April 19, 2011 in Family
My dad and I are not that close. Our conversations happen on average about once a month and last as long as it takes to say:
“Hi dad, how are you?”
“Oh, I’m doing good, how are you?”
“I’m good…how’s the fishing?”
“Oh, it’s pretty good…here I’ll let you talk to Evie” And at that our conversation ceases and Evie, my step-mother, and I talk about everything under the sun until finally she puts me back on the phone with my dad.
“Okay dad, well, I guess I’m gonna go, I love you.”
“I love you too,” and that’s the end of our conversation.
For me going to Hallmark looking for a birthday card or something for Father’s Day always takes awhile to find the perfect one.
It can’t be flowery and talk about how much I learned from him. He wasn’t the kind of father who patiently taught me the ways of life. He was either working, fishing or sleeping. And if I wasn’t doing one of those things with him then we weren’t together.
And the card can’t talk about how often he’s been there for me. In fact, in my entire adult life he’s never once come to visit me. He’s never been in a home I’ve made, met a friend of mine, or seen show I’ve been in. After my parents divorce he just wasn’t around much.
The perfect card for me is the one that says nothing more than. “I’m thinking of you today and I hope you’re doing well.” Coincidently, those cards always sell out the fastest.
It’s an ugly truth when I tell you that I had a mixed bag of feelings when I got the call in mid-January that my dad was in the hospital with pneumonia and it didn’t look good. I was working with MBA students at Duke University and I didn’t want to leave; furthermore, I REALLY needed the money that was coming with this work.
So, you can imagine my relief when I get a call the very next day from my step-sister that not only is he doing better but he’s checked himself out of the hospital.
That’s my dad, the last place on earth he wants to be is in a hospital. He’s an outdoors guy, fishing and hunting, camping and boating. He’s lived in Alaska for the last twenty years and has a wide circle of friends, and one of his favorite things is to hang out have a drink and share stories.
But now my dad and Evie, are in Yuma, AZ so Evie can relearn basic life skills. She spent 56 days in a medical coma after a traumatic open-heart surgery. When she came out of it, there was no rehabilitative care center in Anchorage that could take her. So, Dad found a place in Yuma, 80 miles away from their second home in Quartzsite, AZ.
Even though Dad’s out of the hospital I make plans to fly down on Sunday after finishing my work at Duke, my step-sister Missy has been with them for the last four days, but she needs to return to her home and her own family and work responsibilities.
We only have a few minutes between my flight landing and Missy’s departure. She looks worn, and worried. Leaving is tearing her up. My dad has been her dad for thirty years. They live within miles of each other in Anchorage; Dad got her a job at United Airlines where they both worked for years, her children are his grandchildren. They are family.
We hug and share tears, she’s afraid that this might be the last time she’a with Dad. And we’re both thankful that the other came to Arizona when they could.
It’s shocking to look at Dad. He’s never been a big man, and now he’s tiny. I can look him straight in the eye and he weighs about 115 lbs. While Evie was coming out of her coma, Dad was finding it more and more difficult to swallow. He lost 40 lbs before doctors realized he had a hole in his esophagus. They placed a feeding tube in his stomach and he has to rely on cans of liquid for his nourishment.
So now the man who loves to fish and has freezers full of halibut and salmon; who makes the most delectable rotisserie chicken, and starts everyday with a gin and tonic can no longer swallow anything not even his own saliva.
And Dad?…he never once complains. Even though all of this was happening while his wife of 30 years was wavering between life and death. “Just get in there and take care of it, let’s get on with life.” That’s my dad in a nutshell, a no-nonsense kind of fella.
I’m with Dad for only a short while before realizing he’s not well. He’s coughing up unnatural stuff from his lungs. He’s having a hard time breathing.
We’ve driven the 80 miles out to their home in Quartzsite so he can rest a few days. And I’m terrified that something horrible is going to happen way out here. That I’ll be held responsible for not getting him to a doctor’s. That I’ll have to deal with the death of a man I barely know.
Dad’s scared too, I can see it in his eyes. He never says it though, and only reluctantly agrees to go back to the hospital in Yuma when one of his trusted friends who is a retired emergency room nurse tells him to go.
My four day quick trip slowly stretches out, I cancel my return flight home.
Evie and Dad are about a mile a part in different medical facilities and I spend my days running between the two of them. Evie’s depressed. She wishes she were dead, in fact she and dad had an agreement not to resuscitate, she should be dead, but dad and her kids needed her and couldn’t let her go.
She doesn’t want to do the hard work of rehabilitation and we have real talks about the future of her life and how I know she doesn’t want to spend it like this: in a home, in a wheelchair, unable to even go to the bathroom by herself. I tell her, “I know it’s going to be hard but every day you just need to do a little bit, to try a little harder. You need to be there for dad now, especially after he sat by your side every single day of your coma, waiting for your return.” Ironically it’s my dad’s downturn that gets her motivated to start living again.
I arrive every morning at the hospital to see Dad with a local Yuma newspaper and either a coke or 7-up. He can’t drink anything but he washes his mouth out with them just to get the flavor. And I know more than anything he wishes it was a Tanqueray and tonic.
His usual first request is for me to get his electric razor out of the drawer. He can’t stand not being clean shaven or getting a daily shower. Without a haircut in weeks he says, “he looks like a damn hippie.”
The good nurses love him because when you’re good at what you do he turns on the charm and can light up a room. But he’s a terror for any nurse who shows a lack of competence, he’ll talk shit about them right in front of their faces, guaranteeing even poorer care during the remainder of their shift.
One morning shortly after I arrive he grabs my hand and says, “I’m so glad you’re here…thank you.” and I know he means it.
And when I reply with, “Oh dad, I know you’d do the same for me.” I can barely contain the booming voice in my head that echoes…”Would he? Would he really? I’m not sure he would.”
Later on in the day when Terri, one of his favorite nurse’s walks in the room and sees me sitting there she says, “You’re a good daughter. See Al, that investment of time you made with her when she was younger is really paying off.” and there is uncomfortable silence between the two of us. We both know that whatever investment had been made, is now overdrawn.
But it doesn’t matter because here I am. And the funny thing is I have never spent so much time with my dad. I’m learning that I don’t just love him because he’s my dad, I like him for the man he is and he likes me. And I know he trusts me. That I am a competent daughter.
We spend time in and out of the hospital and I like that he won’t leave the house without his shirt tucked in; and that he has me go to the store for beer, cheese and sausage just in case he has visitors; and that he won’t listen to my concerns and cooks me an amazing halibut dinner even though he is in incredible pain and can’t eat any of it himself.
I like that my dad takes meticulous notes and knows where everything is. He’s mentally sharp as a tack and almost always infuriatingly right. We bet on the super bowl and I lose.
Dad goes in and out of the hospital and he has more tubes put in his body. His stomach feeding tube is now a drain tube, and he’s got a another tube in his small intestine for food, and a tracheotomy in his throat. The details of the days it took to get to this point are overwhelming, with a cancer diagnosis, body fluids, doctors and tears. And yet, Dad still wants to fight. He knows that if he can just gain some weight he can battle the cancer; he’s done it before. Sadly, he’s the only one at the hospital who believes in his abilities. His oncologist suggest we look into hospice.
In the quiet times during the middle of the night between coughing fits and suction tubes and his coming down off morophine Dad and I talk. He tells of when he was in the Navy working on the Eniewetok islands during nuclear testing. He tells me that he was the United Airlines Employee of the year in the 1980’s, which I never knew. He tells me he doesn’t know if it’s worth it to keep fighting. He tells me he wishes we would have talked sooner.
I wish we would have too Dad.
Allen Slyter died on Saturday, February 26th. He had a one line obituary in a city he never lived and no memorial service.
The next time you go out if you find a drink in your hand raise it a give a nod to my dad. It’s an act of thoughtfulness he would have loved.