Saturday, November 20, 2010

The News

Sitting across the Formica tabletop in that grimy truckers diner, my father sat in the booth with this muscular hands fiddling with a matchbook as he took a draw on his cigarette. He was once a beautifully handsome man, a chiseled jaw, a Romanesque nose, brilliant gold-green eyes, jet black hair, deeply tanned skin, and a singing voice that could make a girl swoon. As his little girl, I remembered that movie-star handsome man. Now he was skin and bone, with a grayish complexion, balding, and his body wracked as he coughed up phlegm into a paper-napkin. He looked up at me briefly, and then back down.  Again, eye contact.  “Trace, I have cancer” he said. “Lung cancer.” 

I took a moment to get my bearings.  I knew he had something to tell me when he called me at work and asked if I could get off early to meet him, that it was urgent, but I hadn’t been prepared for this.  “What did the doctor say?  Did you get a second opinion?” 

He said, “Yeah, I got three second opinions.  They all say the same thing.  Chemo.  I start next week.” 

“What’s the prognosis?”  I questioned.  The corner of his mouth turned up slightly and he said, “I can’t get one outta them.  Could be months.  Could be weeks.  Or I could beat it. I’m gonna beat it.”  The look in his eyes didn’t match the conviction in his voice.  He knew as well as I did that he was already too sick to have a chance.  All those years of smoking, drinking, and exposure to asbestos insulation, it had just been a matter of time.

I wasn’t close to this man as his adult child.  He had basically abandoned my sister and me after he and my mother divorced when I was 6. I remembered sitting at the front window on Saturday mornings, time and again, waiting for dad to show up for visitation, but he rarely if ever showed.  Mom would hold me in her arms as I sobbed. There was nothing she could say to take away the pain of my broken heart.  My daddy didn’t love me anymore. 

Now here I was, sitting across from this un-bathed man, he smelled of body odor, bourbon and stale cigarettes.  For years now he had been an embarrassment to me, especially when he showed up in the parking lot of my office, asking random strangers walking in if they knew me.  He once handed a co-worker a stinky and stained motivational (pyramid-scheme money management no less) cassette tape wrapped in cellophane from a cigarette pack to give to me, when he could have simply called my office phone.  The look on my co-worker’s face was unbelieving that this hobo of a man was actually my father. How do you explain that away?  You can’t.  Why didn’t he just leave me alone like he did when I wanted him in my life?  Why did he even bother to try after all these years? 

It was a love-hate relationship for me at best.  The little girl in me still loved this wreck of a man, despite all his failures.  The adult woman was pissed as hell at him.  But here I was looking into those tired eyes, and seeing my father coming to grips with his own mortality.  So now he needed me.  Really needed me.  He had so few friends and family left.  So few people that actually cared about him. He was looking for a response from me.  And being the dutiful daughter, I remained strong and encouraging, and told him I would help him any way I could. 

He reached across the table and took my hand and squeezed.  I looked into his eyes and let him see the love I still held for him.  As tears welled up in both our eyes, the barriers fell away and it was just that beautiful green-eyed man and his little girl, holding hands and smiling at one another at last.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

St. Patty's Day, 1992.

(Note: this was a writing exercise I completed during a writer's meetup meeting.  it was completed in 50 minutes.) 

As the nurse pushed my wheelchair through the sterile white corridor, the overwhelming emptiness in my arms was enough to make me choke for air.  All my dreams for that little being that spent 6 months inside my womb were dead.  Instead of carrying home my bundle of joy, I was somehow supposed to prepare myself for the impossible task of a life with a severely disabled child at best, or at worst a funeral for my newborn son. 
How was I to wrap my head around the changes that had happened over night?  I went to bed a happy mother-to-be with 3 months of maternity ahead of me.  I woke up to the equivalent feeling of a 5-gallon bucket of warm water being dumped on my prone body.  In a half-sleep panic, I’d tried to figure out what was happening.  When I realized my water had broken, well more accurately exploded like a poked water balloon, I called my mom to tell her I was heading to the emergency room to deliver my baby.  
I knew 6 months was way too early.  I didn’t want to think about it.  I couldn’t think about it.  Things were happening to my body that were out of my control.  I wanted to protect that little baby inside me but I knew it was not up to me.  I was helpless.  How I wanted things to be different.  How I wanted to have him, fat and pink, swaddled in a fluffy blanket, in my arms while my friends and family cooed over him.  But that dream was quickly dying. Instead of hoping for a healthy child, I was hoping for a living child.  
There was so much I didn’t know.  Was it normal for the nurse to ask me between labor pains if I had a living will? Why did they look at me so strange when they checked my blood pressure or my baby’s pulse oximetry?  I knew things weren’t looking good, but now wasn’t the time for anyone to sit me down and have a frank heart-to-heart with me about the situation in which I found myself.  They clearly just wanted to try to get this baby out of my body without injury to him or me.  
I didn’t want to push, but the contractions happened anyway.  I irrationally wanted to keep him inside of me where he was safe.  My body felt like a boa constrictor had swallowed my belly and was forcing my body to expel this little fetus against my will.  When he came out, after the third savage push, his little body was cobalt blue.  He was silent.  His little head was the size of a tennis ball.  They rushed him out of the room.  
I laid there on the delivery table alone as everyone had moved out to the hallway where they were attempting to intubate him.  One doctor came back into the room to tell me they were having problems establishing an airway.  I heard a single fragile newborn-pitched wale. My Baby!! The doctor rushed back out to the hallway.  I returned my eyes to the delivery room ceiling.  What just happened?  This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.  Was my baby alive?  Was I a mommy?  Now what? 
The rest of those wee morning hours of St Patrick’s Day were a blur.  Getting stitched up.  Wheeling me back to my unused birthing suite for a quick shower.  Being ushered to a regular hospital room. Thank goodness I had the sense of mind to demand a single room.  I didn’t care the added expense, because I knew I couldn’t bear to watch another woman in a bed next to mine with her beautifully healthy baby. 
The doctors began visiting soon after I was in my little room.  My baby had an abnormal airway.  He had a deformed heart.  He had a brain hemorrhage from the delivery.  There were other things, but these were the most immediate concerns.  He was too medically complex to be cared for in this hospital.  He had to go to a larger city.  His condition was too fragile for med-flight.  He was to be transported via ambulance.  
Later in the morning when I was allowed to meet my little boy, it was in the NICU, on a isolation table.  He was laying there on this flat little square, with a heat lamp over him, a breathing tube secured down his little throat, and a couple IVs stuck into his cellophane thin skin. His thigh was the size of my index finger.  His full head of dark brown hair was a shocking contrast to the rest of his still fetus-like form.  He smelled so good.  I can’t even describe it.  At that moment I realized how close to animals we humans still are.  With all our sophisticated civilization, I knew my child by smell. I knew he was mine.
Now my baby’s life was held in the hands of a dozen medical specialists several hours away.  They transported him that same day to the other hospital but I wasn’t released until the following morning. Through a tortured foggy numbness, I watched the hospital exit as it neared with each step the nurse pushing my chair took.  I was going home empty-handed.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  No one had prepared me for this possibility.  No words could make sense of this new world I was entering.  A world of imperfection, and pain, and suffering, and no answers that made any sense.