Remember those annoying commercials that show an older person on the floor saying, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up?” As kids, we used to make fun of them, but it’s not so funny in real life.
My father, whose 97th birthday is May 1, had been complaining of pain in his back and legs and of feeling more and more tired. On March 29, he had gone to the emergency department at Kaiser Hospital in Santa Clara, California seeking relief. They gave him extra-strength Tylenol and sent him home. He continued hurting. My brother suggested I come down from Oregon to help.
I thought I would only be gone a few days, but when I arrived at noon on April 3, I found my father in bed, unable to get up. He had run out of steam the afternoon before and had lain there ever since hoping someone would come. He was hungry, thirsty and soaked with urine. It hurt too much to sit up or roll over. I knew in that moment that all my plans for the month were meaningless. I needed to be in San Jose with Dad.
And so it began. I called 911. Paramedics and firefighters gathered in my parents’ bedroom of 70 years and carried my father to Kaiser Hospital. I followed. Part of me was still on the road driving south from Oregon, but now I faced Silicon Valley traffic, a jammed Kaiser parking lot and an emergency department that would become all too familiar.
As of this morning, my father has had five trips to the emergency department, seven ambulance rides, 12 days in the hospital, and five days in a skilled nursing facility, preceded by nine days of me taking care of him at home. We lived in that bedroom with its flowered wallpaper, Mom’s dresser still decorated as it was when she died in 2002, and the silver crucifix hanging over my father’s head. I fed him, cleaned him, and sat into the wee hours talking with him about the old days. But his condition wasn’t getting any better. On Friday, April 12, the pain got so intense he begged me to do something. I called the paramedics again.
The goal all along has been to get Dad out of bed and back to walking with his walker. The doctors—so many doctors—have not figured out the cause of his leg pain. Both legs and one hip have been broken, but he was getting along all right, until he wasn’t. After 13 hours in the ER that Friday, he was transported by ambulance to a skilled nursing facility (SNF) in Los Gatos.
After two days at the SNF, stomach problems led them to send him back to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with an inflamed gallbladder. Because of his age and condition, the doctors refused to do surgery. They gave him antibiotics and installed a tube to drain the bile out of his gallbladder. Soon they were also watching problems with his kidneys and liver and monitoring a cough for fear it would turn into pneumonia. Doctors and social workers kept taking me aside to ask what I wanted to do if it looked like he was dying. They didn’t trust his advanced directive, which says he wants them to do everything possible to keep him alive.
Last Tuesday, Dad was discharged from the hospital back to the SNF. I left for home on Thursday. That night, someone from the SNF woke me up to say they were quarantining dad and testing him for a gastrointestinal infection. By then I was closer to South Beach than to San Jose. I needed to catch up on my bills and see Annie for at least a little while, so I drove on. Saturday morning, they called to say he had tested positive for a very contagious infection called c.diff, and they were sending him back to Kaiser. That’s where he is now. As of yesterday, he seemed to be getting better.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had never called 911. Might he have just passed away in peace? He had no gallbladder symptoms. Some of his pain might have been related to the gallbladder, but not all. Might it have eased on its own? It’s hard to tell. He still can’t get out of bed. Every time he starts physical therapy, something happens to interrupt his progress.
I missed four weeks of this blog. I missed a lot of things, including Easter, the biggest event of the year for church musicians. I missed winter turning to spring here on the Oregon Coast. The trees that were bare when I left are all fluffed out with green leaves now, and the azaleas I thought were dead have begun to bloom. I missed a month of events I’d been looking forward to. I missed my haircut appointment. I traded walks in the woods for walks down the long halls of Kaiser Hospital.
I broke my toe, running into Dad’s walker in the dark, and got a cracked windshield on the Honda, which now has over 122,000 miles on it. A rock hit it on I-5.
It wasn’t all bad. It was warm and sunny in Santa Clara. I spent time with my family. Although I received 11 rejections for my poetry and essays while I was gone, I got one poem accepted and was offered a contract to publish my chapbook. I was in my father’s hospital room when the latter email came through. I’m not sure he understood what I was excited about, but it’s a very good thing.
As the weeks ticked away and every time I thought I could come home, something else went wrong, I knew I was where I was supposed to be, that this time with my father was precious. Life in Oregon would go on without me and I could catch up later.
I will probably have to go back to California soon. The phone will ring again. My father is old, and one problem leads to another. But he’s tough. Don’t count him out yet.
I am grateful for my brother Mike and Aunt Suzanne helping to share the burden. I am grateful for Fran, who came out of retirement to handle the music at Sacred Heart while I was gone, and my singers who carried on. I am grateful for my friend Pat, who gathered my mail and watered my plants, and my neighbor Pat, who gave Annie food and love, mowed my lawns, and generally kept watch over my home. I am grateful for the many, many people who have been praying and offering love on social media. It truly helps.
Before all this happened, I was feeling stuck in my writing, my life, and my faith. Not anymore. God is good, and I am blessed, no matter what craziness happens next. Boy, do I have a lot to write about now.