excerpt: June 15, 1997 ©susan byrum rountree
My father is an amateur magician. With a sleight of hand, he pulls coins from behind the ears of grandchildren, performs card tricks and watches for our disbelief. He separates inseparable rings.
Another trick he knows is making figures from balloons, those thin ones that give the rest of us headaches when we try to blow them up. He twists them into dachshunds, swords or party hats in a blink. He learned this grandfather skill when I was 10 years old, the year he almost died.
It was on his 39th birthday — just the age that I am now — when a fever brought on by a lung abscess was draining life from his weakened body.
I remember it as a cold day, Dec. 2, when my mother took my brother and sister and me to Norfolk, where Daddy was in the hospital, to celebrate his birthday. (author's note: we think now it was Dec. 3.)
Our celebration turned to a watch, as the three of us waited together in a cold side room. Then one-by-one they took us to where he lay packed in ice, hardly recognizable. I remember oddly dim fluorescent lights, nurses standing in dark corners and doctors wearing white coats and grim faces.
I'd never been afraid of hospitals before. I'd walked the hospital corridor many times with my father, heard his whistling from behind delivery room doors, wondering, as I watched the shadows move on the floor, what medical magic he was performing. I'd stood with him by the nursery window, gazing at the bundles there, wondering really, how babies come to be.
But on those trips, Daddy was always the man in the white coat with the stethoscope draped around his shoulders, silver and gold pens dipping deep into his chest pocket.
My father is the one folks in Scotland Neck call "Doc." He's the one man here who knows just the trick to cure what ails you. But on that day in 1967, with his body splintered with tubes, it was the city doctors who had the answers. They took part of his lung, and within hours the fever left, and he was sitting up in bed and eating. By Christmas Eve he was home, and soon after he was blowing up those snake-like balloons, to strengthen his lungs. He returned to work, the direct result of hundreds of prayers and perfect medical timing.
march 1, 2013
the thin red line that holds a stranger's blood loops around like one of those balloons Daddy used to blow up, drawing circles on the white blanket as it makes its way into my father's body. i watch, wondering what might happen if the line breaks. because it feels like my life with Daddy is just a bit broken as he lies here, his 23rd day in the hospital.
i hold his hand and share my day, pretending we are sitting in the family room, with him resting and listening from his favorite chair. though in truth, I'm reading the monitor that now gauges his every breath. even as he nods off and on, i think he knows what's going on. he is a doctor, even in the middle of this crippling illness that seized his body three weeks ago.
i think about how one day in early winter, i took him to have a test that required sedation. when he woke, he marveled at the number of people in what my car dealer grandfather called the back shop. where the nuts and bolts are put together, where the job is done. awake after a procedure designed for him not to remember, Daddy sparkled, like the Daddy i have known for so long. he was in his medical back shop, a place he had clearly missed.
'he must have to do a lot of these procedures to pay for all of this staff!' Daddy said then. i could almost feel the energy he felt, just sitting there watching the act of diagnosis and healing taking place. this was his life, taking care of people, trying to figure out what was wrong with them. i couldn't help thinking that if we could put him in a chair just to watch it all again, that would be his happy life.
today he is the patient once again. 23 days. 23. if he could only count the number of people who have worked so hard to help him make it to day 23, he would first be thankful. then he would certainly be figuring the price tag.
i'm spending fridays with Daddy, holding his hand, asking questions about all those tubes. he is just about well from what brought him here — that pneumonia — the same thing that put him in the hospital all those years ago. but now he's trying to recover from what's happened to him since he came here. it seems an impossible struggle.
on one of my days with him, Daddy kept trying to wash his hands, bedridden as he was. so i put some hand sanitizer into my hands covered his with it. he kneaded his fingers together the same way i have seen him do thousands of times in my years as his daughter.
"what are you doing?" i asked him.
"trying to clean up the mess you've made," he said, and i silently checked off a litany of things he might be talking about, though i never said them aloud. that was pretty much the last thing he was able to say to me. before the respiratory arrest caused him to be put on a ventilator.
in the past three weeks my family's world has dipped and peaked so often it's felt like riding the tilt-a-whirl. we thought he was dying twice. and yet, he rallies.
prayer plays a huge role in his recovery.
today i have been reading to him from my little book, the only thing in my bag except Better Homes & Garden. Daddy is not one to email, but just before Christmas he emailed me about one of my blog posts, saying simply: 'one of your best, from you favorite reader, with love, gvb.' a treasure.
so i feel safe in reading from my own pile of words. since he has lost his words at the moment, he can't complain! i start with a story about giving my daughter a bath for the first time. it's really more about my mother than me, and i can see the edges of his mouth turn up slightly when i mention how much Mama loves a scalding bath. i read to him about her many hats, about my son starting kindergarten, stories i have long ago forgotten.
here is how the day goes. i read, he nods off, he wakes up, i read some more. repeat. repeat. and then some more.
two weeks ago, on another Friday, they told us he might not survive the night. that night, i lay awake, imagining our world without our Daddy in it. i dreamed that we are on a bus with my brother driving, and instead of going forward, we plummeted into a cavern in the jungle, thinking we all will die. but though in many dreams like this i wake before we hit bottom, this time i don't, and we don't all die but move back up toward the light.
by morning, Daddy opens his eyes when we visit, still holding on to the world a little longer.
it's afternoon and Daddy is awake. i read on, not knowing what else to do, and it seems that my stories were making him sad. (is this what i have done to every reader but didn't fully know it? i thought i was funny!)
finally i leaf through to find a story about how i still believe in Santa Claus. my husband is there, playing the grinch. yet i am, ever hopeful that one day, Santa will visit me once again. i wrote that story when i was 37, but it holds as true to me now, too.
waiting for Santa Claus. for that Christmas Eve when i run home and find Daddy sitting on on his side of the bed in my parents' room, the only time, really, that Santa gave me exactly what i wished for.
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