Tuesday, December 3, 2013


It was not a good email to receive upon landing in a foreign country. The wheels of the British Airways jet had just touched down at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. I powered on my mobile phone and read the message from my mom about my dad being in the Intensive Care Unit of our local hospital in Minnesota. I read the email again, then looked across the aisle at my boss. I considered saying nothing and doing nothing. I considered pretending that this was an email I never read.

There is this space in time - this space between the moment when something bad happens and the moment when the first action is taken. It is the quiet space where time stands still. It is the pregnant pause before the gong. It is a life-on-pause moment. Living right above busy Lake Shore Drive, I see life-on-pause moments somewhat frequently. I've witnessed three serious car accidents in the few months I've lived above this tight curve on a busy road. The accidents have all sounded the same. It is the sound of metal scraping on asphalt. Except through the thick glass of my windows, it sounds far away, like a sled being pulled over icy snow. 

When I hear the metal scrapping sound, I get out of bed and I go to the window. That is when I see the car turned over, on its side, pushed up against the guard rail, smashed in. Then I open the window and let the cool air in. I sit there, 21 stories above the street, and I wait patiently as the scene below enters a life-on-pause moment. It is quiet. The other cars have stopped. There is a yellow light blinking. I wait, and I wonder what it sounds like inside that wrecked car. Is the person crying? Is the person passed out? Is the person dead? There is no way to tell. I can only wait until someone down there on the street reacts. 

There is no use in me calling the police. There are dozens of other cell-phone-carrying spectators much closer to the scene of the accident. There is nothing I can do except wait and see what happens next. I think about what I am seeing and I note the bizarre surreal nature of the silence that comes after violence. It is the same thing as the quiet at the end of a gun shot or the lingering stillness after a tornado. This is that space in time, the moment between when something bad happens and the moment when the first action is taken. A moment in time when life appears to be on pause. 

Someone yells for help and a person is running across the street with a jacket flapping behind him. In the distance, there are muted sounds of sirens and beeping car horns. These are the signals that the life-on-pause moment has passed and life has now sprung back into action. 

So, after reading the email about my dad being in the hospital, I toyed with this idea of trying to stay stuck within life-on-pause. I could do it. I could not allow this news of my ill father to move forward on my personal time table. I could put my phone back in my purse, welcome myself to Paris, and be on my busy, merry way in my fast-paced around-the-world-business trip. 

But, no. I am too honest for that. I am only good at pretending and lying when it is in the best interest of others. So I told my boss about my dad in the hospital. And then a day later, I flew home to be with him. It was hard for me; changing my exotic Paris to Dubai to Australia ticket to an emergency Paris to London to Chicago ticket. It was a huge let down to leave this amazing trip and go home to the unknown. But, perhaps it is not very accurate to call this the unknown, because illness and hospitals and Intensive Care Units are very well known in my family. In fact, they are downright familiar.

Now in Minnesota and still stuck in a jet lagged stupor, I ride in the backseat of the car, chatting with my brother and mom on the way to the hospital. I inquire about the ICU waiting room. I want to know if the waiting room in the ICU has been redecorated since my family overtook it over four years ago. Four years ago, my dad lived in that ICU for 42 days. Suffering from complications caused by an unforeseen problem after surgery, my dad became a full-time in-house patient in that ICU, and my family set up shop as full-time residents next door in that ICU waiting room. 

It turns out that the ICU waiting room had been redecorated. I liked it better before. Before, the ICU waiting room had these big, bulky hospital recliners that allowed for bouts of restless nighttime sleep and odd daytime naps. Before, the ICU waiting room had well worn soft carpet and smelled like styrofoam coffee cups and waxy coloring crayons. Now the ICU was all freshly dressed in business casual, with a professional looking firm couch and close cropped industrial carpeting. I felt sad for the woman who was camped out at one of the ICU waiting room tables; her laptop and papers all spread out. First, I felt bad because I knew exactly how that felt to be trying to maintain "normal" life while holed up in an ICU waiting room, but second because I could clearly see she would have been happier typing those emails from one of the lumpy old recliners that were now gone.

Thanksgiving. Dammit if I haven't learned to hate that holiday. All holidays, in fact, suck if you are caught in an ongoing family crisis. And anyone who has lost a loved one knows how the holidays have a special way of dredging up fresh batches of nostalgia and hurt. I have been sad on birthdays, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Christmas, the Superbowl, all of it year after year after year. So, yes, in addition to departing from the trip of a lifetime to come home to an ICU at the hospital, I was also coming home to Thanksgiving. 

Normally my dad lives at home with 24-hour nursing care. He has lived for four and a half years with a complex medical condition. My dad has an extremely acute form of Critical Illness Polyneuropathy, making him unable to speak, move, breathe or eat or do anything else besides think on his own. He can still think. And spell, and smile and laugh - silently - and react with emotions. His mind is still totally, completely there. For the week that he was in the ICU at the hospital, the 24-hour nursing care stopped, and my parent's house was oddly silent. I was so accustomed to around-the-clock alertness, often comforting when I stayed up late working. 

On the night before Thanksgiving, my dad was brought back home. He was very out of it and just kept his eyes shut and sleeping during the day. The few times I saw him more perky was when he was sitting in his wheelchair watching movies on the iPad. That is his one time to tune out the rest of the world and ignore his own fucked-up condition and just watch movies. I secretly love it. My dad was never big into TV or movies when he was able-bodied. But now, god help the person who interrupts my dad during one of his movies. You take one of his earbud headphones out, and you better have something pretty important to say.

So, on Thanksgiving, my mom put together a beautiful meal for my dad's nurses since my dad was back at home. It was kind of nice, actually, sitting in the living room with my dad's two day nurses, eating turkey and talking about normal things. Even the nurses knew not to discuss secretions or the color of my dad's urine. They talk about these things many times a day. They sit at our family room table and chart areas on his body that might have skin irritations. They've overtaken the room that used to be the TV room. It is now a fully functioning hospital room, complete with oxygen tanks, alcohol swabs, a ceiling pulley and  a complex breathing ventilator. There is also a hospital bed and a suction machine. There are also books that I read to my dad and photos of my little nephew on the wall. My mom tapes these photos all over the walls so that my dad can look at them during the day.

My time in Minnesota was a blur of beeps and phone calls and stats. I had to fly back to my own home in Chicago, and it felt totally off. I did this yesterday morning, then went into work. As soon as I landed in Chicago, I called my mom from the airplane, ready to tell her that I was feeling off. She listened with supreme patience and empathy like only a mom can do. 

But then she told me that my dad was back in the hospital ICU with more complications. The first thing I thought of was of my Facebook post. The one where I joyously announced LOOK WHO'S HOME FROM THE HOSPITAL and included a picture of me and my dad smiling. 

Lots of people had commented and "liked" this post.
But now, here it was, no longer true. 

Now I am left alone in my new city, uncomfortable with grief and antisocial with a distaste for all the happy, unharmed people. 

There is a hard truth in life that only some of us know. This truth is that some pain does not have an end. There are some things in life that continue to hurt and hurt and hurt some more. For me, the last four years with my dad have been a never ending series of departures with no arrivals. We just keep getting on airplane after airplane, and we never seem to land. 


  1. Oh Susan... I am in tears. I have felt your "life on pause" one tragic day with Adrayn... in the pool. I do not know your pain, but I do know how delicate and beautiful it all truly is. It becomes so clear in those tragic moments, when we are helpless. You are a bright soul, thank you for sharing. Love you girl.

  2. You are a wonderful, thoughtful, strong woman. There's no right answer in any of this...I'm thinking about you and sending big hugs from Minneapolis. Your description of the life-on-pause moment is one of the most perfectly described things I've ever read. xoxo