Wednesday, September 03, 2008
Where authors and readers come together!
“Stuff My Father Won’t Tell Me …”
Part 1 Revised 9/3/08
I feared for my father's life.
“Alan, it’s Bobbie,” my dad’s wife called me early one morning.
“Yes, Bobbie, good morning.”
"I’m taking your father to the hospital. Please come down.”
“Okay, okay. I’m leaving right now.”
I had told Bobbie she should call me if ever she needed any assistance with my father. It wouldn’t matter what time or day it was. My wife and I arrived at the hospital about forty minutes later. I entered through the emergency room while my wife parked our car in the lot.
“Good morning,” I greeted the receptionist.
"Good morning,” she replied.
“My father is here, Dr. Albert Busch.” She typed quickly.
“Yes, Dr. Busch. Exam room four. Right around the corner,” she turned around in her
chair. “There. Right down the hall.” I hurried away. I met Bobbie standing outside exam room four.
“Hi. Your dad is inside,” she said, gesturing toward the door. Her expression looked foreboding. I did not know quite what to expect, but it couldn't be anything good. I entered. I saw my father, already changed into a hospital gown, lying down atop a gurney, several nurses attending him. He was dehydrated. Fighting unrelenting diarrehia and fever from a urinary tract infection, my father’s skin was yellowish. I had seen that skin tone before when, as a volunteer for the Jewish Sacred Society, I used to help wash and dress bodies before burial. I had never before seen my dad like this. I feared for his life.
I am here. Room 1616. Prentice Women’s Hospital. Watching his life come to an ignominious end, ravaged by cancer attacking his bowel. His intestines are at war against us. He’s lost control of them. They control him now and are making his life miserable.
"Call the nurses Alan. Please, please don’t do any more.”
"Dad, let me. I'll clean this up myself.” Determined to care for my father, I lost count of the number of times I had changed his gown and bed sheets. The nurses are giving, wonderful people, but I was frankly embarrassed for them and my father.
“I understand son but the nurses are faster. Let them do their job.” He was adamant. I stayed over the first two nights. We must have called the nurses four or five times during the early morning hours to help us clean up. The unrelenting nature of the diarrehia was demoralizing us.
I watched my father fade away. He had become frightfully thin. After more than forty-eight hours at the hospital, I reached my limit. I had to go home. My wife, Heather, came down to pick me up. I was exhausted physically and emotionally. Bobbie had arrived earlier so I did not feel guilty about leaving.
“Dad, I’ll be back on Thursday.”
“No problem, son. Go home and rest." Even had I protested, my father would have kicked me out. He seldom if ever thinks of himself.
“Heather, let’s go for a drink.” I felt ready to collapse not so much from physical fatigue as from emotional exhaustion.
“I saw a nice little place at the corner. What do you say?” She was agreeable.“This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do,” I said while sipping a martini. My wife ordered a diet pop.
“Come on. Finish up and let’s go home. I’ll fix something for dinner,” she said. Now that was really welcome news because for two days, I had grown tired of cereal and milk, pudding, chips and fresh fruit. Mind you, I was not going to starve but the hospital’s “food market” had a limited supply of kosher items.
We arrived home. I collapsed on the couch. My wife lit some candles, closed the blinds and put on some James Taylor “cds”. She knows how much I like him. I cannot really account for it, but there is something about his music that affects me emotionally. I felt I was just about ready to burst. By the end of his “Mean Old Man” (which by the way, my father is not!) I broke down sobbing, my shoulders heaving. I covered my head with the towel my wife had put on the back of my neck for extra comfort and simply … wept.
I woke up next morning feeling sluggish, still worn out.
"I'll be down there tomorrow. It's too darn hot. The expressway is a parking lot,” I tried to assuage my guilty conscience. I spent the better part of the day trying to fool myself, looking for and finding every excuse not to visit my father that day. I called my brother Ron around 7:30 p.m. He had flown in from St.Louis that morning and been with our father all day.
"Hi, Ron, so how was today?"
"Not so good," he sounded worn out.
"Oh ...?" I wanted him to continue.
"Can you come on down now?" he asked, barely masking an order to do so. Frankly, I was glad he did. Even though my father had been having a bad day, Ron's request relieved me of my self-inflicted guilt. I drove down.
"It's just that I've not seen him cry before except when he thinks about Ben (my dad's first grandson, my first-born son who died almost eight years ago).
"It's so darn pitiful," my brother remarked.
Tears. My father was crying while sitting on the commode. Disappointment. Let down. Ten days in the hospital and the diarrhea is still unabated. No warning, no bodily signals. It just comes when it pleases. I kept silent. What response is there? Here is a man who does not care about his cancer. He can deal with that.
"It's not the cancer. I accept that. It's this diarrhea that is taking me downhill," he said to his nephew Robert, my first cousin who is a soon retiring professor of medicine in Michigan.
Do you remember what General MacArthur said about old soldiers not dying but fading away? As a matter of fact, my father is an old soldier, United States Army, brigadier general, retired. And as with old soldiers, especially those who wear stars on their epaulets, there is no crying. Reminds me of that Tom Hanks line in A League of Their Own. “There is no crying in baseball!”
Think about what my father said about the diarrhea taking him downhill, and ask yourself this question: When we are just babies, what do our parents train us to do which is regarded as our first really great accomplishment? No, it's not "Da-da, ma-ma" or our first step without holding on. It's "toilet training”-achieving mastery over our bodies, controlling one of its most basic functions. My father has lost that! And to lose control over that which first defined us as kids and no longer babies, is emotionally devastating.
One of two lead doctors told me tonight that he has tried everything he knows, but he DOES NOT know how to stop the diarrehia. "There is nothing more we can do for your father
in the hospital," admitted my Dad's oncologist. My father was scheduled to be sent home. After nearly two weeks later, he came out "swinging", as I described him to several friends. It appears the Aibishter has other plans for my father. He summed it up rather nicely when he told his brother: “Don't worry Hirshy, I'm not ready to die yet."
If you're looking to measure a man's mettle, witness how he copes with physical affliction. It is ultimately a test of the substance and depth of his dignity. My father is the paradigm of a man who survived a plethora of indignities not only with his dignity intact but admired by the many family members and friends to whom he provided a remarkable example of stubborn courage.
Now that he is home, we spend much of our time talking and playing gin rummy. He tells his story and I listen.
"So Dad I've a few questions to ask you."
"Okay, go ahead. Ask away."
"I wanna know the stuff you won't tell me."
(to be continued ...)