Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Wee Small Hours

The past month has been a blur: the drive west to Minnesota on Christmas Eve, navigating the rabbit's warren that is St Marys Hospital, the daily--sometimes hourly--ups (his white count is down!) and downs (his hemoglobin is low...) of hospital stays. And then there's the uncertainty. It's crippling. And the fear. It's palpable and sometimes it feels like it's piped into the room via the hvac vents. Grief, sadness, exhaustion, and occasional bemusement all joined us in my father's comfortably large room.*

To try and reach some small level of sanity (for lack of a better word) I started writing little snippets--on paper or on my laptop when I had it with me--moments I wanted to remember and feelings I had to document somewhere. Holding hands with my father while we watched the Minnesota Wild game. The odd peace of hearing the machines beeping and pinging to assure us that whatever they were monitoring was "normal." The bone-chilling sub-zero mornings when pulling my boots on to go out and start the Jeep seemed to require extra effort, as if the gravity of the days was pulling, pulling, pulling at me--dragging me underground, the familiar suffocation of being in a place where I simply am not at home despite being technically "home."

And then there's the guilt. The guilt felt over giving any voice to your own feelings, wants, and needs when you have an ill parent confined to a hospital bed. The focus--and the energy, especially the positive energy--needs to be on them. We, my mother and I, became cheerleaders. (If you knew my mother this would be far funnier, but trust me, it's a sight.) Keeping my father's spirits up and not focusing solely on the challenges became our daily regimen. When needed, I was bad cop (Really? Would you let your athletes quit because of a setback? NO. Now let's try it again!) and my mother the extra nurse. Quietly, yet firmly--she is, after all, fully German and a Scorpio--she encouraged, cajoled, managed, nudged and glared my father into eating, trying, and cooperating. Regardless of how exhausted she was--sleeping on a cot at the hospital many nights until she realized she was putting her own health at serious risk--she persevered. She was advocate, helper, nurse, questioner, and all-around watch dog. In short, she was The Spanish Inquisition, but in a good way.

St Marys (those of you with apostrophic here) is a teaching hospital and part of the Mayo Clinic system. It's the farthest afield of the Mayo Clinic properties in downtown Rochester, Minnesota, but it's a wonderful and grand old building. Another method of keeping my modicum of sanity (again, for lack of a better word) was wandering around taking photos. A few are on my flickr page (here) and some are up on my Instagram feed as well. The quiet of the St Marys Chapel and its luxury--really there's no other word for all the carvings and marble--made it a great spot for photos. Sometimes leaving the room was necessary for both patient and family. Returning with Lifesavers to soothe a scratchy throat can feel like returning the conquering hero, trust me. And don't underestimate the value of finding a can of ginger ale in a pinch, either. A bottle of sparkling Catawba Grape Juice is also a totally fabulous way to ring in a new year.

Reader, I am happy to report that my father left the hospital on January 10 and is doing well in a rehab center with the hope he eventually makes it home. I got to spend a few days with him and meet his physical and occupational therapists before I left to return to Connecticut and he's in good hands. And we've told him, the perpetual coach, that trying is the thing. All we ask is that you try. It's what you would've told all your track athletes, it's the best you can expect and hope for. And remember what you did when you did it right. Visualize the result you want. The nuggets--both trite and tried and true--that he used to motivate generations of track and field athletes have now been turned on him. Not sure he's always thrilled with that, but he's a trooper. Track season is ahead...and the coach needs to be around for it. He's fond of quoting a note left by a waitress on a lunch receipt from a Lake City, Minnesota drive-in many years back: "The 10 most important two letter words...If it is to be, it is up to me." Go get 'em, Pops.

Now that I'm home, ensconced in my beloved East Coast, I can look back and be grateful. Grateful for friends who let me vent without judgment, played Scrabble to keep me occupied, sent me funny quips to make things seem a little normal and those who simply asked how we were all doing. It meant more than any of them can ever know. They know who they are and I am in their collective debt. It's no fun being away from your support system, but when they can tweet, text, email, and iMessage you, it's much better. Never underestimate the power of quietly being there for another person.

OH. And about the * and room size. Fun factoid ahead. (Especially fun for my Republican parents!) In September of 1989 Ronald Reagan visited the Mayo Clinic for his routine physical. They found some fluid on his brain--likely due to a fall from a horse that same July--and he was sent to St Marys for a procedure to remove said fluid. While he was at St Marys he was visited by Boris Yeltsin. The Mayo Campus is no stranger to hordes of security and secret service, but I have to imagine this was a memorable day for all concerned, regardless of party affiliation. All this to say that my father's comfy, spacious room on the 3rd Floor, Joseph Wing, was once the lodging of Nancy Reagan. The President was across the hall (in a room occupied during my father's stay by a very nice family from Oelwein, Iowa who told me stories of horse-drawn school buses in North Dakota!) and Nancy was in my father's room. The Secret Service agents were in the lounge that was kitty-corner across the hall. One of the nurses shared this with us and I quickly verified the details. Not quite the "George Washington slept here" tales that I'm used to in Connecticut, but it'll do nicely.

So here's (belatedly) to a fresh, new year. One filled with possibilities. And here's to the attempt. To trying and to celebrating the small victories that warm our hearts in the wee small hours. And to my father--long may the Bear flourish and thrive. 


Sid Fernando said...

MLA, here 'so to continued recovery for your pops and to great and poignant story telling..

The Paper Tyger said...

Thanks very much, SHF, for reading and for good wishes. Both are greatly appreciated :)

Mark Devereux said...

Just catching up with your blog - so sorry to hear your Dad's been ill. Here's to him feeling better soon! A great read, btw...and love the photos on FlickR.

The Paper Tyger said...

Most kind of you, Mark! Thanks for reading and good wishes always welcome.