uncomfortable seeing my Dad this way. I'm still used to the picture of
the handsome young Navy officer that hung on my kitchen wall for so many
years. It's a different picture today. Dad has just come out of surgery.
There are oxygen tubes protruding from his nostrils. Electrical sensors
glued to his chest continually monitor his heart rate and respiration.
Small tubes infuse glucose and nutrients into his body while larger ones
carry blood and urine away. His hands are shaking violently because it's
still too soon after surgery to take the L-dopa he needs for the Parkinson's
Disease he suffers from as well. Covered by a thin sheet, and surrounded
by the tubes and machinery that are keeping him alive, he looks small
This was not expected. When the head of cardiology at a Northwest Arkansas hospital called me less than eight hours ago, explaining that there was a massive clot in my father's aorta and that they must operate immediately, mortality was the last thing on my mind. I'd always thought my father would live forever. He never took a sick day. He never complained. He was an old-fashioned John Wayne kind of guy who taught me how to hunt and fish, and by example to hold my own emotions inward as well.
I look at this frail, taciturn Norwegian lying silently in front of me and realize I am looking at myself. People often say I look like my Dad. What they don't say is that, all too often, I act like him as well. Maybe they don't mention this obvious fact because our similarities are not always that flattering to either of us. Although we are not particularly close, we definitely share a propensity for cynicism and closely guarded emotions
After forty years, I'm still not quite sure where my Dad is coming from. He has lived a full life, without ever putting his cards on the table. Although I find this a somewhat admirable trait, it drives my sisters nuts.
One of those sisters is here with me in the intensive care unit. She has brought her four year-old daughter with her, even though the rules strictly prohibit it. Little Alex is dancing around the room tugging at life-support tubes and making a general nuisance of herself. My sister is telling the nurse that this is normal four year-old behavior, and the nurse is rolling her eyes with an expression that leaves little doubt what she thinks of my sister. The nurse is trying to get the kid out of the ICU but my sister keeps trying to tell her that little Alex is the apple of her grandfather's eye and that it will speed his recovery to see her charming face. Alex has pulled a bloody drain tube that was removed from my Dad's leg earlier in the morning from the trash and is asking the nurse if she can play with it. "Honey, that has germs on it," says the nurse with an evil glint in her eye. Strangely, she does not grab the tube away immediately, and waits for my sister to do it instead. I see a fly hovering near a bedside table in the corner of the room and remind myself never to get sick in Arkansas,
My Dad is slowly waking up and my sister and I gather around his bed to wish him a speedy recovery. My sister is holding Alex up in the air, apparently hoping that Dad will wake to an apparition of his granddaughter hovering in front of him. "Alex came all the way up to Arkansas to help Grandpa get better," she says. My Dad is still trying to get his bearings. He hesitates before responding and then says, "Who won the basketball game last night?" My sister almost drops Alex in indignation. I try to explain to my Dad that the basketball game is actually tonight. Arkansas is playing Memphis. Dad seems relieved and then worried again. "I don't think I'd better watch it," he says. "I might get too excited." "Honey, we fixed your heart, " says the ICU nurse. "Anyway, I'm going to watch the game, so you've got to watch it too." My Dad seem comfortable with this answer and we move on to other subjects.
It is time for lunch and the nurse says it would be good if we try to feed Dad ourselves. The menu appears to be soup, lemmon pudding, ice cream and Hawaiian Punch. This wasn't really what my Dad had in mind, but he is hungry and would probably eat shoe leather at this point. I feed him some of the Hawaiian Punch through a straw. He sucks on the straw too hard and then accuses me of trying to force punch down his throat. "What are you trying to do, kill me," he says. "I wasn't doing anything," I say. "I was just holding the straw." The man is on his deathbed, and we are already having an argument. My sister overhears our conversation and immediately rushes over to prove she is better at feeding him than I am.
Later, while my Dad is in a Vallium induced afternoon nap, my sister tries to convince me that someone in the family ought to stay with Dad as he is recovering. Of course, my sister doesn't appoint herself for this role because she says she is too busy. She does, however, think some aunt in Minnesota is well-suited for the job. I patiently try to explain to my sister that my Dad would much rather have a pretty 28 year-old private nurse taking care of him than any of the rotten bunch of Sealander kids he has spawned. Once again my sister is outraged, still living under the illusion that we're all members of the Brady Bunch.
We are not allowed to visit again until dinner time. When we arrive, the nurses are already trying to get Dad to sit up in a chair for dinner. He keeps slumping over like a rag doll, and we have to continually keep straightening him up in the chair. Sitting up is making all the monitors on the screen above his head go haywire, but the nurses say it is good for him. My sister is feeding him his boiled potatoes and turkey way too fast. When I show her what the monitor above Dad's head is doing, she slows down a little, but still defends herself, saying that this is always how she fed Alex. As bad a job as my sister is doing, my Dad still insists that she do the dinner honors, apparantly thinking that I would be even worse at feeding him. I'm thinking that if Alex is going to be feeding me cold slabs of grey-looking boiled turkey thirty years from now, they'd might as well just shoot me now.
After dinner two nurses arrive to put Dad back in bed again. We all get talking about the elaborate telemetry Dad is wearing and what all the wavy lines on the monitors mean. "You know that men's and women's brains are different," Dad says to no one in particular. "Women have speech centers on both sides of the brain, and men only have a speech center on one side." We all nod in agreement.
"That's why women talk so damn much," he says.
I think he's going to live.