Thursday, December 5, 2013

Facing An Empty Corner

Went to St. Vincent Hospital to spend some time with my dad on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

From the doorway I could see his bed was empty. Wanting to respect his privacy, I waited in the hall in case he was in the bathroom with a nurse. But soon a nurse breezed by and into his room. She found Dad, hooked to IVs and monitors, wearing his hospital gown, leaning against the wall, facing an empty corner away from the windows, the door, the TV. He’d been sitting in a chair and somehow managed to get up without the alarm going off. She turned him around and set him down.

I walked in and said “Howdy Pop,” and he said hello as if it were just another day. But it wasn’t. It was hard to see him – unshaven, looking feeble and confused. He’d had a dramatic loss of physical and mental function, going in just a few weeks from completely independent to nursing home care. It was the first time I’d seen him this way. I was uncertain if he’d know who I was.

Immediately food arrived and the nurse, named Kelly began trying to help him eat. Dad did pretty well feeding himself, but kept trying to take huge bites and she kept making him take smaller ones. From time to time Dad got exasperated, dropped the utensils and glared at her like an angry child. Kelly was very kind and very patient but it was an ordeal. She explained to me that his swallow test showed it would be very easy for him to choke.

A neurologist on rounds came in and introduced herself simply as “Cindy.” We chatted while she made notes on a wall-mounted computer. A tall blonde woman with a cheerful smile, Cindy asked questions about Dad and his past health issues. We talked about him like he wasn’t there. He took little notice. She too was very patient and professional. Nice to know my dad was getting great care.

She turned to him and said “Hi Jim.” He half barked, “hello,” in return, fussing with the IV tubes and the hem of his gown. She asked him a series of questions starting with, “Do you know who this is?” pointing at me. He grunted defensively, “My son.” When she asked, “What’s his name?” he replied, “Kurt.” Dr. Cindy asked him to move his arms in different ways. He could do it all until she asked him to touch his nose with a finger. His hands froze in the air and he just stared back at her, lost and defeated, as if to say, “I can’t do it.”

Other questions were hard for him to answer like, “What season is this?” or “Do you know where you are?” After much prodding he finally managed, “Hospital?” But when asked, “Do you know why you’re here?” he looked back at Dr. Cindy with that lost expression, eventually dropping his gaze to the floor.

It had been 10 days since the Cicero police called my brother saying they’d pulled Dad over for driving erratically. After a brief conversation the officer decided he wouldn’t let him drive home. The officer sat with Dad at Dairy Queen until my brother Tom got there. When I brought Dad’s car up to Tipton the next day, he had no idea why I had the car. The vacant look in his eye was unnerving.

Nurse Kelly left and I sat on the edge of the hospital bed, helping Dad finish his food. As we watched the Rams/Bears game, I commented at each touchdown. He’d glance up at the TV, but quickly got lost staring at the wall, or his hands. And heaven help anyone caring for an engineer with dementia; at one point I found him trying to dismantle the electronic monitor that had been resting in his gown pocket. My father was a mechanical engineer who spent his career testing and trouble-shooting transmissions for Chrysler. Working with machines and working with his hands defined him. But this time I had to stop him. I took the device from his hands and told him gently he mustn’t. He looked back with a desperate, pleading look in his eye as if to say, “Don’t you see this thing has to be opened up.”

But he wouldn’t say that because he’s really only speaking in 2-3 word sentences.

I smiled, put the device back together and told him to keep it in his pocket. Thanks to him and all he taught me about machines, I understood how to put it back together.

The tests found a lesion on the brain that wasn’t there a week ago. Seems certain he has had a stroke, and perhaps more than one. I asked Dr. Cindy if he had had multiple, ratta-tat-tat little strokes – that would explain the last month+ of sudden loss of function, then plateau, then another loss of function, and then plateau. Another test showed severe dementia.

After a couple hours Dad fell asleep sitting up in his chair. I knew a rehab nurse was coming later to run him through his paces, so I gathered my things and left quietly. Heading down the hall I saw nurse Kelly in another patient’s doorway and let her know he was alone.

It’s hard to accept that my dad, the man I’ve known my entire life, is kinda gone. There are glimmers of him in there, reflexes of that old personality, but it’s not really him. It’s like all the parts are in place, but the gears that engage the parts are stripped, like a car with a broken transmission – you can rev the engine or flip the turn signal, but it ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Flying through the air, propelled by a stick: From the time I
was a child I always loved this high school photo of my dad
pole vaulting. In it, he seemed magical.
I stepped into an empty elevator and when the door closed I turned and faced my own empty corner, away from the world, and cried for a minute as I slowly fell 5 stories.

My new book began going online for e-readers this week, currently available at Fastpencil and Barnes and Noble. I'll be doing a big launch to tell the world in the weeks ahead when it's finally available in all formats, but for now, here's an early look:

1 comment:

  1. Your father will remain a strong and highly intelligent man in my memory no matter how much time passes. It is but one of the great benefits of getting gone and staying that way. Time stands still. I think of him as 'Kurt's smart dad' now and for always.