“What did I do wrong? Why did they bring me back to the hospital?” my father asked from his bed in the cardiac critical care unit (CCU). My dad had never left the hospital. He was delirious after six hours of valve surgery. During the operation his heart had been clinically stopped. There was a slim, but real chance he might die in the operating room. Two days before surgery I had flown from Iowa to New York to exchange possible final words. Fortunately, he was alive.
My father had his first heart attack at 35. The doctor told my mom he would be lucky to live to be 50. At 75 he was hiking faster and further up the Santa Monica mountains than his 40-year-old daughter. Unfortunately, three years later he developed difficulty with three out of his four valves. Although surgery was extremely risky he had no choice. The night before his operation the surgeon called to review possible complications: stroke, loss of kidney function, infection—and death.
I struggled with what to say to my father. We had never been very close. I often wondered why this angry, critical man was my dad. I yearned for his acceptance and wished that I could lose my fear of him. Through the years I realized he had been a good provider and had cared for me the best he could. Now I wanted to express some appreciation, but if I said too much I could imply that his death was imminent. If I said too little I might feel guilty. In the end he said to me, “There is a chance I might die and the money I leave is to take care of mom.” Before he went into the operating room I said, “I love you.”
My friends warned me about what my dad would look like after surgery. He was so bloated that I imagined someone inserting a syringe into his vein and filling his body with a pool of water. His eyes looked like tiny coffee beans. They would roll to the back of his head whenever he opened them. He had a breathing tube in his mouth and IV lines going into a myriad of places on his arms. Surgical “handcuffs” tied down his hands to prevent him from pulling out the breathing tube. His frailty invoked my maternal instinct.
The walls that once defined the words and touch we exchanged began to crumble. I repeated “I love you” like a mantra. I stroked his forehead and arms.
As he gained more awareness, he spilled forth deep truths. “Why did I have this surgery. I don’t want to live another 20 years. I’ll outlive your mother. I’ll bury her. I don’t want to live without her. I don’t have any life without her!” Physical vulnerability was now eliciting his deepest concern—he might end up in the world alone. I stood by his side massaging lotion into his cracking skin. I even rubbed his neck, which I had often refused to do. He was too weak to hold a fork, so I fed him. When he slept I frequently meditated. This silent stream of energy seemed to settle his agitated spirit.
After five or six days my dad left the CCU. He slept a lot and his white blood count was way above normal, indicating an infection might be present. It was a momentous day when he could sit in a chair and watch the boats sail down the Hudson River. As barges meandered their way upstate, my father reminisced with his surgeon, Dr. Brodman, about his early days practicing ophthalmology. Back in the 50s, if a white patient didn’t want a black person to share their hospital room, the African-American was moved. When my father learned this was the protocol at the local hospital, he admitted his black patients to a less discriminating facility. I was beginning to acquire a scrapbook of impressive memories of my dad.
Dr. Brodman visited my dad daily. He watched as my father ate less and his condition deteriorated. One night my dad had “hot flashes” after eating. My mother and I rubbed him down with cool wash clothes. “You are saving my life,” he mumbled. I knew he was in trouble and I was ready to sleep by his side. But he told me to take my mom to the hotel. The next morning he was back in CCU.
New test results showed that one of the repaired valves needed replacement. In 22 years of practice Dr. Brodman had never had this happen. The pictures of his valves were perfect after his first operation. Although surgery was scheduled for the following morning, it didn’t happen for two more days. My father lay bloated and heavily sedated—sometimes moving his legs or shaking his arms. I called friends to pray for my dad. My visits became shorter because I couldn’t tolerate seeing him so helpless.
While my father grew weaker, my mom kept her strength by helping others. I watched her teach a Russian piano teacher, who slept in the cardiac waiting area, how to play solitaire. She befriended my dad’s roommate, who sometimes went for a whole day without visitors. For six weeks we shared a hotel room where we ate dinner at 9:00 p.m. and then returned numerous phone calls. For stress relief we traded off watching the NBA (my favorite) or the election news (her favorite). When my mom’s anxiety level soared beyond normal I took her to the emergency room for intestinal difficulty. I phoned friends for a sanity check. She called me her “Godsend” and offered to write a reference for sainthood.
My own strength came during the night. I would awaken into a sort of ephemeral plane where angels guarded my dad. I wasn’t sure if they were around to protect him in life or take him in death. This “cosmic” experience helped me let go of my fear of his death. If he died I knew he would be taken care of. As I planned his possible eulogy I remembered all of his great gifts: his love of children and nature, how he used his brilliant mind to help develop ultrasound, his desire to protect his family, and all the hard work he did to give us opportunities that he missed as a child.
He survived the second surgery. When the breathing tube came out I wanted to shove it back in—momentarily. His critical nature began to surface and he lectured me about being selfish. How could he say this to me when I had been by his side for a month? Basically, he wanted to speak with Dr. Brodman, and he didn’t want to be alone while he waited for him. I went to lunch, but asked my brother to stay with my dad. Suddenly, my brother, who flew in and out after each surgery, took over the role of archangel. I felt upset, but my best friend advised me that motherhood often brings the same downfalls—severe lack of appreciation at one moment, but great love at another.
Although he still could not hold one section of the New York Times, my dad was progressing. He could eat comfortably and watch the news. We planned a Thanksgiving Day feast to reestablish normalcy. My dad would remain in the hospital while we celebrated with relatives at home. That morning I went to visit him. He was lying under a clear plastic raft-like blanket. The nurse said he was going back to the operating room. He had bleeding in his pleural cavity. His head was tossing and his eyes looked as frightened as those of a child being chased by a wild coyote. I touched his forehead, closed my eyes to meditate, and he sank into a calm sleep.
With three surgeries behind him, and being too weak to sit or walk, my dad was sinking into an intangible world of depression. The doctors could rebuild the physical body, but his emotional and spiritual needs were beyond their services. I tried to dissipate the sterile environment of his CCU room by filling the walls with get-well cards and paintings by famous artists. I bought him a CD player and played Bach, Mozart, and all of his favorite composers. To emphasize his progress, the physical therapists recorded milestones of standing 10 seconds on a large wall calendar. But his spirit was still sullen.
My dad knew that it would be several months before he would return to normal functioning. This meant that he would have to retire from medicine. I wanted him to view his transformed world as full—not empty. Now he could avail himself of fresh opportunities. In his weakened state he could not see this. I felt helpless. Dr. Brodman said that love of family was the best antidote. Find out what is inside of your father’s mind—don’t suggest anything, he advised. Finally, my dad said, “I don’t want to live. I have no purpose.” I responded, “What about your family? We would miss you.” He nodded.
As I said these words, I realized that a new, quiet closeness had come between us. My father seemed to trust me to take care of him. And a deepening of his affection and acceptance of me made me love him more. I wanted him to come home so we could continue our new relationship. Finally, he was discharged to a hospital closer to home. He would begin physical therapy rehabilitation there.
This new environment was homier—walls painted hunter green, floral carpeting, and less staff traffic. My dad could sit in a wheelchair and feed himself. I asked him what he remembered about his time in CCU. He remembered the love of his family. He told me he felt transformed. “I appreciate life more. I feel more love. I watched a show on Nelson Mandela and all he wanted to do when he was released from prison was to forgive those who hurt him.” For me, this epiphany sealed the success of his surgery.
Four months after his first surgery my dad came home. Like Chauncey Gardner in the movie Being There, he seemed to view his new life through innocent eyes. Dressed in a cobalt blue sweatshirt that said “Aged to Perfection,” he looked like a grown boy. I have become the overzealous Jewish mother who tells him to get rest, eat well, and buy a cell phone for his car.
My father will always have his flaws. Yet I have learned to see his faults as the background to the goodness he possesses. I will always remember the day I opened a piece of mail for him at the hospital. Enclosed was an ad to trade silver and gold. My father said, “The only gold I have is my daughter. And I wouldn’t trade her.” I wouldn’t trade him either.