my last meeting and it was starting to wrap up. We all sit behind open laptops in our meetings. I guess that is true for many professionals sitting in meetings all day. We need to have our laptops open, our phones on vibrate at the ready (receiving texts from co-workers who are in other meetings in the same building). We have this compelling need to constantly balance and weigh the importance of three or four things at once, carefully and quickly assessing which event merits our attention for that moment in time.

"Oh, they are going over the budget now? Cool. I better read these ten new emails. Oh, I just got a text from an Account Executive on a hot deadline to kick off a project? Cool. I better step out of the room and go track that mess down. Wow, I really have to pee. I guess I can fit that in after the meeting..."

It's all about triaging a list of non-life-threatening tasks. These are endless To Do lists that will eventually prove meaningless. We rarely give our full attention to what is directly in front of our faces.

So, there I was. Laptop open. I clicked on my Gmail.

When I saw it at the top of my inbox, I sucked in a hot breath and held it. The balloon inside my chest threatened to pop, right there in front of a room full of Millennials.

There, in my inbox, was a Valentine's Day e-card from my Dad.

For every holiday and birthday, the nurses at my parent's house spend an entire day with my Dad scrolling through pages and pages of electronic sentiments so that he can choose a special card for each of us.

My Dad cannot move or speak, so the nurses need to rely on his approval or disapproval by the look on his face or by a nod of his head. Yes, my Dad can move his head, but with his nerve damage he also has a mysterious uncontrollable head shaking that presents itself at random times. So, sometimes when you want him to nod 'yes' or 'no,' you can't get a clear answer because his head is shaking out of control. That's usually when I simply ask him to squeeze his eyes shut for "yes" as in, "Dad, do you want me to read to you now?" and eyes squeezed shut means "yes."

So, my Dad painstakingly chooses each card with the nurses, and he can spell out what he wants them to say by using an alphabet board that looks like this:

The nurses know him so well, though, that they pretty much know what he wants to say to us in our cards. The nurses know that my Dad's nickname for me is, "Runsky" and my mom is "Bunk" and my brother is "Speeder." There are also usually multiple exclamation points, like,

Love Dad!!!!

Back to the Advertising meeting.

I'm sitting there, and I am looking at that unopened e-card from my dad and, without even clicking on it, my eyes start welling up. Finally the meeting ends, and I glide back to my desk without making any eye contact throughout the lively office. I crouch down over my laptop and avoid plugging it into my big monitor. Because this is a private moment. This is a moment in time for me to remember and savor what it is like to be a daughter to a dad.

With my expensive noise-cancelling headphones on, I click on the card and listen to the tinny piano music. It's your basic Valentine's Day card. Kind of cheesy and slightly hollow. But I keep playing it over and over at my desk, each time staring at the part at the end where my Dad added his personal message. Click play. One more time. Soak up the feeling of having a Dad, even if it is only a partial feeling.

 It's 5:15 PM. I have to get out of the office before I start crying.

I make it to the elevator and this nice Account Director hops in. I like her, but right now her kindness is lethal. It just might get me crying before I even have a chance to make it to the privacy of my car in the parking ramp. She asks me if I have any fun plans for Valentine's Day. In my over-share, transparent fashion, I blurt out that "I just got this Valentine's Day card from my dad, but he is a mute quadriplegic who cannot talk or breathe or eat but is totally fine in his mind, it's a long story and this rare thing that happened to him, but anyway, I just need to make it to my car because I am about to start bawling..."

With the skill only Moms know, she gently changes the subject to how she is going to have her kids make sundaes for each other to celebrate Valentine's Day. Maybe it will help them show caring for each other, she says. I am relieved for the momentary distraction, and start chatting with her about different sundae toppings and ice cream selections. But when we get to the floor where I get off the elevator in the parking ramp, she looks me straight in the eye (and maybe even touches my arm?) and says, "Just get to your car."

And that is when I know that even though my Dad's situation is unique, people get it. Maybe they have never experienced the same type of situation, (in fact, they definitely haven't), but people do understand pain. And if they are wise enough, they know how to help you ease through it.

I bid her goodbye then get off the elevator. I quickly walk down the aisle, waiting for my silver Jetta to reveal itself. It doesn't.

Here I am bursting at the seams, just waiting to allow hot tears to hit my cheeks, and I can't find my fucking car.

Turns out my car is on a completely different floor. It is the same floor where the Account Director was going to get off the elevator, and I worry that I might run into her. I've only misplaced my car a handful of times since working downtown, but I always find it deeply embarrassing. But seriously, who cares, right?

Driving down floor by floor, I pull up to the ticket machine and open my door. My window hasn't worked since an ice storm last week, so I have to open my door multiple times a day when entering and exiting parking ramps.

With my dorky bluetooth earpiece in, I call my mom. I'm sitting stuck in traffic and my face is only 10 feet from the view of multiple drivers, but I don't care. I let 'er rip and burst into tears into the phone. My mom instantly crafts messages of comfort like only your own parent can, and I let her strength and forward-thinking philosophical comments comfort me.

She knows what I am feeling. It's that bittersweet ache of my Dad being here, but not being here. It is that yearning to be cared for by a parent when adulthood is not all it's cracked up to be. She gets it. I feel lucky to feel the love of a Mother and I feel lucky she is alive. In the back of my mind, the thought flickers that I will some day lose her, but then I smile when I think of how tough she is and how she'll be here to stay for a long time to come.

"Hey, I have a Valentine's Day bag for you. You have to come over sometime to get it!"

She has such a deep heart, just like my Dad. She's just as aware as I am that our situation is unusual, but she makes it work. She keeps things running in that house with all those nurses like a hospital CEO.

The next day, I visit my parent's house. My Mom has a cute Valentine's Day bag filled with chocolates, a magazine, red socks – it makes me feel like a happy little kid. I go into my Dad's room (it is our old TV room, converted into a fairly sophisticated hospital-like room, complete with a ceiling lift to get him into his wheelchair and two full-sized oxygen tanks for his ventilator).

That night I read a few chapters to my Dad, took a nap in my mom's bed, and ate some slices of leftover pizza. On the family room table, there was a bowl full of heart candy and brownies that my Mom put out for the nurses. She is so good at doing nice things for people, even for not-familiar women who stay in her house 24/7 and care for her husband.

Before I leave my parent's house, I go into my Dad's room to check on him sleeping. It is peaceful in there with dim white light coming from a miniature tree on the nurses's work table. I look up at his heart monitor and am surprised to see that his heart is at 50 beats per minute. This is low for my Dad and must mean he is reeeeally relaxed and enjoying a nice dream.

But suddenly, the green number 50 turns red and the number jumps to 48, 47, 45... A blaring, loud alarm sounds. "BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!" 

I've only heard this alarm maybe a year or two ago when my Dad's oxygen intake dipped too low. The nurse and my Mom come in the room and we just stand there, observing my sleeping Father. BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! The machine comes in and out, dinging to life every time my Dad's heart dips below 50.

I pull up the tall, yellow director's chair that sits level to his tall hospital bed. I just sit there, staring at him. It's quiet, and then BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! the machine goes off with it's bright red lights. "49, 47, 45, 43..."

43 was the lowest I saw it get. We re-positioned my Dad, and then I decided to just sort of shake him awake for good measure. His eyes popped open and looked straight at me. Sometimes I think I can see total clarity in my Dad's face, as if he is completely aware of all that is going on inside and outside of his body and he is silently monitoring it all. He never woke up during that loud ass alarm. It hurt my ears, but he just kept snoozing.

For the entirety of the late night low heart rate event, I sat there in a stupor. I didn't feel scared because I've been a part of scenes like this at least two dozen times. Whether my Dad was in the ICU, at the rehab facility, at the nursing home, or here in his own home, he's had these dramatic moments and always ends up fine. I get concerned but I also just get kind of detached, wondering to myself, "Is this the time? If this is it, should I be saying something or doing something?"

Normally I just hold my Dad's hand. That's all you can do, really. Just hold his hand and feel the warmth of it and consciously feel gratitude for the warmth being there at that moment. Because you know it won't always be there, but right now it's here.

He's alive, you are alive, and he sent you a very nice Valentine's Day card, which made it less of a shitty day.

So I need to remember this.

When I am weaving in and out of a stressful workday, when my chest gets tight, I need to have my own internal alarm go off, blaring an annoying loud BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! reminding me that I am here and I am alive. I have choices. Life is good, for the most part. And for the most part, I have a good heart.

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