Monday, June 19, 2017

Sweet Father's Day

We started when the sun was still up.

The evening birds were beginning their song, but the meadowlarks were still signaling to each other, and the mosquitoes weren't bad yet.

We started the loop going clockwise, aiming first for the bridge that crosses what once was the Burlington Ditch.

I only learned that becuase my dad — voracious history reader that he is — insisted on stopping at every. single. historical. plaque.

So I read with him.

I showed him the trees that, for me, are the scent of Wyoming summers.

He thought they were Russian olive. I'm still not sure.

We ambled around the curve, making small talk.

This had been my mom's idea, and I felt bad that I hadn't thought of it first.

"Sarah, I want you to spend more time with your dad. Just you and him. Go do something together. Anything."

Dad isn't chatty anymore. You have to really pry things out of him, and he's not much for the outdoors anymore, either. I've gotten comfortable doing things with Mom, or with Mom and Dad.

Weekends came and went, and there was always something else that came up.

A trip to Montana.

A date.

A girls' weekend in the Black Hills.

And then it was Father's Day weekend.

I told him Friday night, over sushi and hibachi, that we'd go walking the next day, but I overslept and he didn't want to go later in the day.

Late Sunday, as I was in the midst of an insanely long walk, Mom called.

Dad was ready to go.

I picked him up, and we headed for the lake.

"We don't have to do the whole loop, Dad," I said. "We'll go as far as you want. You feeling OK?"

He said he was, and I could already hear the irritation in his voice that I would ask. He was irritated that I'd made him grab a jacket on his way out of the car.

He wouldn't let me bring the bug repellant.

"Bugs don't dare bite me," he said.

I wasn't going to argue with him.

"Have you been here since they paved the walkway?" I asked.

"No," he said, later pointing to a gravel path that led off near the gun range.

"The path used to be all that stuff," he said.

He remembered that, at least.

We talked about when the city used to shoot fireworks there, and we'd spend the Fourth of July at a friend's house nearby, and his neighbors called the cops on us for shooting "illegal" fireworks.

He chuckled.

Did he still feel OK?

He did.

He pointed to a mound of dirt rising into the lake's newest manmade island.

"I don't remember that," he said.

"They just made that this spring," I told him.

We'd learned about how the geese here had been transplanted from Keyhole, and how the lake had been dredged to a depth to hold water year-round and been designated a waterfowl area. We'd read about the city's unsuccessful attempt to ban dogs from the lake during nesting seasons, and Dad swore there had been a similar "act of stupidity" for the Fishing Lake.

He stopped to admire the pump house and to read a few more plaques.

This fellow who did such-and-such so many years ago and was the great-grandfather of that city official; this couple whose homestead had abutted the acreage that now made up the park where we now walked a slow circle.

We talked about one of his therapists. He's a little tender over all his doctors and therapists. I think he resents them sometimes.

He really likes his cognition therapist, though. She's personable. She doesn't judge him. There aren't any wrong answers to her questions.

His legs were tired, so he was going to sit down.

Did he feel OK?

He did, and he said so with a sigh.

We sat and watched starlings take flight out of the grass and trees.

"Do you think we startled them?" I asked him.

"I don't think that's our fault," he said. "I think it's their bedtime."

We talked a bit about whether birds have curfew and how if we waited long enough, we'd see pairs of geese flying in from the northeast, honking their arrival.

Dad didn't want to wait around for that, so we got up and walked a bit more.

We were at the halfway point. Whether we turned around or forged ahead, it was the same distance.

He shrugged.

"Might as well finish," he said, looking ahead to a shaded curve full of more of those fragrant trees.

I told him about the deer, antelope, ducks, geese, snake and skunk I'd seen here.

He laughed when I told him how, in the low daylight and flashing lightning of an approaching storm, I'd mistaken the skunk as a funky-looking squirrel.

"Then I realized it was NOT a squirrel. Definitely not a squirrel."

He wanted to know if I'd seen any beaver or muskrat houses.

I said no, not wanting to admit that I was more than fine with that. My last almost-encounter with a muskrat had been a terrifying midnight act of idiocy at Keyhole when I was a teenager, when the quiet but suspicious paddling of water got closer and closer to my legs as I stood holding a flashlight for my friends who were swimming in the dark.

I hadn't been able to stand in a lake in the dark since then.

I didn't tell him any of that. I just told him to let me know if he saw any beaver or muskrat houses.

We took a couple more breaks, and we watched a glorious sunset together.

We got up, and I made him a promise: Finish this lap, and we'll go get ice cream.


It took an hour, but we finished the loop and walked back to the car.

The sun was no longer up, and the brilliant colors had faded to smoky grays and whites.

Dad said his legs were worn out.

I told him he couldn't complain, since I'd done 7½ miles before I picked him up.

We got to the McDonald's drive-through, where I handed him his sweet reward.

He began devouring it. INHALING it.

Halfway home, I looked over. His cone was more than half gone.

"You worried Mom'll take it away from you?" I asked, laughing.

"Mmm-hmmm," he grunted, crunching into the cone.

I turned onto their street, and he brushed the crumbs from his hands.

As I put the van into park in the driveway, Dad looked at my cone.

"Lemme see that for a second," he said.

I sighed, bidding a silent farewell to my treat, sure that Dad was going to finish my cone, too.

He held it for a few seconds, staring at it, looking perplexed.

Then he handed it back to me.

"Huh," he said.

Now perplexed myself, I looked at my cone.

"What?" I asked.

"Well, I just wondered," he said.

"What??" I asked, again, getting a little worried.

"Well, there really WAS a wrapper on that cone."

I looked at him.

He looked at my cone.

I started laughing.

"You ate the wrapper?"

He shrugged.

"I thought it was a little chewy."

I laughed harder.

"You ATE the WRAPPER?!???"

"Oh, well ... No evidence for your mom to get mad at me," he said.

And that's the story of my Father's Day Sunset Walk and the tale of how there remained no evidence that my dad had indulged in a Father's Day ice cream cone.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Catching Up

I've realized I didn't give the update on Dad, aside from random Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Much happened between that last post and now. Much of it excellent. Much of it not good. Balance is hard.

There were falls, infections, lost pets, more falls, and finally .... finally, that surgery. Open-heart, many hours long, always with the possibility that it would all have the worst outcome.

We were all together in a waiting room in South Carolina when the surgeon came out after so many hours and gave us the news our hearts had ached to hear:

Dad was well, the surgery had gone perfectly, we'd be able to see him in a few hours.

That was a month and a half ago. I've returned to Wyoming. My parents, individually, followed in their own time. Dad is home, fighting off a surprisingly strong bout of allergies/cold/flu, but healing well otherwise.

He's frail — an alien term regarding my dad until a few years ago. Life and its brushes with death have aged us all, but none more so than Dad.

My big, burly dad with the booming laugh and the hard-headed stubbornness is frail. Withered and worn-down, and confused and frustrated by the whole process.

It reminds me so strongly of my grandpa's last years that it hurts. Like I'm watching a 20-year-old echo.

But he's healing. He's lost weight — a benefit of life with his military doctor-son. He's working toward a new phase of rehab, including renewed cognitive therapy. These are all excellent, promising things.

Overall, it's an encouraging thing.

And there are repaired arteries and a new heart valve actually pumping new life back into him. It's just going to take time.

And time is so tricky.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Matters of the Heart

In 2012, we got a miracle that we didn't ask for and whose opportunity we would have gladly foregone.
After being clinically dead and frantically resuscitated for an hour, my dad was brought back to us.
Well. A version of him was brought back.
Part of him died in that operating room in Casper, and part of me died during the call from my mom telling me Dad was the subject of the Code Blue being repeated on the intercom in the background as she tried to tell me that I needed to come to Wyoming as fast as possible.
Dad's still with us, but new problems have reared their ugly, ugly heads.
This week begins another Very Scary Chapter in the saga that has been Dad's Heart.
Wednesday, my parents fly to South Carolina, where Dad will undergo rigorous, extensive testing at the Medical University of South Carolina to assess how to best replace his aortic valve and address four blocked arteries. He's a ticking time bomb, and regional hospitals wouldn't consider operating until mid-February.
So Plan B it is. 
I had panic attacks when we first began to realize the scope of how bad it is, but I eventually calmed down.
Until this week. The insomnia and panic have started again.
Did I just say goodnight to my dad for the last time in his house?

The Kid

In 2012, Dad woke up ... different.
I remember standing with my brother next to Dad's bed in ICU during his second coma in a week (damn, I hate the sight of intubation equipment).
I started crying when I asked Matt what would happen if Dad woke up and didn't know who we were. Didn't remember that he'd ever had kids that he'd played horsey with or launched across swimming pools or taken camping in the Black Hills.
The fear that a lifetime of memories could be wiped like words from a chalkboard was nearly crippling.
Dad woke up ... and he didn't know who we were.
And I had to smile, take a breath and leave the room.
He remembered he had kids, remembered his siblings, remembered his coworkers and pastor and neighbors ... but none of the people in his room could possibly be those people.
It was hard. It was awful. He always knew who Mom was, but the rest of us took some time to sink through the layers of fog in his mind. First his "Monster Little Sister Dottie," then "Sawawawah." Matt took the longest, and Dad's inability to recognize him took the cruelest forms. Only someone with my brother's personality could take the shit my dad unknowingly dished out in those days without a little resentment.
My dad has been at the cognitive level of a very large, forgetful child since then. Short-tempered, short of memory, long on enjoyment from the television and video games. Unable to drive, sometimes unable to remember that he lives in a different house from where Matt and I grew up, unable to remember conversations he had 10 minutes ago or to keep track of what day it is and sometimes what time of day it is.
He'll knock your socks off if you get him going on history, though. And ask him about his principal's car and the elevator.

Time, Space and Everything In Between

The problems in dealing with a very large child surface most often in the realms of time and space. His sense of time is mostly confined to the immediate, except for the memories that were able to migrate to a long-term storage part of his brain — basically anything that happened 6 years or more before his brain injury.
Space is similar — whatever is immediately around him, how it relates to his comfort zone (home, chair, TV, computer, bed), and how long someone tells him it will be until he is able to return to his comfort zone (traveling with Dad can be ... challenging).
Enter our Plan B to send him to MUSC, with familiar faces coming and going at various stages central to the as-yet-unknown Surgery Day and the unending conversations about his problems, his tests, his surgery and the potential complications.
He's very confused and was very scared until today. I think Mom has shifted the focus to "going to visit Matt" and spending time in Not Effing Freezing Wyoming, rather than the surgery.
Which is good.
I gave him a card to take with him, reminding him that however long he's in South Carolina, it's temporary, and our plan always has been for him to come home to Wyoming when it's warmer and when he's healed from his surgery, to live here with Mom and be a healthier person with a better-than-ever heart.
I think it helped. A little. I hope.

An Unexpected Journey

Short story long, I'm heading to Charleston at some unknown point in the next few weeks.
On the one hand: A better-functioning heart for Dad! Aunts! Matt! Ericka! Warmth! OCEAN!
On the other hand: That damn nagging voice that hisses from an ugly corner of my brain. It feeds fear and doubt, and it plays the most God-awful scenarios on a loop in my brain.
And I can't shut it off. 

I picked a hell of a January to set alcohol and chocolate aside.