He looked small in his hospital bed. No smaller than usual, but still, the nurses must have considered him a small man. It’s mentioned often––how small and fragile a man can look in a hospital bed.
He looked small in his hospital bed. No smaller than usual. When I see him now, I see the face of my grandfather––a man known for his meanness––whom I knew for the homing pigeons he kept lovingly in a shed in his backyard. Suddenly they share the same gentle stoop, the same small frame, the same deep wrinkles and small, weary eyes.
Almost every night, as Grant and I brush our teeth, he’ll broaden his chest for me, standing tall into all six feet four inches of himself as I run my hands across his thick collarbone, as I catch my breath at the height and width of him. Perhaps it’s my dad’s increasing frailty that initially attracted me to someone tall and protective. At night, I curl myself into his side. I fall asleep with my neck strained to lie atop his breast. Maybe I know that he’ll never look small in a hospital bed, no matter what else he’ll look like.
My dad is sixty and has been sick since I was twenty.
He didn’t recognize me last week. He was strapped to a hospital bed by wrist restraints, a long tube attached to the crown of his bald head, dripping clear brain fluid into a bag hanging near my feet. I held his sun-patched hand while a nurse talked loudly over him. “Joe. Tell me your name. What’s your name, Joe? Joe. Who is this? Who is this holding your hand?” He looked away. He strained against his restraints. I did not cry. I cradled his sweaty palm, set my jaw, and stared out the seventh-floor window at the parking lot below, covered in hot summer rain.
Last week, when I thought surely this time he would die, it comforted me to think that everyone’s parents die. And if they don’t, if the child dies first, that is a greater tragedy. This is how it’s supposed to happen, I told myself. This is the order of things.
A few days later, he was able to sit up, to squeeze my hand, to say my name, and I thought, What will I write about now? This is how selfish I am. My father is alive and not dead and I have less to write about. You want it darker, sings Leonard Cohen. We kill the flame.
My father has been sick for five years, but he’s always been sick, I just didn’t know. If someone could have pulled me aside as a child or an adolescent or even a young adult and told me, “Hey. Heads up! Your dad has a disability compounded by clinical depression!” I think that it would have helped me to understand him. If someone had told me, “When he’s yelling in the kitchen, that’s not just learned behavior, that’s his injured brain, firing at you over and over, all wrong.”
If someone had just told me, “Your dad’s disability makes it hard for him to turn off the television to talk to you. It makes it hard for him to remember the names of your friends or boyfriends, harder still to notice when you’re drunk at the breakfast table,” maybe that would have helped me to need him less.
Maybe it would have even explained the phone calls he made to me as a college student, spending forty-five minutes detailing his depression without asking about my life in a new city.
Maybe it would have made a difference. Maybe I would have learned to say something other than lonely when I was asked to describe my childhood.
He was not a bad father. In fact, he may have been a very good one. I never doubted the depth to which I was loved. He watched Sense and Sensibility with me on rainy Sunday afternoons. He drove me to high school in the early mornings when I missed the bus on purpose. He taught me to maintain a weariless sense of humor in the midst of crisis, even as my chief defense. And though I often felt that he didn’t truly know me, didn’t really care to, there were some years that I considered him my greatest friend.
He traveled extensively for work when I was a child, missing birthdays and family vacations for countries as unimaginable to me as Bangladesh. But he brought back presents. I would come to stand reverently at the edge of his white bed, tiptoed, searching for a gifts’ glimmer amidst dirty socks and book sleeves. There were Matryoshka dolls from Moscow, ballet slippers from Prague, a charm bracelet from Vienna, yellow earrings from Thailand, a heavy hand-woven blanket from Bangladesh. These presents always felt like a secret between the two of us. I was sure my brothers weren’t receiving such loot. Even now, over fifteen years later, when I ask them, their memories are far less specific than my own. The gifts they mention are simple and less tailored to their individual desires. It can’t be true, but it confirms my vain belief that my gifts were given special care, that I was, am, and will always be not the favorite of my father, but the child closest to his heart, the child he seeks out.
Perhaps it was this sense of being particularly loved that made me feel particularly needed and prompted my move back to my parent’s city. I left their house as soon as I could, at seventeen, and moved to New York. In the years that followed, I went everywhere I could think to go but home. Ann Arbor, Brussels, Athens, an island off the coast of Vancouver.
When he was twenty-two and living in Guam, my dad suffered a traumatic head injury while running to catch a bus. As a child, I never grasped the whole story. I told friends that a bus door opened into his head, but in retrospect, that seems ludicrous. I’ve never seen a bus door swing open fast enough to cause a head wound, most creak and sigh their way to a half-open halt. After his latest surgery, I finally asked. What happened in Guam?
He had been taking time off from the University of Georgia to live on the island with a Christian missions team. He was adventurous, impossibly tanned, blonde, and the life of every party. Grainy photographs show him flaunting tiny red shorts and thick, powerful thighs in front of waterfalls, or wearing a newspaper dress and tiara, waving theatrically to a crowd of laughing students.
He was running to catch a bus that was leaving him behind. As he caught up, he grabbed hold of the bus’s metal handlebar and catapulted himself up the steps, colliding at full-speed with the opening metal doors. It was the middle of the summer, and despite the blood and brain fluid that the driver helped sop up, my dad youthfully wrote it off, staying to complete the term with little medical attention.
A few months later, back in Georgia and plagued by chronic migraines, he went to see an Athens neurosurgeon, Dr. Cuff, and was diagnosed with hydrocephalus. Dr. Cuff is still my father’s chief surgeon, and after 35 years, his name has taken on a mythical ring. When he isn’t present at my father’s surgeries––when it’s interns or other doctors awkwardly workshopping their bedside manner––I long for Dr. Cuff and his wizened, white-haired hands, for the way his presence has come to signify my father’s safety.
In a healthy body, a clear liquid called cerebrospinal fluid flows through the spinal cord, into the spaces in the brain, and is continuously reabsorbed into the bloodstream. The bus accident injured the part of my father’s brain that allows this liquid to drain. Without plastic shunts serving as funnels, his brain would flood and enlarge, resulting in memory loss, irritability, lethargy, and if untreated, death.
He had his first surgery in his early twenties, a few months after his head injury, and for the next thirty-five years didn’t require another. Then, during my senior year of college, the plastic hardware in his brain that battled the disease began to grow old, to malfunction, to break.
I was twenty-two and living in Brooklyn, trying to tamp down my fear that something would go wrong so that I could continue to focus on my own precarious life. It made me miserable. The person that loved me more than any other person in my life was suffering, and the longer I stayed away, dating and drinking and dancing on rooftops, the colder I felt ––selfish and hard of heart.
I’d like to paint myself as the faithful eldest daughter who quietly put aside her own dynamic, promising young adulthood to help her family, but frankly, that’s not the case. That is the daughter I have fought to become in every hospital room, on every June afternoon spent mowing my father’s lawn, on humid mornings spent climbing onto my mother’s roof to clean her skylights in a drizzling summer rain.
I’ve grown into a more loving, present participant in my family, but only by telling everyone that I already was. In truth, when I left Brooklyn, it was because I had given up. I’d been laid off from another desk job, having been fired from a receptionist position only six months before. The lease was up on my Greenpoint apartment where I paid $750 a month to sleep on a mattress, on the floor, with my gay best friend. The idea of looking for yet another job I didn’t want, in a city that was wrecking me financially and emotionally seemed exhausting and fruitless. I used my dad’s illness as an excuse to flee my own life and all its increasingly fraying ends. I led everyone to believe that I was making a sacrifice, when in reality I was barely twenty-three and completely out of ideas for my future, sprinting home to raid the full fridge, stack my suitcases in the corner of the guest bedroom, and bury my head in the white curls of my childhood dog.
It’s been almost two years now since I left New York for Atlanta. Since then, my father has had six brain surgeries, each more frightening than the last. If I hated my life in this strange, southern town, I would resent his illness, or his need, or my being here. But I’m happy. I live in a small blue house with a big, sad-eyed dog. The sun shines as warm as Miami, and the thunderstorms are furious and alive. My boyfriend, Grant, likes to jump on the trampoline with me, and I’m keenly aware that each day I am becoming more of the woman I hope to be and less of the woman I was.
Still, I often feel the need to partition myself away from my family. The trauma of this summer’s stint in the hospital was so draining that in the weeks since, I’ve found myself ignoring my dad’s calls, declining invitations to dinner, spending my birthday in New Mexico rather than flying to the family reunion. He came to my house last week to pick up a lawnmower I’d borrowed, and afterward, I cried in the afternoon sun, embarrassed by how strongly I reacted to the sight of him stooped, exhausted, complaining.
During the days that I thought my dad would die, I found myself planning the meal I would take him to if he lived. There would be red wine, scotch, steak and potatoes––his favorites––my waitressing salary be damned. He’s been out of the hospital now, walking with a cane, working, traveling even, for over a month. We have yet to have that meal.
I’m happy he’s alive, but I don’t want to see him.
While he was in the ICU, I spent an evening at home with Grant. We split a bottle of rosé on our back porch in the cicada-singing night, my feet in his lap, trying to decompress from a day under fluorescent lights, from the horror of having to call each of my siblings one by one to explain to them calmly my father’s symptoms and condition, to tell them to look for flights, to be ready to come say goodbye. I’d never been so exhausted, but there was a quiet beauty to that night, a clarity only wine and sorrow and a summer evening can bring. While my dad was living in Guam, he was engaged to a girl he’d met at The University of Georgia. When she found out about his brain injury, she broke off the engagement, worried that he would never be the same. If not for his accident, he would never have met my mother at grad school in Los Angeles, or noticed her pink jelly sandals, or she his Savannah cowboy boots. I wouldn’t exist without his disability. What’s more, I wouldn’t have moved to Atlanta, where I met Grant, the man I’ll marry, the very day after I arrived. For a moment, I glimpsed a corner of the tapestry of my father’s life, so bound to my own, and I felt a profound and an inexplicable grace, a force that used and is using my family’s deepest source of pain to work good in our lives, to introduce us to one another, to reveal us to ourselves.
Dad turns sixty-one this month. We’ll celebrate our August birthdays together. My brothers and their wives will be absent, but my mother, my father, my sister, Grant, and I will stand in the kitchen, exchanging gifts, drinking wine, making the yearly strawberry-rhubarb pie, somehow more beautiful than we were last month, somehow preordained and watched over and blessed just to be together and awake to the holiness of the messy kitchen and the summer evening and each other.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Thanker212