My dad called me at work one morning this week just to tell me that he was okay. I think this was a preemptive attack. I think he really wanted to say “I know you are going to call me several times today to check and see how I am, and I want to tell you I am fine so you won’t bother me anymore today. I will call you again tomorrow morning to tell you the same, and will continue this every day until you lose interest and stop calling and we can go back to how things were two weeks ago when I left you 20 messages a day asking why you never pick up your phone when I call.”
A little over two weeks ago, my father had open heart surgery and now he has begun the long and difficult road to recovery with his obnoxious family at his side.
On the Monday night following his surgery, while he was finishing up his first post-surgical walk around the nurse’s station, a real work-out after having your chest sawed open and wired back together, I was sent back to the room after making inappropriate jokes in an attempt to motivate. My mother did not seem to appreciate my screaming at him down the hall that for every lap he made she would remove an item of clothing. I also received a disapproving glance from the nurse. Apparently you can’t talk about stripping in a cardiac ward. Lesson learned. Also, for the record, you cannot get into a yelling match about how those god damn tray tables work without attracting a crowd of nurses and their scorn. They are so strict in there!
Between sleep, work and hospital visits, I did a lot of Internet research on his bypass surgery and its possible after-effects. After only ten minutes it was clear I had seen too much and had gone too far. There are so many things that could go so wrong! There are, basically, two types of cardiac bypass surgeries performed – those on beating hearts and those on hearts that have been stopped while the patient relies on the help of a heart-lung bypass machine to stay alive. That one also involves significant cooling of the body to slow the flow of blood and keep the brain properly oxygenated. Scary shit, I tell you. And since we’re of hardy European backgrounds in this family and hardy Europeans never take the easy way out of things, my dad’s heart was stopped and he was put on the bypass machine.
I had managed to hold my shit together pretty well up until the point they wheeled my dad down to the pre-surgical suite, where they started to stick on wires and leads with which they would monitor him during the surgery. After several minutes, the anesthesiologist gave him some “liquid courage” so he’d relax and then he said it was time for us to leave. My mom kissed him and squeezed his hand and then I looked at him, laying on that table, and I felt all those feelings I keep buried so deep inside they are only allowed to leak out during the finale of Xena: Warrior Princess and tampon commercials. So many feelings. He looked up at me and said “I love you, kiddo,” and I told him I loved him and kissed him before turning around to cry so he wouldn’t see that I was so worried for him.
My dad and I have always had a pretty special relationship. As a kid I only ever wanted to be where he was and do what he was doing. When he’d wash the cars, I’d wash them, too. When he’d take the trash to the dump, I’d follow along. Before he’d shave his face, he’d rub his scratchy cheek up against mine and give me some whiskers so we could shave together. My dad has always been “my guy,” that one cool man in my life who could never be outdone. That’s why I am so gay, I tell him. It’s all your fault. This was the first time in my life that I’d ever felt fearful of losing him.
After we all survived the worry and stress of his surgery, we were allowed to peek into his room in the ICU to assure ourselves that he was alive. He was on a breathing tube and there were so many other tubes and monitors it was unbelievable. I don’t know how they kept track, but I was pretty certain that the one in the background showing a NASCAR race wasn’t a cool new tool used as a metaphor to show the health and vitality of his heart. Someone in ICU is a Jeff Gordon fan, that’s my guess. After several hours, he was off the breathing tube and going at it on his own, which is pretty unbelievable that after you’ve been sawed open, doctors trust the body enough to go it alone. I mean, I just got scratched by a cat and I spent fourteen hours on a respirator because I didn’t feel I could handle the burden of all those breaths, with the inhale and the exhale. There’s just so much responsibility there.
Our family spent the better part of a week with him in the hospital, taking turns sitting on the one chair in the room and going to the cafeteria for an overcooked dinner. He doesn’t remember much of those days, which is for the best because it involved a lot of pain, shots, arguments about how he needed to eat at least one bite of that turkey, the constant stream of swine-flu panic on the television and his family gathered around a laptop playing a hidden objects computer game while we ignored him. At one point, last Saturday, we looked up from the screen and he was gone. We found him 20 minutes later, in the car waiting for his ride home. Apparently they discharged him while we were all on the lookout for a pair of ladies slippers hidden somewhere in the outhouse of the haunted mansion. Computer games are so addictive!
The worst part of the recovery now, other than the constant worrying about the health of his heart, is learning how to manage with a broken breastbone and the excruciating pain and disability that accompanies is. It’s painful and incredibly frustrating to one day be able to do pretty much anything and the next find it intolerable just to breathe. But my dad is one of those guys who, despite warning from his doctors, nurses, children and wife, will find little chores to keep himself busy while he sits at home, unable to work or leave the house. So it wasn’t totally a surprise when I called him on Wednesday afternoon and he answered the phone out of breath:
Are you okay?
Why are you breathing so hard. You sound like you ran a marathon.
I’m okay. I am just removing all the flash plates around the outlets in the kitchen. The painter’s coming tomorrow.
Are you sure you should be bending over and stuff?
I’m fine! I’m not bending, I’m just kneeling and crouching.
I think you’re just supposed to rest and, maybe, walk around the house.
I’m okay! Don’t worry about me.
I feel almost certan that when I call him next week he’s going to answer and tell mehe’s fine! Don’t worry! I’m just putting this piano upstairs!
We all feel profoundly lucky that my dad is alive and well. Things so easily could have turned out much worse and I am grateful to have more time with him to tell bad jokes and embarrass him in front of doctors, nurses and those guys who change the Purell dispensers in the hospital hallway. All those nights of cafeteria food, arguments over how to pull out the tray table, being sent to the visitor’s lounge for being iappropriate, spending time and mending fences with my brother and getting cold stares from hospital staff for stealing too many face masks from the dispenser (hey, they put them out to be taken, assholes!) to pass out to friends fearful of catching swine flu were worth it to see my dad walk into his house last weekend and tell us that it felt so good to be home and, by the way, whoever mowed that fucking lawn better follow the pattern next time or there will be hell to pay!