My Real Dad
Last Thanksgiving my dad almost died.
I was climbing into bed when the phone rang. I didn’t rush to get it because even on a good day I hate talking on the phone. I stand in front of a ringing phone and pass through all the Kubler-Ross stages of grief before I answer it: shock, denial, anger, betrayal, bargaining and, ultimately, surrender. I checked Caller ID that night and saw it was my mom but I let it ring. Whatever she needs to say she can leave on the machine or tell me tomorrow, I thought to myself and I closed my eyes. I had so much to do for Thanksgiving. The phone rang again five minutes later. Mom. I picked up with a small sigh.
Come down as soon as you can, she said. Dad’s in the hospital.
I hung up the phone and woke my husband and kids. We threw some clothes together and got into the car. I am terrified of flying and normally I’ll fake any kind of illness to get out of it but this time I really had a bad cold and an ear infection so I had an acceptable excuse. I sent up a guilty little prayer of thanks.
“It’s going to be okay,” Robin whispered to me in the front seat. “So let’s not make this a morose seventeen hours for the kids. No matter what’s going to happen with your dad.” But I couldn’t help it. I had let the phone ring when my mom called.
“Just do me a favor,” Robin’s voice was suddenly tense. “No matter what, don’t scream. I have to concentrate.” Then he maneuvered our station wagon around the line of trucks, SUV’s and four-wheel drive Jeeps waiting out the storm, and turned onto the mountain road. I married Robin because he is so macho but I wasn’t sure about this. The Highway Patrolman waved him on and wished us luck as we proceeded up the icy pass. I made sure he got a good look at our faces so he’d recognize our stiff, frozen corpses when they found us in the spring.
My sister was waiting for us in my dad’s hospital room. When she heard me cough she put a surgical mask on me and another one on my dad, and then put one on herself, just for solidarity. “Ah, now I see the family resemblance” my dad joked when the three of us looked at each other. He was wearing two bathrobes over his hospital gown because he is always cold. His eyes were small and sunken. I don’t think I had ever seen him without his glasses
It had been only a few months since I had visited him, and only a few days since I had talked to him on the phone. Well, not really talked to him. My dad has never had an actual phone conversation with me. He answers the phone, says hello and then tells me, “Hold on, I’ll go get Mom.” He calls impatiently for my mom as though I have urgent news, even though I didn’t even ask to talk to her. “Hurry, Sylvia,” he yells, “Ann’s on the phone!” She’s been through this. She knows it’s not urgent. She knows he just doesn’t know what to say to me. She’s probably on the toilet, mouthing to him, “Jesus, Murray, just talk to her for a goddamn minute and let me finish here!”
“Hold on, Mom is coming.” He reassures me. And then there’s silence until my mom gets to the phone. I can hear him breathing. I used to feel a little weird about that, a little rejected, but then my sister told me he does the same thing to her, too.
In the hospital, the surgeon explains my dad’s operation to us. “An aortal aneurysm is a very simple procedure although there is risk in every surgery,” he begins. He doesn’t even make eye contact with my dad, who is straining to hear him. “Now, with your husband’s heart condition there is a greater risk, of course…” he says, glancing at my dad and then turning again to my mom. “How advanced is Mr. Brown’s dementia? Can he sign his name?”
My dad tugs at my sleeve. “What is dementia?” he asks me.
Late that night in my parent’s house, while my mom slept alone in her bed for the first time in over fifty years, my sister and I wandered through our old home. We touched the paintbrushes my dad had used that week. We pored over the stories and plays he’d written, now in wrinkled manila folders piled high in all corners of the room. We sat in his chair and we stood at his easel. We tried to recall every memory we had of him.
We remembered the Saturday morning game of chase he used to play with us. My sister and I always hid in the hallway closet and waited - she, giggling hysterically and me, fighting a panic attack - until he lumbered down the hall and flung open the closet door. Those Saturday morning chase games were, I am certain, the beginning of Karen’s lifelong love of danger and my lifelong struggle with claustrophobia. We remembered how he built us matching easels and showed us how to mix paints on a palette, always adding the dark to the light, drop by drop. And we remembered when he punched out our neighbor the summer I was ten years old because the man had pulled me into his garage and shook me by the shoulders after I told his little Republican daughters that Barry Goldwater was an idiot. Which was just repeating what I had heard my dad say at the dinner table.
But nothing in our memories revealed the man we hoped to discover that night; the man inside the archetype, my real dad. I really didn’t know him when I was a child but I’m not bemoaning that. I don’t think I wanted to know my dad’s secrets and weaknesses then. I am still squirmy about it even now. It was weird enough seeing him in the hospital without his glasses.
My dad’s surgery was scheduled for six o’clock the next morning. At five thirty, everyone went ahead to the hospital but I was stuck in slow motion. I couldn’t find my toothbrush. I lost the directions to the hospital. I finally got out to the car but then I ran back in the house to get a sweater from my mom’s closet in case it was going to be cold in the air-conditioned hospital. I drove slowly and carefully on the LA streets, talking to myself, stopping at all the yellow lights, pissing off the other drivers.
The entrance to the hospital lobby was blocked by a dozen gray-haired volunteers wearing yellow jackets and buttons that exclaimed, “I CAN Help You!” The volunteers chatted merrily amongst themselves, nervously ignoring me. I approached a gentleman manning the coffee cart. It took me two tries to get his attention.
“I’m looking for my father,” I told him.
“You need help?” His enthusiasm bordered on hysteria. I don’t think he had counted on a challenge like this when he signed up for the “I CAN Help You!” job. He motioned to the other yellow jackets. They hurried over and struck various poses of helpfulness.
“This young lady is looking for her father,” he explained. Murmurs of concern rumbled throughout the group. This might have been their biggest case yet. Send for Matlock.
“My father, he’s in surgery. Murray Brown. Yes?” I don’t know why I spoke to them in loud, broken English. A clipboard was produced and consulted.
“No Murray Brown in this hospital, dear. Why don’t you try Cedars?”
My throat was beginning to close up. I let out a little sob. The yellow jackets buzzed around me and scratched their heads, like the apes around the monolith.
“We do have a Mary Brown, however,” one of them murmured. I read the name. Murray. Fourth floor surgery.
I bounded up the stairs two at a time, to remind myself that I am strong and capable, but then my thigh cramped up and I had to limp the rest of the way holding on to the rail. I turned the door handle to the fourth floor but it was locked. I pounded the door with growing urgency until the woman behind me gave it a little push and it opened. I walked into the waiting room. My mom and my aunts and cousins were already there, sitting on the couches making quiet, careful conversation. My sister got up and gave me a hug.
“What took you so long?” she asked. “They already took Dad in to surgery.”
“I don’t know,” I said, “it was like I was underwater or something.”
Karen nodded. “Yeah. This is so weird.” We were quiet for a moment.
“Is that mom’s sweater?” she asked.
The phone in the waiting room had a sign next to it that read, please do not call into the O.R. A nurse will call you . My sister and I called into the O.R. five times from that phone during my dad’s surgery. “We are really sorry to bother you,” we’d say, “but we are just really worried and we want to know how our dad is doing.” Then we’d cry. Stoicism has never been our strong suit. We were the biggest babies in the waiting room.
There was a family in the waiting room that had been at the hospital since the day we arrived. They hardly moved, waiting for news, taking turns going home to sleep, keeping vigil over their nineteen-year-old son, the victim of a drive-by shooting. The boy was in a coma and the prognosis was not good. As our group became more relaxed and animated, adding extra couches and chairs to accommodate the growing stream of visitors we received, their group retreated further into the corner. I tried not to look at them when the doctors came by to give us encouraging updates on my dad.
I was in the bathroom one afternoon with the boy’s sister. She was washing out bowls of soup they had brought from home. "How is your brother doing today?" I asked.
She shrugged. "They say he can hear us so we talk to him. We tell him that he needs to wake up." She went back to washing the bowls. I repeated the words that were a constant presence in the waiting room, "I'll keep your brother in my prayers".
It was a new experience for me, to use the word "prayer" so freely. My family did not pray. We were secular, scientific - believing freethinkers. We put our faith in the collective power of people, not in God. The first few times someone said they'd pray for my dad, I winced. "And I'll keep your son in our thoughts" I’d reply, or "we'll keep a good thought for your wife". In moments of deep fear, however, or if my dad took a turn for the worse, I nodded my head when someone said they'd pray for him. Then I was a believer. I opened my arms and ran into the fold, accepted the fellowship of these welcoming people who trusted in God to heal their loved ones. I began using the words, telling people I'd pray for them. The words felt strange and new and exotic and a little rebellious in my mouth. I felt powerful and magnanimous when I said I’d pray for someone. And a little disingenuous, because I never prayed for those people. I used up all my prayers for my dad.
The boy in the coma was dying. His friends came to see him each night; around four or five in the afternoon a handful of young men in bandanas and tattoos and brass knuckles began streaming into the waiting room and soon more kept coming, long past visiting hours were over, until the waiting room was filled with maybe twenty of them. They sat in a straight row of hard chairs against the wall, facing us. I watched them out of the corner of my eye, scared of their youth and their anger. The mother of the dying boy kissed each one, called him by name, fed him soup.
Our group moved our chairs and couches closer together, circling the wagons around my mom. We had a huge basket of gourmet cookies with us, a gift from one of my cousins. The first day they arrived at my parent’s house we ate ourselves sick, so we brought them back to the waiting room with us each day for the friends and family who came to sit with us.
I wanted to share the cookies with the scary young men sitting against the wall. I wanted the cookies to be the answer to LA’s race problem. I picked up the enormous, beribboned basket and walked to the middle of the room. The moment carried all the anticipation of Tony holding out his hand to Maria at the dance. I looked right into the face of the scariest looking guy I could find, and held up the basket to him. He looked away.
Oh shit. Maybe he thought I was just showing it to him, just teasing him. Neener, neener, we’ve got a two hundred dollar basket of white chocolate macadamia nut cookies and you don’t. No wonder they hate white people. I crossed the invisible line in the middle of the room, walked the basket over to the mother and smiled. She chose an oatmeal raisin cookie.
I turned to the young man sitting next to her and offered him one. He shook his head no. Now what??
I couldn’t just slink away, everyone was watching me. So I made my way down the long line of scary young, tattooed men with my stupid basket of cookies, like the Queen Mum in a soup kitchen. Some of them took cookies, some didn’t. No big deal. Hands Across America wasn’t going to happen that night. I walked back to our side of the room and chose a giant coconut macaroon for myself.
Suddenly, the guy who had refused a cookie walked over to me. What was this? Was he going to ask me to dance or punish me for offering cookies to his gang? Maybe they were an anti-cookie gang, what do I know from such things?
He put his hand in his pocket and - after my heart started up again - pulled out a pack of gum. I don’t chew gum because I have crowns in my upper molars but you can bet your upper middle class, white, bourgeois ass I accepted his stick of Wrigley’s. With a smile.
And I chewed it all night long. We sat facing each other on the fourth floor waiting room of the CCU, keeping vigil, chewing our Juicy Fruit. I nodded at the scary guy, acknowledging our new bond, but he ignored me. No matter. In my mind, I was one of them now as we waited together, each praying for a miracle, through the cloudless, starless LA night.