I read off today’s headlines as my father sits in a hospital hallway. Other patients are around us, mostly weary old men and depressed-looking young ones. Many use walkers. In some rooms, guys perch on the edge of their beds as if they can’t decide whether to rise or not. Nurses and doctors bustle by with clipboards and medical carts. The air has an institutional, gravy-like smell. My 80-year-old father sits in a wheelchair.
Today is the Fourth of July and Dad gives a weak cheer when he learns the Yankees finally won a game. Nathan’s is holding its annual hot dog eating contest. The heat outside is record-breaking. It’s a quiet day in this usually busy veteran’s hospital. The Fourth has fallen on a Wednesday.
Dad’s been here eight days. His Parkinson’s is progressing. A few years ago it started with hand tremors. Now it takes two people to help him out of bed. Last week he fell and an ambulance took him here for observation.
I was on Cape Cod when I got the call he was sick and knowing my mother faced a battery of doctors, long-term care options, and paperwork, cut my trip short. Somehow being on the Cape seemed fitting since that’s where my parents met almost sixty years ago.
In his twenties, Dad drove a periwinkle blue convertible. One day he stopped to help an older woman change a tire. “Would you like to meet my daughter?” she asked. He thought about this and politely declined. He was busy. But the woman persisted. The daughter turned out to be a fetching brunette. They married three months later.
After we’re done with headlines, Dad looks at me and says in a voice weak from Parkinson’s, “I need a cigarette.” With permission from staff, I wheel him to a courtyard a few floors down. Dad pulls out a contraband pack of Marlboro’s and with much shaking, puts one to his lips. I help him light it. He takes a drag. “Ah… that’s better.”
We sit quietly a few moments and then out of the blue he says, “Pick a nursing home that’ll let me smoke.”
I don’t know what to say since my mother and I have tried not to talk about this possibility in front of him. The thought of placing Dad in a facility is heart-breaking. For someone who’s always loved home and family, it’s awful picturing him spending days sitting in corridors and eating in cafeterias. To think he’ll never watch a ball game in his favorite chair or have a home-cooked meal or live with his wife of almost 60 years is hard. “Let’s see what happens,” I say.
In the courtyard, staff members sit on nearby benches, pretending not to notice my father puffing away. Maybe they figure he doesn’t get many pleasures these days. It’s hard denying him one more. I know they see a fragile old man, but I see his whole life.
I see the young, brown-haired father who built snowmen on the front lawn, and coaxed me ever so patiently to the deep end of the swimming pool when I was afraid. “You’re perfectly safe, Laurie,” he kept assuring my eight-year old self, dog-paddling toward him. I see the young man who flew planes over Cape Cod bay.
I see a little boy, son of Swedish immigrants posing for a picture in the 1940’s, grinning and wearing a blue sailor’s suit. I see the husband who affectionately teased and tickled my mother. I see a provider who drove from Connecticut to Long Island every day to get to his job. And I see the father who called us kids home every night with his two-finger taxi whistle.
He loved building stone walls, playing poker, and was always up for a neighborhood softball game. If my parents were at a dance they were first on the floor, holding each other, content smiles on their faces. He was mostly easy-going although at times his temper flared like a summer storm, but then quickly passed. He taught me how to tell time, use a stick shift, and play the stock market.
These days I find myself watching guys Dad’s age that still walk, drive, and live independent lives. I wonder why my father wasn’t given that luxury, although he’d be first to say he had a good, healthy life before Parkinson’s.
Throughout this ordeal he’s been stoic and brave, more concerned with my mother. Still, we both notice a spry older guy stroll by us in the courtyard, a visitor by his clothes. He carries a small flag and I remember it’s Fourth of July.
I start to feel sorry for both of us, how we’re stuck in this hospital when everyone else is eating hot dogs and watching fireworks, how my father’s still sharp and basically healthy except he can’t move, how the years go by so fast.
But then I remember friends who no longer have fathers. And although mine isn’t the same on the outside, he’s the same inside. Best of all, he’s still here. I squeeze his hand. “Happy 4th, Dad.”
He slowly squeezes mine back and whispers, “Hooray.”
(My father passed away peacefully in July, 2015).
Have you had a loved one stuck in a hospital during a holiday? Comments are always welcome and if you like, please share.
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