Friday, November 26, 2010

Anywhere But Here

Once again another day blurs into night as I sit here staring out the window of room 640 at Baltimore Washington Medical Center. To the right of me Dad is sleeping in his bed, to the left an orange glow of sunset is settling over Baltimore. For a moment I have to think what day it is, what month. Time is moving outside my window, but here on the 6th floor it feels like it is standing still. Life is on hold waiting for Dad to get better.

Halloween has come and gone, the clock is beginning to tick away at November. The orange of sunset is now being replaced by darkness expanding over the horizon. The landing lights are now visible and I can see the planes as they line up for the final approach at BWI airport. One, two, three, four, five, six planes I count waiting for their turn to land. They form a straight line of bright dots. I wonder where the flights are coming from? I try to imagine an exotic location warm and beautiful. Where the nights are filled with gentle ocean breezes. I try to envision a hamlet full of laughter and life. A place where I can escape the sounds and smells of the hospital. For right now I long to be at any locale, any city, any abode, anywhere but here.

Looking out the window I am lost in a day dream, a place unknown when the cries of pain from my father transport me back to reality. I call for the nurse, ask for more pain medication. Feelings of helplessness envelop me as I take his hand. I understand there is no physical comfort I can give him. I can only wait with him until his medication takes effect.

I hold his hand and look out the window at the traffic on route 100. I look away so my Dad will not see the tears forming in my eyes. His moans of agony break my heart, tear at my soul. I squeeze his hand, try to comfort him with words. I remind him I love him, everything will be okay. I hear his breathing begin to slow, his moans begin to fade, the medication is slowly taking effect. His grip begins to loosen on my hand, I know he is now asleep. I continue to peer out the window and begin to have selfish thoughts. I look at the highway below and wish I was on it. I long to drop the top on my Mini, crank my iPod and feel the wind on my face, through my hair. I am surrounded by sickness and I hunger to feel alive. I yearn to drive to distances unknown, somewhere fun. I wish I was anywhere but here.

I am lost in a memory of spring break when I am awaken by the red and white flashing lights of an ambulance as it arrives at the emergency bay below. Several times a night I see the lights reflect off the windows in the distant darkness. Every time I see the lights, even though I do not know the passenger I still say a prayer. I pray that whatever injury or illness brought them to the E.R. can be fixed and they can return home. I pray their family never has to stay here. I pray they have the choice to drive anywhere but here.

3:27 a.m. a cry breaks the quiet of the night, I hear the nurses call to each other. I lean forward, I can see the family crying. I can’t remember their names, only where they are from, how they like their coffee. I learned the day before their mother had stage four lung cancer. I witness them consoling each other. I realize their mom has passed. I squeeze my Dad’s hand tighter. I feel tears begin to pour down my cheeks. 4:00 a.m. the ding of the elevator reverberates through the hall. I look out and see the gurney with the unwanted empty burgundy bag turn the corner. A few minutes later the gurney returns, the bag no longer empty. It carries what was once a mother, grandmother, the love of someone’s life. The sight is more than I can endure. I let go of my Dad’s hand and rush to the bathroom to regain my strength, my composure.

I lock the bathroom door, I need to be alone. I feel everything closing in around me. I am afraid I am not strong enough to handle another day, another night. I am scared I am moments away from losing my sanity. I wash my face, stare at myself in the mirror. The reflection I see is not me. My face is so tired, my eyes appear sad. I look like I have aged a hundred years since Dad first arrived on the sixth floor. I hate this place. This floor is taking everything out of me, I am losing hope. I fear the optimist in me is slowly dying. I lean against the wall, catch my breath and ask God why can’t I be anywhere but here?

After a few moments of self pity I remind myself I need to have faith in God, in myself. No matter what the outcome it will be God's will. He will not give me anymore than I can bear. I grab a paper towel and remove all remnants of tears from my face, take a deep breath and head back to Dad’s room. I grab another pillow and sit in my chair between Dad’s bed and the window. I change the play list on my iPod, try to get as comfortable as possible. Once again I take Dad’s hand, stare out the window hoping to find a star to make a wish on. I slowly drift off to sleep, dreaming of happier times when life was the way it was suppose to be. I am almost off in peaceful slumber when the tech wakes me, she has to take Dad’s vitals. I need to move my chair. I stand and continue to gaze out the window. Light is beginning to penetrate the darkness. Another day has arrived. I feel a gentle squeeze on my hand. Dad is awake. He smiles at me. As the warm glow of the sun enters his room I realize here is the only place I want to be.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Simply a Song

The past nineteen days I have spent with my father in the hospital I have been serenaded by the song of cancer. The bleeps of his monitor, the whirl of his feeding tube, the bubbling of the oxygen line, the alarms on his IV, the sounds of the suction machine clearing his airway, the elevator's ding outside his room. Dad's constant chants, his malignant melody, the easy sounds to hear. Strange as it may seem, I have come to appreciate this anthem. For I know as long as I hear these notes Dad is holding his own, he is still here. No matter how much I hate the tune, I know it is much better than the song of silence that awaits me. For now, I cherish his lullaby.

The harshest refrains are the echoes that resonate through the halls at night.  They breach the silence of sleep. The chorus of urgency is so loud, so constant it causes me to stop whatever I am doing to pray. The ward's bewitching waltz; cries of pain, alarms alerting nurses of a patient in need, deafening code blues, and the swift shoof of shoes as they rush to divert darkness' dance partner. Attempt to save the song for one more day.

There are sad ditties as well, the melancholy psalm of despair that tears at my soul and causes me to weep for the unknown person. The sobs of a patient a few doors down. He cries from loneliness every night. He longs for his son to visit. His chorus never changes, please God. His is one of many falsettos released from the open doors. They reverberate from room to rotunda. The intonations of pleas pierce the middle eight and change the composition.

I have learned there is a certain rhythm to tears. Everyone cries in beat as they stand in the hallway, gather their courage to call family members, disclose the diagnosis is cancer. The vagueness in their voice, the uncertainty of fate, solicitation for prayers, a lyric I have lived. They are at the beginning of the song, the first stanza of cancer. Christened the new frontmen in the fight; surrounded by those who await the closing curtain, pray for one more bridge, one last chorus. The crescendo of confusion and desperation, sung in rounds, fills the theater, circles the heart and submerges the soul. No mater, they continue to play, hope for harmony between life and death.

The opera that rages deeps and cuts like no other, the heartache of the final farewell. The last verse written. The cry is a note unlike any other. When the anguished aria is sung, there is silence in the ward. A sound everyone recognizes and fears. The final lyric is the heartache that we all must face. It is life's ending hymn that none of us are ever prepared to sing. We understand once the final note is sung, there is no encore, the ballad, the battle, is finally over.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Holding Dad's Hand

Usually when one thinks about two people holding hands they envision lovers, boyfriend/girlfriend walking together. The first realization that a guy is interested in you is when he first takes your hand. The first contact between a boy and a girl. The first sensation of their touch, their skin against yours. Holding hands is the beginning of a relationship. Sometimes it is a relationship that only lasts a short time, other times it signifies the beginning of a lifetime together.

The first time we "hold hands", our first lifelong relationship, is with our parents.
The inaugural touch outside our mother's womb happens usually moments after birth. It is our parents caressing our arms, hands, placing their finger inside our hands, the first time someone holds our hand. As a small child our parents hold our hand to keep us safe, keep us from running off, keep us near. Holding our hand is in essence a safety net between us and the outside world. As we grow older, as we feel safer, we reach for our parent's hands less often. They too relax their "grip" on us. With continued independence we no longer seek the contentment, the safety of our parent's hands, we seek the comfort of a companion's hand.

Over the past eighteen days I have lost track over the number of times I have held my father's hand. Late at night when Dad has trouble breathing he reaches out for my hand. Anytime he is in pain or scared I reassure him everything is okay by simply taking his hand, caressing his fingers gently as they wrap around mine. The simple gesture of holding his hand let's him know I am not going to leave him. I will always be with him.

Thursday night as he was sleeping I sat in the chair next to his bed staring at our hands entwined together. I could tell when my Dad was in pain, I could feel him squeeze my hand in his sleep. I noticed how frail, how thin his skin had become. I began to wonder when did I stop holding my Dad's hand? When was the last time I remembered reaching out for him? I searched my brain, trying to locate the answer to my question.

Over the past five years as Dad has battled his cancer, I have caught him when he has fainted. I have put my arm around his waist helping him in and out of his wheelchair. He has leaned on my shoulder when he needed help walking. I have placed my hand on the small of his back, balancing him, shadowing him as he walked up the stairs, walked down the hall. I was there ready to catch him if he fell. I have sat with Dad stroking his arm while he was waiting for a doctor, while he was getting chemo. Until he was admitted to the hospital my Dad never reached for my hand, I never reached for his. The last time I remember holding my Dad's hand was in 1985. I had just given birth to my daughter. I was excited to be a mom, Kathryn was beautiful. As I laid in the recovery room after having a c-section the realization hit me I was going to be a single mom. I was going to be raising my child on my own. I suddently felt alone and scared. When I saw my Dad come into the recovery room I reached up for his hand. I needed him, holding his hand was my safety net. When he took my hand, when I felt his fingers around mine, I knew everything was going to be okay. I was not alone.

I continued to stare at our hands. I was amazed at the difference time had done. Our hands had drastically changed over the past twenty five years. My Dad's hands went from being strong and tan to frail and covered in bruises from all the injections and IVs. I thought to myself, twenty five years later our roles were reversed. Before his hand was the reassuring grip, now it was mine. In the past it was the gentle squeeze of his hand that let me know I would be okay, he would always be there for me. Now it seemed, it was me letting my Dad know I was going to be with him, I would help him through every final step he faced. He would not be alone, I would always be with him.

In my mind I was trying to recall when did this transformation take place. When did I become the parental/sheltering figure. The longer I laid with my head against the back of the chair staring at our hands, the more tears began to form in my eyes. I began to comprehend the truth, our roles had not reversed. Dad may have reached for my hand in comfort but he was giving me more. When he was squeezing my hand he was letting me know he was okay. I began to understand, as long as I could hold his hand, no matter how weak his grip was, I felt safe. As long as I could hold his hand, I could still hear his voice. Over the years, hearing my Dad's voice always made any bad day better. Dad had a way of making me feel like everything would be fine. I could handle it.

Ever since I was a little girl, Dad was my umbrella protecting me from all the frightening storms that lay ahead of me. He was always there when I needed him. I slowly began to comprehend looking at his frail fingers wrapped around mine soon I would no longer have his hand to hold. I would no longer hear his voice ask how my day went, how I was doing. We would no longer share our talks on Thursdays. My lifeline, my safety net was slowly leaving me. The man who in my eyes could make any and everything better, help me solve any problem was no longer going to be here with me. I was going to miss him more than I could ever adequately describe in words.

While I sat next to his hospital bed, holding his hand, Dad's grip tightened around my fingers as if he understood what I was thinking. What I was trying to accept. I smiled, told Dad everything would be alright, I would be alright. I promised him once again I would be right next to him holding his hand. The rest of the night while I sat with my father, I longed to have those twenty five years back. I wish I could regain all the times I neglected to reach for and hold the most wonderful hands I have ever known, my Dad's.