My parents had just gotten back from a National Parks trip; dad was feeling a little under the weather, he said. But as I came out of my bathroom at dawn that day, my mother was half carrying, half dragging my limp father down the stairs. I rushed to help.
He was short of breath, having trouble breathing. He looked like hell, and seemed dazed, far away. My mother scrambled to dress, get ready, while I hung onto Dad. We wrestled him into the car, and she left for the hospital. I had told her I would be right behind.
I threw on clothes, did the morning things we can’t do without, grabbed our purses, and raced to the car. Then I stopped. Dad would want his work backpack, his laptop. He’d be so irritated at being stuck in a bed, unable to check in with his office, his clients. We’d been here before, Dad in a hospital bed, working on that laptop.
I called my aunt from the car. I needed her to call her son, Doctor Danny. He was an ER physician there, he could grease the wheels, get us seen faster, pull the best doctors. Do something. Make it better. She said she’d call him.
When I got to the hospital, they were already in a bay in the emergency room. Dad was on a bed, with a suped-up oxygen mask on; it covered his whole face. He could gesture at us, but he couldn’t talk. Mom and I huddled in the corner, and I kept nudging the backpack, trying to keep it out of the way; he wouldn’t be using it now.
There were so many people in the room, and it seemed so small. Nurses, people for his breathing, emergency room doctors. Machines showing us his blood pressure, his pulse, the oxygen in his blood, monitoring his breathing.
There was no room for us. There was no room for our purses or the stupid backpack. Why did bring it? Because if he was well at all, he’d want it, want to check in at work, touch base with his office and his clients. But he wasn’t well enough. He wasn’t well enough at all.
Mom was teary, but not crying. She leaned into me and say, “This is why you moved home. This is why God wanted you to move home.”
And I felt so alarmed, like she was Cassandra, predicting my father’s death, when neither she nor I would believe it. She sent me to the lobby to call my sister, but what to say? It was pneumonia, the doctors had said. Antibiotics cured pneumonia.
I called her, scared her to death, telling her we were at the hospital, that dad was sick again. No, no, I told her, don’t fly down. I’ll tell you if you need to, I promised.
Finally, finally Doctor Cousin Danny arrived, reassuring. Pneumonia. Antibiotics. They were moving Dad to ICU. He had the room on the corner, he wanted the TV turned to the sports channel. The Rangers were in the playoffs, no one wanted to miss a game.
We spent hours in that room. One day turned into the next, my sister still asking, me still telling her not to come, just pneumonia. She ignored me, arrived on our doorstep. I was so, so glad to see her.
From the airport back to the hospital. More time in the little room. No flowers, no personal items in the ICU. A woman brought a tray of store-bought cookies for the staff, it sat on the counter outside dad’s door. Inside, he could remove the turbo-charged oxygen mask and communicate a little, but it was so hard to understand him.
He wanted paper, to write things down. All his hands made were scribbles. I still have them, somewhere. How could I throw those away? He was so frustrated we couldn’t understand. We ran through the alphabet, trying to guess what he wanted to say. Slowly, slowly. I was the fastest at guessing what he wanted to know. For all the effort, it was always so prosaic, what he fought to communicate to us. What time was the game? What bird had died in our yard?
Though the day, he grew worse, his lungs filled with fluid. The oxygen mask became something more serious. They didn’t want to intubate. They had to intubate. He was unconscious from the medications, but we stayed, held his hands, talked over him until we were hungry and tired. It was time to go home, eat, watch the game.
The hospital chaplain called. Hurry, hurry. My sister drove so fast across town. We told each other it was a good thing she had been this city’s police officer before moving half a country away. We had wings on our feet, and when we reached the ICU, we knew why.
A heart attack, they said. Make a choice, they said. Another one would happen soon, they said.
Did we want them to take extraordinary measures to save him, or did we want to sign the do-not-resuscitate order, and let him go?
We huddled together in the family room, knowing the answer, not wanting to be the person who said it first. We were creeping up on the decision, almost able to say those horrible words when a nurse threw open the door and said it was happening.
The heart attack. The choice.
And we said stop.
They left us with him, and we sat in chairs around the hospital bed. Mom and my sister on one side, me on the other. They huddled together, holding on to him, to each other. I clutched his hand, I had to keep it warm. I knew if I let go, his hand would grow cold.
I had to keep it warm.
We sat like that for a long time, his hand warm in mine. We three talked about Dad. We said, Remember? over and over. We told each other stories we all knew. We cried our way through boxes of tissues. We laughed until snot came out our noses. The hospital chaplain kept sticking his nose in the door, offering more tissues, bottles of water, asking if we were ready for the paperwork. We shooed him out.
We took our time saying goodbye to Dad.
Then I let go of his hand.
And it grew cold.