i remember the first roller coaster i ever rode, in myrtle beach back when i was a senior in high school. that trip, like this one with daddy, was all about uncertainty, and it did not end as i would have wanted. i was supposed to love riding the roller coaster, but i didn't. i was scared but i didn't want anyone to know it, so i got back on again.
that's what you do, isn't it? you get back on and see if the next ride will be different. at least that's how it is for me right now. i'm willing to ride again. because i keep thinking one of these days soon it's going to be a joy ride with daddy, and not the scary one we have been on.
years ago, my father and i took a joy ride. it was Ash Wednesday, and when i was little, daddy took wednesday afternoons off. my brother and sister were in school but i was 4, so the two of us set out in a cold rain to ride an hour or so to visit my grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins. as we drove north, the rain turned to ice, and before long, snow covered the road and the telephone poles leaned toward one another, held up only by the power lines.
i could hardly be a reliable narrator recalling a memory when i was 4, but when i think of that day, i see the wipers swishing hard as the whole world turned white, daddy leaning into the dash, his hands gripping the steering wheel. we didn't turn back. daddy kept that car on the road and somehow we reached my grandparent's house. when we arrived, the lights were out, and we found them huddled around a pot belly stove in an upstairs bedroom, trying to stay warm.
it would turn out to be a legendary storm, the Ash Wednesday Storm, a northeaster that battered the outer banks and caused damaged that took years to repair.
now daddy and i are in the middle of a different kind of storm, but in many ways it's the same: he's driving on icy roads, i'm holding on to the seat for fear of slipping.
on the first day of this week, i sit by his side, watching him breathe in and out, look at his blood pressure (good) and try to cool off from beneath the hot yellow gown and purple gloves i have to wear to guard against infection. he is hard to wake, though when i left him a few days before, he stayed awake for much of the day.
so the only certainty is that there is none.
except maybe in the cafeteria. my father has been housed in the hospital now for 47 days. and he has many, many days left. so sometimes when they say it's time to do this or that to him, i end up in the cafeteria, alone, watching, trying to eat something.
the man next to me speaks into his phone, which he lays on the table as he eats a very large salad. his words could be my own: sleeping mostly, i don't think he knows i'm here. concern. sleeping. update. all words i have used myself in the past day. finally he ends his conversation with 'drink plenty of fluids and get some rest.'
i imagine he is talking to his child, updating him or her on the grandfather's life now in ICU, or somewhere on the floors above where we sit. i say a prayer for them, quietly, because i know what he and his family are going through.
looking around, i recognize: the young woman wearing a beautiful Muslim scarf. she is on daddy's lift team, comes around every few hours to shift him in his bed and who now calls him Pop B, just like she is a grandchild. the hospitalist is there, the one when daddy first arrived those many days ago. he saunters up to the cash register, just as he did that first day to daddy's room... sauntered, hands in his pockets, posture that made me feel he didn't care very much about his patient. one thing my daddy doesn't do, never did, is saunter.
everyone else caring for daddy is engaged and concerned, wanting not to pass the time but to make this critically ill man better. and so i tell the nurses and the therapists and the doctors about where he practiced and how long, try to paint a picture of this man who to them is an very sick and aging man. a man can't speak for himself right now.
i know nothing of medicine, but the longer i stay here with him, the more i just want to somehow to story him well, if that makes sense. telling his story, somehow, has to make him better. right?
friday comes, and it is once again my turn to sit. when i arrive, they've shifted daddy's bed into a sort of chair, and he has the paper in his lap. he wears his glasses for the first time in these 47 days, looks so much like himself that i'm startled. i've brought him a soft ball to squeeze because right now he can't use his hands or arms very well, and squeezing the ball will help him grip the wheel again, navigate this icy road. i drop the ball into his hand and say 'squeeze' and he looks at me and does just that.
behind me, players in the ncaa tournament travel back and forth across the floor, tossing another ball, and every now and then daddy looks up. his team is not in the running, but mine is, and i pretend for a moment to be daddy's coach. we work with the balls, he nodding his head, squeezing and dropping, moving his arms just enough to show me he can. i hold my phone in front of him, showing him a picture of his newest great-grandchild and ask him to hand her the ball. he moves it over and places it in front of the picture, smiling at her, his lips forming the thin line i have known my whole life.
'remember the story of the little engine that could?' i ask him, and he nods. 'that book is as old as you are, daddy.' he was two when it was published. might have read it as boy.
ok, daddy, i think you can, i say, urging him to try one more task — to touch his finger to his nose. i'm allowed to lift his elbow but he has to do the rest. we try but he can't quite make it, so take a time out. a few minutes later we try again, and i say: i think i can i think i can... until his narrow finger meets that nose.
so much of his recovery now depends on this kind of work. this knowing that he has inside him what he needs to keep from slipping back down the icy road. what he needs to get well.
by the end of the day he can put the ball in my hand and pick it back up.
have to hit the road, daddy, i say, exhausted myself from being his coach. i'll be back on monday, ready to let him steer once again, while i sit holding onto the seat.
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