I woke up from what had to have been the most vivid dream I ever had (before or since). It was an Ambien dream filled with death and fear and vivid colors. The nurse had warned me that it might happen, but I remember waking up in a panic. And there he was.
I don’t know how long he had been sitting at the end of the bed, but when I awoke with sweat running down my brow and crying in a panic, he didn’t panic. My mom would have panicked; she wasn’t there. My dad just asked, “What’s the matter, baby?” I can hear it vividly in my head right now. His voice. His inflection. It’s as though my mind recorded it, and I can play it whenever I want.
I was in the hospital. Had been for several weeks. My mom stayed with me every day. My dad checked in when he could. That’s not a judgment…that’s a true statement. In that moment, when I awoke in a panic, in a lot of pain, barely able to keep my eyes open, that simple phrase, “What’s the matter, baby?” was what I needed. No panic. No fear. When you’re sick, the last thing you want to have to do is to ease the fear of others. If you’ve ever been sick – particularly in the hospital – you know that this is what you end up doing.
I won’t bore you with the details of why I was in the hospital, but know this: I thought I was dying; no one could figure out what was wrong. I’m fine now.
In that moment, when I awoke in my panic, I wanted to not take care of anyone. He made sure I didn’t have to. He listened to my incredibly long retelling of every vivid detail of my dream without interruption. I was better when I was done.
This was 2004.
In 2011, my father had a stroke. Now, he was in the hospital. Again, I won’t bore you with the details, but know this: an incredibly stubborn, independent man was reduced to the mentality of a 5-year-old. He was unable to take care of himself. At all.
We moved him to be near me. In the first place we moved him to, within the first 16 hours, he had wandered outside to the busiest street possible four times. We were told that for his safety he’d have to be moved to a secured facility. There was only one that took Medicare.
It took a few days to get him in, and when we did, I was mortified. The facility – the only secured facility in my entire city of over 1 million people that we could get him into – was literally a scene out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: people wandered aimlessly from room to room; there was the pungent smell of feces and urine; the halls echoed with the moans and wails of people who were lost in their own minds.
There was absolutely no way he was going to stay. I made two phone calls: one to the secured, private facility we would ultimately move him to, so I could secure his apartment for the next day; and one to my brother to discuss our options.
It was decided that because it was nearly 7:00pm, we would leave him to sleep there, then transfer him to the new place in the early morning.
I couldn’t believe he was staying in this place overnight – that I was letting him stay in this place overnight. I sat on the bed in his room, trying to hold back tears…not doing a great job of it. He was looking out the window. He turned and looked at me. Saw me. There was a moment of lucidity, I think. Then…
“What’s the matter, baby?”
I lost it. He hugged me, providing the comfort only a parent can. I cried into his chest. I apologized for leaving him there overnight; I apologized for not checking the facility first; I apologized for not really knowing how to maneuver the entire situation.
He listened to my incredibly long apology without interruption, letting me cry and beg for forgiveness. The patient was forced to ease my fears. Then, nodding towards the window, he said, “I think we’ll have to cut back that tree tomorrow if we want it to be ok for winter.” The moment was over; I still felt better.
In August of 2011, he died. Just like that. I was with him. Watched as the breath left his body.
On this, my first Father’s Day without my father, if he asked me his question, I would answer with a simple, “I just miss you, that’s all.”