It was New Years and nothing was as it was supposed to be. SB and I recovered from the flu that we caught around Christmas but Allan was still sick. The flu that started with SB the week before, hit him and wouldn’t let go. Allan would go onto having fevers and chills for the next seven weeks.
Mom and Dad’s house was usually festive, bordering on garish, during the Christmas season. They used loads of shiny Mardi Gras beads as garlands around the tree. The multiple crèche that were usually strewn with colorful blinking lights that played carols, sat unadorned. However, all the decorations were still in brown boxes that lined the upstairs hallway. Dad pulled everything from storage days before the fall, but Mom would not move forward without him.
On New Year’s Eve, Allan raced from Clarksville, TN, hoping for a happy reunion. He was determined to spend the new year with SB and me.
However he was so ravaged from the flu he had no appetite for the meal I cooked and no interest in popping open the champagne. He fell asleep about an hour before the year turned. Then awoke about 15 minutes into the year very sad that he missed it.
Though it was no matter because I was a mess. I rang in the New Year with my best friend in New York by phone an hour before. I was terribly homesick and I was preoccupied with why I had not seen Dad as yet, among other things.
And when I finally got to visit Dad on New Year’s Day? Dad wasn’t happy to see me. He wasn’t unhappy to see me.
The First Visit
On Monday, New Year’s Day, Mom asked for the umpteenth time, “Do you want to see daddy?” To which I said as lightly as I could, “Of course – I’ve traveled all this way, haven’t I?”
Mom instructed us to come to the hospital in the afternoon. Dad was scheduled to be finished with his rehab sessions. He was in acute rehab for most of the day.
Allan being ill, did not want to potentially spread his illness to Dad who, at 80, was already at risk for infection.
I left Allan at the bookstore while SB and I went to the hospital.
After leaving the car with the valet at CHI St. Luke, I took the elevators to the 17th floor. The doors slid open and Mom met us with a box of masks in hand.
“You have to wear this!” She was aggressive as she thrust a mask in my hand and tried to put on one SB. SB was scared – she had never seen mom with as mask on. She squirmed and cried.
Dad’s room faced east. It was 4 PM. The sun was setting and the city lights were coming up. The darkening twilight blue sky and the twinkling lights might have been magical were it not for the fluorescent lights humming at full force.
SB still refused the mask and I could sense mom’s frustration. I know Mom just wanted to keep Dad healthy and on the road to recovery but SB was scared. Gone was the friendly grandma face from FaceTime. All SB saw was worried eyes on top of a mask. Mom told me earlier about the family room, so I suggested that she take SB there.
I walked into the room.
“Hi Dad! I’m here,” I said as cheerfully as I could giving him a kiss and a hug while trying not to jostle tubes and needles.
I kept thinking, Smile with the eyes and people can hear a smile in your voice.
Mom had said before that Dad did not like the hospital food. However she didn’t prepare me for the sight of him. Dad had a gray pallor. His complexion was ashen. He was too skinny. His weight was written on the board – 114 lbs. I hadn’t been 114 since I was 12 years old.
There was a line of hand held urinals marshalled on a nearby counter. A portable toilet was at the foot of the bed. The toilet was attached to a walker – like the one we got for my Grandma when she lost mobility at age 91 a few months before she died.
I purposefully picked the closest seat to him that I could – as if to tell him, or myself, your frailty doesn’t bother me.
I tried to carry on a conversation, but it was hard. Dad wasn’t conversant.
After telling him about recent travels, work and some current events, we sat silently letting the TV fill the space. MSNBC was on, but Dad provided none of his usual side commentary. He looked at the screen as if it were an alien.
About 30 minutes later, Mom and SB came back. SB ran to me, hid in my side and cried. Mom was insisting on the mask now that she was back in the room. I argued, that she was fine and under my scarf which already had a host of other cooties on it. I moved away and let her rest buried under the dark teal colored cloth on my lap.
Soon, the orderly came with dinner. Dad became animated for the first time during my visit. He was grumpy. Mom lifted the lid off the plate. Dry chicken, limp veggies, iceberg lettuce with a cherry tomato, some grated carrots and a Sysco food service light Italian dressing packet. To drink, there was a cup of watered iced tea. The highlight of the tray was the individual packet of Mrs. Dash. Mom unpacked a can of Glucerna from the cabinet with her personal belongings. Dad accepted help to sit up and move his legs over the side of the bed. He fed himself about half of the chicken, dusted w/ Mrs. Dash with a chaser of Glucerna. No wonder he was only 114 lbs.
After the visit
I left dad’s room with mixed feelings. I was glad he was ok. I was upset that he was more engaged by the bad food. I was hurt that he was more interested in SB wearing the mask than actually talking to her.
I picked Allan up from the bookstore. He was hangry. I was bewildered. SB was the only happy one, relieved to be away from the room with the masks.
It was solidly rush hour in Houston. There was no way to get back to the other side of town quickly. So we drove to the only other place we knew – The Mall.
That night I lost myself in a bit of retail therapy. I bought a yoga mat and some workout clothes. I don’t know what I had been thinking when I left New York. I had packed for Christmas at Mom and Dad’s – going out to their favorite places, visiting their friends and going to mass. I wasn’t packed for sitting around an empty house all day.
When Mom asked me to come for a few weeks and that Dad would really appreciate it, would he really? This first visit made me doubt it.