My Dad was hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic after shocking complications with his surgery. In the last week, I have borne witness to grief, pain, terrible suffering, and undying love so profound that it brought tears to my eyes.
I learned that it is possible to cry so much that you run out of tears. I have seen how even the smallest acts of kindness can be incredibly huge.
This was nothing short of the largest family crisis we've ever had, and this is my account of the adversities, struggles, crises and small victories that ensued.
At least, the first part, until I can write more.
The shocking news
Friday the night of October 13, my brother, some of his friends, and terraluna_bat were my brother's birthday dinner at the local German place in San Jose, we got a surpirse call from my Mom.
Thinking it was a birthday call to my brother, I didn't think anything of it uintil my brother handed the phone to me and I heard my Mom say that my dad was in critical condition at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. I had known about the surgery that he had planned there, but it sounded fairly routine (he had done it twice before) and I didn't know that things had gone terribly wrong.
I walked outside the restaurant, since it was too loud to hear a phone conversation there, and tried to talk to Mom outside. She was beside herself, and apparently the complications from a routine operation had gone terribly awry, and he was in a lot of pain. Normally I can figure out what to do or say pretty quickly, but I was caught flatfooted with this one. What do you want us to do, I asked. She needed us to look stuff up on the Internet about Dad's condition when we got home, as her phone's net access wasn't working. I ran back to our table and told everyone that we needed to leave at once, to go home and get some information for Mom and about Dad's situation.
Terraluna drove us back, and we steeled ourselves for spending the night looking up everything necessary to help out Mom; By the time we had gotten home though, she told us that she had the information she needed and that Dad was doing better; I tried to go to sleep with fitiful dreams plaguing my consciousness.
The next morning Mom was calling back, saying Dad was doing worse. They found that he had a perforated bowel and had experienced atrial fibrillation and other severe symptoms. He was going under the knife for surgery to fix this, but it was going to be rough on him, especially after three days of severe pain and a reluctance by the nurses to give him enough painkillers. I asked her what we should do, and she didn't know. I tried to keep myself calm, and cancelled the fursuit gig scheduled for that day, and other plans, trying to keep my schedule open. She called again in the afternoon saying that things had settled down, and not to worry about it, so I was able to sleep for a few hours.
While out at dinner with some friends, I got another emergency call from Mom, this one saying that Dad was going into septic shock. I spent most of the dinner abandoning my friends inside and trying to talk to Mom in the car, as it was once again too loud in the restaurant. Again, I asked her what we should do. She said, 'You can use my frequent flyer miles to come out of you want", and that clinched it. After dinner, I said goodbye to my friends for the evening, and it was Brokken that told me, "You could take the redeye flight out in the morning if you really need to", that solidified my decision that I needed to be there.
On the drive home, I clinched the decision. If my Dad was going to die, I needed to be there for Mom, and if he was going to hang on, I needed to be there. Either way, we're going to Minnesota.
The All-Nighter and then the Trip
So I got home and started immediately packing, but my brother was still out to dinner with his girlfriend. I stopped by the ATM and took out cash, and started preparing for the upcoming arduous journey. I spent quite some time that evening trying to book the 6 AM flight out of San Jose in the hopes that we could get there on Sunday afternoon.
If there's one thing I hate, it's dealing with airlines. I hate to fly not because of any fear of terrorists, but because of all the crap that we have to put up with from the entire airline industry, from the rectal probe that you have to go through at the security gate and the attitude problem that they give you from when you try to reserve a ticket to the minute that you get off the plane. This is why I don't even try to fly to cons any more. Travelling with my regular luggage is already aggravating enough, and I don't feel like spending $100 each way for travelling with a fursuit box, either.
So here I am, trying to get an airline flight on the 6 AM flight in less than 8 hours, and the United Airline reservations person tells me to screw off. I finally mange to get a flight out of San Jose, but it's not until almost 5 PM on Sunday; Oh good, Dad might not make it that long. So I take the flight I can get and pass out at about 3 AM, and we try to get some sleep in for what promises to be a long ordeal.
We get to San Jose Airport, after getting a ride from my brother's girlfriend, and get on the plane. The pilot warns us right at the gate that the windshear is going to be bad and he's going to enforce the seatbelt sign during the entire flight, and it lives up to the warning. Turbulence city. It was worse than the flight Croc and I were on out of Tampa dodging Hurricane Dennis. I slam down a few beers and pass out while the plane bounces around, expecting if we all go down in a fireball on the 737, I won't have to deal with what's ahead.
After a short layover in Denver, we get to Minneapolis, and it's nearly 1 AM there. We get the rental car and drive the 80+ miles to Rochester, Minnesota, home of the Mayo Clinic. I'm too fried to drive, so I have my brother drive the rental car while I run the GPS and call people on the cell phone. The landscape oddly reminds me of Kansas, where I lived for half my life. It's very flat with occassional rolling low hills, grain silos, farms, and open fields. It brings back more memories than I want to think about right now.
We get to the hotel at 3 AM, and get to bed at 5 AM, and in the meantime find out what a rundown place the hotel is. There are bugs on the ceiling, the place smells of cigarette smoke and despair, and the bathroom ceiling has orange dots on it from various condensations. We pass out and have to wake up in four hours to go see Dad, and Mom, who's been camping out in the waiting room.
At 9 AM we somehow crawl out of bed after a rough set of plane flights and four hours' sleep, and go to the "complimentary" breakfast in the hotel lounge. My brother and I walk in, and suddenly realize that we're the only people under 80 in the whole place. The whole hotel is filled with elderly patients visiting the Mayo Clinic for their last-ditch chance at survival and a cure for the ailments that plague them, and the hotel is directly across the street from the Mayo Clinic. We get lots of odd stares and leave after scarfing what we can of the substandard breakfast at the hotel.
The Mayo Clinic and Dad
So we got to the hospital about 9:30am, and Dad had already been moved into the ICU for his worsening condition. We found Mom in the lobby of the ICU floor and I hugged her as fast as I could, as she cried into my arms. Seeing her shocked me; normally she has gray hair on the sides, and on the top, but here, almost all her hair was gray or white. She hadn't slept in four days, and had been living in Dad's hospital room, and now the ICU waiting room, as they had limits on visiting hours. After we talked to her and got her to calm down a little, we got to go see Dad.
Going into ICU is nothing like walking into a hardware store; You have to go to the sink and wash up just like ths surgeons do, with the washing-up-to-the-elbow procedure, and then the alcohol gel that you rub on your hands to keep them germ-free. Infections brought in from everyday places can easily kill a patient in the ICU. Face masks for the mouth and nose are recommended, so we did those too, and then saw the ICU room that Dad was in.
He had tubes going into pretty much every possible place, and a oxygen mask over his nose and mouth. All he could do was wave and say a few words. My Mom had warned me about seeing him like this, but it wasn't as bad as I had been bracing myself for. Whenever his signs would go over the limit, the machines would beep incessantly and the nurses would run over. I figured if there was a place to be in the hospital if your condition was deteriorating, it was probably here. I tried to stay upbeat when in front of him, but it looked pretty serious.
He went to sleep, and Mom stayed behind, stroking his hair caressing and his face, trying to keep the tears down. I tried to go back to the waiting room and sit, but all I could hear was the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, "Was I Right Or Wrong". The song follows a musician growing up whose dad considers him a "useless fool", so he makes his own way out on his own:
Like a restless leaf in the autumn breeze
Once I was a tumblin’ weed
Like a rollin’ stone, cold and all alone
Living for the day my train would come
I never cared for school or any golden rules
Papa used to always say I was a useless fool
So I left my home to show them thay was wrong
And headed out on the road singing my song
Ultimately he finds his fame and fortune, and runs back to tell his folks, but they've already died, and he finds out what was really important:
Then one sunny day. the man, he looked my way
And everything that I dreamed of, it was real
Money, girls and cars; and big long cigars
And I caught the first plane home so papa would see
When I went home to show ’em they was wrong
All that I found was two tombstones
Somebody tell me please was I right or wrong
This song especially hit home for me when I first heard it, and now it was playing back in my head, and wouldn't stop. I was the "useless fool" that fled for Kansas in 1989 and never came back, left for my "fame and fortune" in Silicon Valley nine years ago, and now it felt like I was about to ask the same question.
I got up from the waiting room chair in time to see them roll Dad across in a hospital bed with nurses, doctors and trailing equipment, apparently he needed a CAT scan. Mom comes over to me while we're waiting and we hug more tightly than I've ever hugged her in my entire life; She tells me she doesn't want to live any more if he doesn't make it. The damn song won't stop playing in my head. Mom, my brother and I all embrace and try to keep the crushing grief from making us break down. In a lot of ways, this is like the yawning game, where if you yawn first, everybody else will feel compelled to. But this is the crying version.
While we're waiting for him to come back out, I try to read, but I can't concentrate on anything at all; Worse yet, the waiting room is where all the vending machines are, so every 10 minutes or so we have a nurse or doctor walk in to buy a snack, and we think they're there to deliver us some grave news, so we all jump out of our chairs every time they're just coming to buy a candy bar or a soda.
We commiserate with the other people that are also camped out in the waiting room of the Mayo Clinic's ICU, some of which have also been living there for days. A tall black woman from Egypt is there, her husband has cancer and is now in the ICU; a spouse from Nebraska is there waiting for her husband and trying to knit; a woman in a Burqa (the black robe that covers everything) sits with her two kids, not talking to anyone but her children. Another family is having an incredibly serious meeting in the corner about what to do if Dad doesn't make it; We're all a community of the 10th floor of the Mayo Clinic's Methodist Hospital building, all brought together by grief, trying to hope and not let the waiting drive you nuts while you get more and more bad news. I saw other people cry right there in the waiting room that made me cry too; I saw the steely resolve mixed with trembling fear in the eyes of people doing dayslong vigils. I saw little children not understanding why their mother was falling apart. At least my brother and I were old enough to hold Mom up if the worst happened; We would be old enough (and hopefully mature enough) to take care of her if we needed to. I had a lump in my throat so big that it felt like I swallowed an orange whole.
They rolled Dad's bed back out of the CAT scan and put him back in the ICU, and Mom ran back after him. The doctors told us he needed his rest, and so we went to go get something to eat; Mom wouldn't leave his side, so we picked her up some take-out and made her eat it later, she hadn't eaten in days.
Finally I took a nap in the late afternoon, mostly from sleep deprivation and exhaustion from the trip; The beds in the run-down crappy hotel we were in were lumpy, and there were bugs on the ceiling, but I didn't care.
I just wanted to lie down and forget about life for a few hours, and sleep in a world not filled with grief.
A few hours later the cell phone went off, and it was Mom. My brother and I leapt out of bed and ran over from the hotel to the hospital, blowing past the milling traffic in the bowels of the Mayo Clinic underground; There she was in the waiting room, with two doctors in business suits, talking about Dad's condition. I was still groggy, and the medical terms flew over my head like 747s. I wonder if this is how non-technical people feel when I talk computers with someone else in front of them. Dad had a perforated bowel before his last surgery, and now, were things getting better, or worse? It didn't sound good, especially with as many technical terms and euphemisms as the doctors were having to use. It sounded like there were complications from Saturday's surgery, and my Mom was actively scolding the doctors. I sat down and put my hands on my forehead, trying not to think about what might happen.
Sure, Dad and I had had a rocky relationship because I had never lived up to his expectations, but did it have to happen like this?
We got back into the ICU and did the scrub-down again, and there we were, going to see him, but he was asleep. I looked over at the room next door to him and there was a little kid in the room with a breathing tube up her nose, sleeping peacefully with an entire array of equipment hooked up to her monitoring her and giving her fluids and oxygen. Only a few years ago I was in fursuit with the Critters visiting kids just like this, and now my Dad was next door clinging to life in just such a room. The sudden realization of this nearly knocked me to the floor. I tried to stay upright as we left the ICU, with Mom once again steadfastly staying at his side until the nurses kicked her out at the end of the visiting hours, and then she would sleep all night in the lobby. Exhausted, my brother and I went back to the run-down hotel room to look at the bugs on the ceiling and the fading lights of Rochester, Minnesota.
ICU-land through Wednesday
I woke up Tuesday morning not knowing where I was, and for a minute, I thought things were okay, and I was just on vacation in a hotel somewhere. Reality set in a few minutes later when my eyes focused on the dingy hotel we were in, the steel-gray light coming in through the window that was Rochester in the morning, and the bell tower going off at 8 AM.
I got up and took a shower as soon as I could before Mom would call with the news of the day; We headed up to the 10th floor ICU to see Dad, and Mom was waiting in the lobby. I had brought her juice and yougurt, and made her eat first. Mom had already lost ten pounds in the last week from the stress with Dad's medical battles, and that was enough. While we made her eat, she talked of days running around at KU with Dad just a year or two before I was born; About him getting drafted in 1968, and how she worried he might not come back from the war. About riding around the Midwest following wherever he was stationed in a Ford Galaxy with him when I was just a baby; I tried to keep us a little closer to today in prepartion for us seeing him, the intensity of the memories was already overpowering enough.
Our family suffers from what I call "The Curse of a Good Memory". We can very easily resume a fight over something that happened 25 years ago like it was yesterday. I have vivid memories of knock-down-drag-out fights that I had with my parents 20 years ago that feel like they were last night, and they feel the same way, and can easily respond in kind. It becomes even worse at Christmas get-togethers, when we fight over what happend at Christmas 1979, and suddenly we revert back to the same positions and ages as we were in 1979. I guess you could call it time travel, in a certain way, but I just call it more billable hours fot the therapist.
BTW, Christmas is when you are painfully reminded of how dysfunctional your family really is, despite you reassuring and telling yourself for the last year that it isn't so.
We go and see Dad, and he's kind of there, and we move into the ICU room carefully. He offers his right hand and I clasp it, but his grip is weak. I can feel the tubes and IVs punctured into his hand as I set his hand down, trying to stay calm. We speak in brief and short sentences, and my brother and I try to keep our composure as we try to stay positive. The CAT scan has shown that they might have to operate again, another surgery might kill him in his current condition. I feel the uncontrollable urge to fidget, to flee, to scream, to leap out a window, to die writhing on the floor as I try to stay calm and tell Dad that things will be all right. I see that steely, stubborn look in his eyes that terrified me when we used to fight when I was growing up, but now I know that he's using it to live. Stubborness and a fierce refusal to give up, bordering on madness, run in our family, and I can feel it when we clasp our hands with each other. I try to use few words because I can't stop my voicei from shaking. I can feel the tears dribbling down from my eyes but I pretend they're not there.
We let him get some rest and my brother and I run errands for them. The hotel we're in stinks, and we need to move everything to another one. I ask around about hotels nearby and visit a few of them, and they need laundry, food, and supplies. We walk around downtown Rochester's byzantine network of tunnels looking for what we need, but there's not much in the way of retail shops around there.
In the evening after we're done, I try like hell to find a beer in this industrial hospital complex known as downtown Rochester, and can't find a drink anywhere. After walking around for several blocks while it's getting colder and colder, I head back to the hotel room to look up in the Yellow Pages for any nearby liquor stores that can get me a beer or six. All of them close at 9 PM. Fsck!
Fortunately, I pass out from the sleep deprivation and exhaustion, otherwise I would have been up all night. That, and my emergency vodka stash, stored in a nondescript-looking plastic bottle that looks like aftershave.
Wednesday morning Mom calls us up way too early as my brother and I leap out of bed for the phone once again. Dad's getting moved out of ICU, and is doing well enough he can go to a regular hospital room. We get showered, dressed and run over there as fast as we can. Today is Dad's birthday, and while we have no gift for him other than our visit, and we hightail over there.
Mom looks a little calmer now that she's not camping on a couch in the ICU waiting room; He's been moved to the 5th floor and is exhausted from the move. We talk to him for a bit and then take a break getting lunch and bringing back more food for Mom; Mom and Dad have a list of items they need for the hospital room for her to sleep and for Dad to be more comfortable; We spend the rest of the day shopping with an urgent vengeance in Rochester, Minnesota, hitting an entire collection of stores. We hightail it back to his hospital room with all the stuff as fast as we can like it's his last request, but he's fallen back asleep again, so we leave our shopping stuff with Mom, who's still camped out with him. I really wish she'd at least take a nap, in a bed, for a few hours, it's been five days since she's had any real sleep.
I collapse back in the hotel room and try to get some rest, but all I get are fitiful dreams of hospital beds and screens beeping waveforms , dying patients in hospital gowns reaching up to the ceiling, and tearful spouses pining in waiting rooms. Needless to say, I didn't get much in the way of sleep either.