I stand next to the hospital bed. My hand shakes as I reach over the shiny, silver guardrail meant to keep my dad safe. Taking his warm right hand into my own, I wonder, when was the last time I held his hand in mine? …I can’t remember. My left hand softly caresses his arm.
He no longer wears an oxygen mask, but tape covered gauze remains on his arm and hand, hiding needle marks inflicted by IV’s and blood draws. On his left wrist is his watch, and on his left ring finger, his wedding ring. He looks like he is sleeping.
He doesn’t sound like he is sleeping, however. A loud sigh permeates the solitude of the room each time he exhales. The equipment monitoring his vital signs has been disconnected, and is now silent, amplifying each breath. Please God, don’t let him be in pain. Please let him know we are here.
My mom stands directly across from me, tears silently streaming down her face, as she rubs my dad’s head. This can’t be happening.
It was the Tuesday after Labor Day. I was sitting at my desk during my planning period, when at 8:32, my phone vibrated. A quick glance revealed a local calI, but I didn’t recognize the number. Who could be calling me while I’m at school?
For a reason I can’t explain, I answered. Something I rarely, if ever, do.
“Karen?” Instantly I recognized my mom’s voice.
“Mom?” Why is she calling at 8:30 in the morning when she knows I’m at school? Whose phone is she calling from? My heart began pounding fast and hard.
“I’m at the hospital with your dad. He had a stroke,” she replied, her voice steady and even.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can!” I promised. My mind raced, figuring out how I could get a sub and get lesson plans together as soon as possible. ______________________________________________________________________________________________
As I pulled out of the school parking lot, I realized I didn’t even know where I was going. At the first stop light, I frantically pulled out my phone, and looked at calls received. I located the unfamiliar number, and hit call.
“Theda Clark,” a warm, but authoritative voice greeted me.
Theda Clark, I thought, relieved…a familiar hospital. I explained the reason for my call, thanked her, and quickly ended the call.
At the next stop light, I called my husband, and left him a voice mail.
I arrived at the hospital, parked, and dodged raindrops as I rushed to the emergency room entrance.
“I called a little while ago. I’m here to see my dad, Al Adams,” I told the receptionist, willing myself to sound calm.
“Just a minute please,” she said, checking her computer screen. “Go through the door behind me, and turn left. He is in trauma room 9.”
I followed her directions, and located the room. Glancing through the glass sliding doors, I saw my mom seated in a chair against the wall. My dad lay in a hospital bed, connected to machines and an IV, eyes closed. I walked over to my mom, gave her a hug, and sat down next to her, as a nurse asked questions.
“What’s your name?” the nurse asked my dad.
With great effort, my dad answered, “Al.”
“When’s your birthday? …when’s your birthday, Al?” she repeated.
In a mumbly voice my dad responded, “January 26th”.
“What’s your wife’s name?”
“B..B..Barb!” he struggled.
“And what about your children? What are their names?”
He hesitated. “Karen…Karen, Sue, Jim and Nancy.”
“Do you know where you are, Al? Do you know where you are?”
After what felt like an eternity, he brought his right hand to his chest and started tapping his pointer finger on the monitor he was connected to, his frustration palpable.
The nurse proceeded to instruct my dad to squeeze her hand and lift his leg, first on the right side of his body, then on his left, and asking if he had any feeling in the limb she was touching. I watched silently, relieved that he was conscious and able to answer questions.
When my husband and brother arrived, my husband and I stepped into the hall to call my two sisters; my brother stayed with my mom.
Later that morning, my dad was transferred to the neurology unit upstairs. The nurse assigned to my dad continued the same type of questions and tests as the ER nurse.
“Al, do you know your wife’s name?”
“Yes,” my dad replied with as much spunk as he could muster. I imagined him smirking, and I just knew he had a glimmer in his eye.
We all laughed. My dad, forever a jokester.
“I guess I should have asked what your wife’s name was,” the nursed said, joining our laughter.
“Barb,” he drawled.
The nurse continued the exam, and then explained my dad had an ultrasound scheduled to check the condition of his heart. When the machine and technician rolled in, my mom, my husband and I headed to the cafeteria to grab a bite to eat. My brother headed to my mom and dad’s house to pick up one of the medications my mom forgot to bring along.
Just as we finished lunch, the nurse assigned to my dad rushed into the cafeteria. “There has been a change in status.”
“Go,” I assured my mom, “we’ll clean-up and be right there.”
My mom went with the nurse, and we gathered the trays, dumped the remains of our lunch, and hurried back to my dad’s room.
“What is a change of status? What does that even mean?” I asked my husband.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not sure.”
Arriving at my dad’s room, a privacy screen had been pulled, blocking the view into the room. Fearful of what I would see, I asked my husband to look in.
“Your mom is right around the corner.”
I peeked in, and my dad’s nurse beckoned me.
“You can go by your mom,” she softly instructed me.
We stood off to the side. The pace was frantic but controlled. Two doctors were asking questions of the nurses and issuing orders. One nurse was forcing IV fluids into my dad’s body by squeezing the bag. Another was trying to insert a needle to draw blood. Several others stood off to the side. My dad was now wearing an oxygen mask. At some point, he must have bitten his tongue or cheek as blood bubbled out his mouth each time he exhaled. Wipe his mouth I screamed in my head.
After watching helplessly for what seemed like forever, a nurse directed us to the chairs by the window.
Finally, the head doctor walked over.
“Your husband is gravely ill,” he said to my mom. “Since he has a DNR, I can’t give him anything else. We are keeping him alive, but not addressing the cause.”
He paused, allowing us to take in the information.
I heard myself choke back a sob.
He explained the options.
I looked at my mom. “He wouldn’t want to live like this,” she said, shaking her head back and forth.
I nodded my head in agreement, tears running down my cheeks and dripping on my skirt. A huge lump had formed in my throat. My eyes burned. My head throbbed. My heart ached.
I stand next to the hospital bed. My hand shakes as I reach over the shiny, silver guardrail meant to protect my dad. Taking my dad’s warm right hand into my own, I wonder, when was the last time I held his hand in mine? I want so badly to remember, but I can’t. My left hand softly caress his right arm.
The oxygen mask has been removed, the blood has been wiped from his lips, but tape covered gauze remains, hiding the needle marks inflicted by futile blood draws. He wears his watch, and wedding ring. He looks peaceful.
His breathing is slowed. The equipment tracking his vitals has been disconnected and is now silent. Please God, let him know we are here. Let him feel our presence. Don’t let him feel lonely and afraid.
My mom stands directly across from me, tears silently streaming down her face, as she rubs my dad’s head. Resignation seeps into my soul. It is only a matter of time.
The nurse quietly enters the room and checks my dad’s vital signs.
“He can hear you; talk to him,” she urges.
I lean over the guardrail, and whisper in his ear, “I love you, Daddy. I promise I’ll take good care of mom.”
I kiss his cheek for the last time, walk around the bed and embrace my mom.