Thursday, May 9, 2013


This past Saturday, my mom called me at 8:18 AM.

I didn't answer my phone because I was sleeping. She called again at 8:40 AM, and I still didn't answer. At 8:42 AM, I was coaxed out of a deep weekend morning sleep by the low vibrating sounds of my phone. It was my mom, calling for the third time within the hour.

"Hi honey, I am sorry to wake you, but dad's heart rate has been down in the thirties and we didn't know what to do. The EMTs are here and we are headed to the Emergency Room at the hospital."

Selfishly, the first thing I thought about was how I would have to miss attending the Walker Art Center Jewelry Mart with my boyfriend, Corey. I was also a little out of it, and in the back of my mind I had the familiar thought of, "Is this it? Is this the day we lose my dad? Do I need to contact HR at work?"

In that state of calm, quiet, confusion, all I could think of to ask my mom is, "Should I take a shower?" She told me that she had not even had time to brush her teeth. My mom rarely goes out in public without a full face of make-up, a put-together outfit, and a nice, neat hairdo, so I understood that if she hadn't even brushed her teeth, this was Go Time.

So like a seasoned veteran who has fought multiple foreign tours of duty, I sobered up, snapped into action, and went into my autopilot. I engaged into Responsible Empathetic Daughter role.

I responded to my mom in a calm voice, reassuring her that I would be on my way. It is strange and also dignified to feel calm within medical chaos. I suppose I even have a bit of twisted pride in it. My family long ago used up our allotment of frantic sobbing and compulsive hand-wringing. Almost four years in to my dad's severely handicapped state, we've become seemingly immune to sudden bad news. Intensive Care Units, rehab facilities, nursing homes – we've seen it all.

We are desensitized to the trauma. We are accustomed to standing on the edge of Life and Death.

I arrived in the Methodist Hospital Emergency Parking lot, and there was one last parking space. I saw an ambulance pull up and I knew my dad was inside it. There was another car coming, and the lady driving was staring determinedly right at that last parking spot. I didn't want to have to go drive to the parking ramp and take one of those familiar pastel-colored parking tickets. I'd held dozens and dozens of those tickets in my purse back during the 42 days my dad spent in the ICU in 2009. I decided that, in the grand scheme of things, I probably deserved the parking spot more than this lady, so I hit reverse and backed into it going the wrong way. I didn't even look up to see if she was giving me the finger or something. I was in Go mode.

Inside the Emergency Room, things were quiet. It was almost as if the ER was sleeping-in on a Saturday morning before hectic partying during the coming night. I got a Visitor badge and was escorted through the beige hallways to the one and only active room on the floor, my dad's room. There was one doctor and about five nurses (including my dad's nurse from home) busying themselves about the hospital room. They were sticking little stickies on my dad's chest in order to do an EKG. I looked at my dad, and his eyes looked right into mine. I was startled by his alertness. At home it can be easy for him to drift into a detached state. Not being able to verbally communicate, I think that sometimes my dad chooses to tune out the world so that it is not so painful to not be a part of it.

My dad went through several tests and procedures. They checked his heart, took his blood, took x-rays.  We were there for about five hours. I had forgotten how procedural the ER needs to be. There are forms to be filled out and steps to follow.

While we waded though our Saturday in the ER with my dad, I took on the role of Entertainment and Diversion Director. I read articles to my dad out of The Week magazine. I talked to him and tried to decode the words he was mouthing to us. At one point I frantically recited the alphabet to try to discern the urgent question he was trying to communicate. We figured out that his question was,

"What happened to our Black Lab?"

That said a lot to me. It told me that I am a carbon copy of my dad's insides. Because I know that I too might ask a pondering question relating to details of the past just in order to keep the complex narratives in my overly-active mind straight. In the midst of emergency heart beat problems, my dad was most concerned over the details from over a decade ago of losing the family dog.

The care from the medical staff was excellent on Saturday, but still, there were two things that bothered me about this hospital visit:

  1. The blood draw
  2. The x-rays

The phlebotomist who drew blood from my dad's arm took over fifteen minutes to get it right and he never said a word to anyone. I watched as he first tried to work on the right arm, then switched to the left. He kept tying and untying the rubberband around my dad's arm. I choose to never watch when I get blood taken from my arm, but on this day I felt it was my duty to stay close to my dad and watch every move. I studied the inch-long needle. I studied the small tube that transported the blood into the glass vials. I watched all of it, knowing that I would want my dad to do the same for me if the roles were reversed. If I were paralyzed like my dad, I would feel protected having a family member watch each of the medical procedures performed on my motionless body.

The x-ray technicians were nice enough, but I remember not wanting to leave the room when they arrived because my dad had finally reached a relaxed state of snoozing in and out as I read aloud to him. We had to leave the room for them to take the chest x-ray. When they were finished, they were worried because my dad became agitated, shaking his head with a red face and tears rolling down his cheeks.

"What's wrong, Chuck!?" Everyone asked. Is it your pillow? Are you in pain? Are you scared?

I was standing on the opposite side of his bed. I happened to look down, and to my horror, noticed that my dad's arm was stuck in between the bed mattress and the bed railing. Without being able to yell out in pain to the nurses, my dad's arm was silently smooshed, locked into his bed when the railing was snapped into place.

"It's his ARM," I said. "His arm is STUCK." My dad looked at me and silently nodded, tears still rolling down his cheeks. 

They dislodged his arm and lifted it up. His hand and forearm were all swollen and purple. Apologies were cooed in unison around the room. I wasn't mad, I was just so sad. I was sad for my dad. I felt like he was my child and I was his parent. I just wanted to protect him and comfort him.


That is my role and that is what I am good at – protecting and comforting my dad. When incidents like Saturday in the ER occur, I click into a deeper place inside. I become hyper alert, infinitely calm and patiently pragmatic. It is like I gain a good decade or two of maturity. I know what to do. I know how to help my dad get through.

So why, I wonder, do I flail about in the exact opposite manner in all other aspects of my "normal" life? 
Why is it that I can help my quadriplegic father get unstuck - physically, verbally, emotionally, and yet I cannot dislodge myself from being tangled up in the simple, banal situations of my everyday life?

I ruminate at work. I suffer at home. Thoughts constantly spin in my head about:

  • How to become a normal adult
  • How to regain a healthy weight
  • How to function sufficiently at my job
  • How to cultivate a sustainable relationship
  • How to cook
  • How to stay attractive and stylish into my thirties, clad in my XL wardrobe primarily from Target and JCP?

THESE are the things that fucking stress me out. Not my dad, not paralysis, not death. Instead of getting stuck on the big, scary questions in life, I get stuck on the incremental everyday tasks of being a successful adult. 

I get stuck over-analyzing passive aggressive emails and late-to-my-meeting traffic jams.
So, there. I said it. 

I'm stuck. 

In my everyday life, I am stuck right now.

And the one person who could help me out the best is stuck in a home hospital bed, with 24-hour nursing care, getting oxygen blown into his neck through his trach and medications and nutrients pumped into his stomach through his feeding tube. 

I need to figure out a way to get my dad to have my back again. He is my champion and my cheerleader. He and I share the same emotional programming. We share the same complicated, overly-analytical and hyper-sensitized-to-the-outside-world brains. 

Dad, I need you. My arm is stuck in the bed and only you can help me yank it out.

1 comment:

  1. me too babe. i have an idea to get us unstuck.