It was a hot summer’s day, and I could smell the scent of freshly cut grass as I zigged and zagged my way down a quintessential country road. Every few miles, my journey was delayed by tractor or combine taking up half the road. But I’ve learned through the years that it is impossible to be angry with farmers with their cheery smiles and friendly nods as you pass them by.
Earlier that morning, I have my half-asleep sister a hug and left Huntsville, Alabama bound for Union City, Tennessee. It was Memorial Day weekend, and in keeping with tradition, I spent that weekend with my sister in celebration of her birthday. But on that Wednesday morning, the celebrations were over, and I was bound toward the temporary location of my parents.
My mom was undergoing preparation for surgery, and my father was across the street from the hospital having a chemotherapy treatment. And I was on my way to shuffle between them both.
I believe (though I cannot say this for certain) there is a startling moment in every persons life when the role of parent and child are tipped one on top of the other. The child suddenly takes on the parent’s role of care giver and decision maker. If you are prepared for this moment, I am certain you can accept it with dignity and grace. I, on the other hand, was not prepared.
As I pulled into Union City, I called my mother first.
“You know, I am still in prep, and they aren’t going to take me into surgery for at least another hour or hour and a half. Why don’t you go see your daddy? He would like that.”
As I walked up to the double doors that led into the offices of my father’s oncologist, I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the glass. I was dressed in jeans, a cute top, a fashionable necklace, and heels. In my mind, I was the epitome of what a young adult should be: put together, prepared, in charge, and ready to be there for my parents at a moments notice.
The nurses told me I could come to the back of the offices, where the chemotherapy treatments were being given. Confidently, I walked down the hallway, rounded the corner and….
Wait. Oh but wait. There was my precious father, at least 30 pounds lighter than the last time I had seen him only a month ago, shriveled in a chair, his eyes opening and closing as though fighting sleep.
My approach to him was markedly slower, cautious even.
“Hi, Chrissy.” He could barely utter the words. “Are you hungry. Eat some snacks.” He pointed weakly to a small cooler sitting beside him, turned his head to the side, and closed his eyes in exhaustion.
I collapsed into a stool near his feet, attempting to take everything in. There were three or four other patients in the room, and I didn’t want to make a scene. But I felt myself beginning to fall apart. I quietly got up, walked to the nearest restroom I could find, closed the door, and broke down.
It was a fist-pounding, silent screaming, wall-kicking kind of break down. How could this be happening to my father? My great dad who had spent time visiting with people who were sick that no one else wanted to talk to; who helped people no one else wanted to help. My dad who told the funniest jokes every time we gathered around the dining room table. My dad who used to play and sing to us on his guitar and push us on our backyard swing higher….and higher…and higher…
Really? This was his fate? To be reduced to nearly nothing? A frail version of what he once was?
After a few minutes, I wiped the tears from my eyes and cleaned up my face as best I could and returned to him. He was a little more awake, and we visited quietly for a few minutes. The nurse told me his chemo treatments that day were set to last for another 3-4 hours….much longer than we anticipated. We decided I would go see my mom off to surgery and return.
My mom smiled a big, bright smile when I walked into her hospital room. “Hi, Issa!” (My other nickname).
There was no controlling my tears. Within seconds I was sobbing, curled up beside her in her hospital bed, hugging her for dear life like a little child.
“I was afraid this would be hard for you,” she nodded as she stroked my hair. “He has changed a lot in a short period of time.” She talked to me until I regained some composure. By that time, the nurses were coming to wheel her away to surgery.
“Who is your emergency contact?” they asked her.
“This is my daughter,” she nodded to me. “She’s the one you’ll need to keep posted.”
They took my cell phone number, I hugged my mom, and watched as she was wheeled away to the O.R.
I left the hospital and returned to my father’s side. The nurses called me twice: first to tell me my mom had been in surgery for about 20 minutes and everything was going well. The second time was to tell me she was coming out of surgery and moving to Recovery.
By that time, dad’s chemo was finished, and we would be able to go and wait for her to come out of recovery together. He hobbled along, like a man much older than 57 years old, and I helped him into my car. We arrived at the hospital and asked for directions to the right room, then turned down the hall and walked together–a slow but steady trek.
Forces beyond my control were wreaking havoc on my dad’s body. Parkinson’s Disease caused him to shuffle along, and the chemotherapy drugs giving him a woozy side-to-side pace. I was terrified that he would fall. So I grabbed his arm, and slipped my arm underneath it, so we were walking arm in arm–the way a father would walk his daughter up an aisle.
He perked up immediately. It was rather inexplicable. I looked up and over at him: he was beaming. “We don’t get to walk like this very much do we?” he said. There was real pep in his voice. I could barely breathe, yet alone speak, but I managed to choke out: “No, daddy. We don’t do we?”
It was then that it occurred to me: this was MY walk. That walk that every daughter dreams of having. But not in the way I ever imagined it. But it was so vivid, so real, so deliberate.
After my mother was safely sleeping in the comfort of her hospital bed, I took dad out to eat at the local Chinese Buffet, per his request. If he had requested the moon, I would have damn well tried to deliver it to him.
“You know what, Chrissy?” he told me over dinner. “Either I will go on living, and serving Him. Or eventually I will wake up meeting Him. Either way, I’m ok!”
Later that evening, standing back in my mother’s hospital room under the blue glow of the fluorescent lights, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My face was tear-streaked, my hair disheveled, the bags under my eyes dark and visible. How quickly my version of “epitome” had faded away. And I recognized myself exactly for what I was: a grown up.
Childhood is officially over. I acknowledged the reality.
“Well…this changes everything.”