Relationships

This Is How You Care for Your Dying Father When You Don't Yet Know That He's Dying

You sit, you talk, you stay up way past cure's curfew, just because, caring and caring into the endless night

Fourth of July parade, 1967. I was the Declaration of Independence and my dad was so proud.

This is how you care for your father on the winter evening when he lies, seized with abdominal pain, in the emergency department of Bryn Mawr Hospital:

You press a cloth to his clammy temples. You explain to the resident that your father ate a blueberry muffin earlier in the day and then threw up, that by late afternoon he told your mother to call an ambulance.

You tell yourself—and your mother, who is spring-wound with worry, and your daughter, who just texted to say she's at home, eating takeout pizza and wondering what's going on—that everything will be OK, that if your father has appendicitis or even, God forbid, a heart attack, those are surely things this hospital knows how to fix.

Finally, after more consults and an MRI and a packet of vending-machine pretzels that taste practically ambrosial because you haven't eaten in seven hours, there is a diagnosis—pancreatitis, which sounds serious but not awful. Your father, a veteran sports writer and broadcaster, his pain now muted by the medicine plipping through his IV, manages to joke: "Did he say I have Patriotitis?" It is February 6, five days after the New England Patriots clinched the 2015 Super Bowl.

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What you do not know is that this will be his last joke, ever. Nor do you know, 36 hours later, when your father tells your mother to call you at 5:45 in the morning, and you bullet your car along back roads to the hospital, that what he says to you, between rapid, ragged breaths, are the final words you will hear from him.

Because after that, though he will live for nine more weeks, tethered to machines and medications, blinkingly conscious or swaddled in a Propofol fog, he will not recover his voice—the signature, pebbly, made-for-radio voice he has used to question, instruct, counsel and comfort you for 52 years.

This is how you care for your father as Day 3 in the hospital bleeds to Day 6, Day 12, Day 17: You talk, convinced he can hear through the Propofol. You tell him that the 2016 Democratic National Convention will be in Philadelphia. You tell him the critics loved "Birdman," but you and your partner hated it. You give him a weather report: It's snowing. Now it's stopped. You tell him about the 6th-grader you taught in Newark, who wrote a poem about a baby cousin who walks "wobbly, like a penguin."

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Most mornings, you drive to the hospital and eat mocha yogurt with your mother in the stamp-sized room—a windowless annex near the ICU, with two chair-beds and a mini fridge—where she sleeps every night. You have given up trying to make her go home.

Together, you talk with the nephrologist, the pulmonologist, the cardiologist, the infectious disease specialist, the GI doc, the dialysis tech, the night nurse who is leaving and the day nurse who just arrived, her cheeks patched pink from the cold. You even talk, briefly, to the Mean Doctor, the one who saunters through, glances at your father's chart and pronounces him "very, very, very, very sick," each "very" like a trowel shoved into your gut.

There is such toxic energy between the Mean Doctor and your mother that you position yourself in front of your father's bed and lift your arms, trying to deflect the rage. You know your mother will speak to the attending physician and that, for the duration, the Mean Doctor will not be permitted to do so much as clip your father's toenails.

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Weeks pass. An epic snowfall in early March stops the trains and strands you at the hospital for 48 hours. You become fluent in the idiom of acute pancreatitis: "third spacing" (when IV-administered fluid leaches into body cavities instead of remaining in the vascular system); "pulmonary toileting" (a clean-out of the bronchial tubes, needed after several weeks on a ventilator) and "ICU psychosis" (exactly how it sounds).

You dream that your father is talking again, that he is sitting up, eating green Jell-O and making groan-worthy puns. Actually, he is lying under the "bear hug," a heated blanket, and his vital signs—blood pressure, body temperature, oxygenation—are headed south. Most of the time, his eyes are closed.

You learn that the word "care" comes from Old English "carian" (be anxious; grieve; feel concern or interest). You watch the doctors and nurses as they palpate your father's belly or swab his parched lips. They are careful; they are full of care. But will it work? Can all of you, the intimates and the professionals, swell your efforts into a wave that will carry your father back to who he was on the morning of February 6—a still-working sports writer who had just bought five portions of salmon for dinner?

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that "care" is in no way related to "cure." You desperately want these words to cousin up. You want to believe that care—fervent, durable and tender—will make this bad dream better. And then, one dark day, nearly nine weeks into your father's ICU sojourn, even the optimistic nephrologist stops smiling.

You understand then that care is not about reciprocity or resurrection or return. It is a one-way street. You will walk as far as it goes.

On the afternoon when a nurse finally turns off the medications and disconnects the machine that is laundering your father's blood, you reach through a mille-feuille of covers to find his swollen hand, you brush gray frizz back from his forehead and you sing: "L'chi lach, to a land that I will show you; lech l'cha, to a place you do not know." Your voice quavers, your tears fall and the soul of your father slips from his rheumy eyes into what your rabbi calls "the mystery."

Once, several years ago, your father invited you to lunch at a Mexican restaurant downtown. After the guacamole and before the fish tacos, he pulled a small white box from his pocket: a silver bracelet, a simple cuff with three beads of pink, turquoise and seaglass-green.

"What's this for?"

"Just … because."

Your father's last words to you, before the doctor threaded a plastic tube into his trachea, were, "I love you so much, and I'm so proud of you."

You said it back. "I love you, Dad. I'm so proud to be your daughter."

Then you smoothed his ruffian eyebrows and held on tight to his hand. This is how you care for your dying father when you don't yet know that he's dying. You sit, you talk, you stay up way past cure's curfew, just because, caring and caring into the endless night.

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