I am 51 years old and both my parents are still here. It was only a couple of years ago that I really began to appreciate how meaningful that is.
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And so last week as my mother underwent knee surgery and I stayed with my father for four days, it felt achingly poignant to see him a little lost without her in the house.
“Your mother said the withdrawal slips are in this envelope, but I looked and they’re not.”
“Actually, Dad, look. They’re right here.”
We spent each day, all day, at the hospital. He sat and read The Daily News in a chair in the corner, pocketed the sugar packets that came on her tray each meal, acted as her coach in physical therapy while she rolled her eyes, and sat in the café with me as we happily devoured breakfast sandwiches on hard rolls with our coffee. He dropped me off at the door of the hospital while he, at age 81, went and parked it in the garage, refusing to entertain my idea that while I appreciated his chivalry perhaps it was time to switch roles and let me park.
This is the thing about hospitals. They reduce us to our most basic human needs – food, blood, oxygen, movement. We are either the patient who must ask, ask, ask for help no matter how difficult that is or we are witnessing a loved one at the mercy of others. My mother, pushing that little red button. My father, seeing her typically incorrigible self being vulnerable. Me, seeing my parents humbled, uneasy being out of their routine, counting down the days until she is once again in a place she loves to be – in her home, at her stove.
I have written many times here about perspective and I suppose that keeps coming up because I need fresh doses of it. And it naturally follows that I hope by sharing those experiences others will nod and breathe easier, perhaps whisper ‘thank you’ because they realize they’re not alone in how they are in the world.
Because truly, as I sat in a waiting room down the hall from my mother’s room one day and read some pieces of vitriolic mail I’d received from readers, it was like the harshness had a fuzzy edge around it. Seeing my parents in a vulnerable state and having a reader call me evil in the span of 10 minutes, well, it somehow cuts and numbs simultaneously. It’s easier to be in denial that this brand of frothing anger exists in our nation right now.
As passionate as I am about some causes and movements, I found that spending time in a hospital put me in a place of current events apathy. At the moment I am bored to tears with just about everything that’s making headlines. Lance Armstrong. Guns. Lip synching. Go ahead. Duke it out. Let me know how it ends.
I’ll be sticking with images of the most delightful physical therapist joking with my mother about whether she did 19 reps or 20. And the occupational therapist patiently going over everything twice because my mother is deaf in one ear. And the nurse assuring her that she is not bothering the staff at all when she asks for assistance.
I saw senior citizens lined up in a row in the “gym” lifting their leg one inch today, two inches tomorrow, essentially fighting for their independence in order to perform the simplest life tasks that we take for granted. One woman seemed particularly agile, prompting my mother to quip later, “That one thinks she’s a Rockette.” I saw hardworking, compassionate people caring for all of them.
What intense joy in those moments. Such stark contrast to the frailty.
In my craving to escape for just a little while, I found a tiny waiting area with a shelf full of old books. One was a 1988 anthology of Native American poetry that took me away from the antiseptic environment for about 30 minutes. Being out of my writing routine always makes me feel out of sorts and I found this quote by poet Elizabeth Cook-Lynn from the book’s introduction to be so breathtaking:
“Writing, for me … is an act of defiance born of the need to survive. I am me. I exist. I am a Dakotah. I write. It is the quintessential act of optimism born of frustration. It is an act of courage, I think. And, in the end, as Simon [Ortiz] says, it is an act which defies oppression.”
Connecting with my fellow artists in a 25-year-old book made me feel light and refreshed and renewed.
Dad and I left the hospital one day and on the way home picked up a tray of cookies to deliver to a neighbor whose husband had died the night before. It was sobering.
While all of it may have felt like a diversion from my routine, turns out the caring and rawness was more about real life than most else in my day to day living.
My blessings are abundantly clear.