I am home for the holidays and we are once again hanging out in the Emergency Room, my dad resting comfortably on the white bed. My mom and sister and I sit on chairs by the curtain, picking our nails, sending texts, wondering if Dad will be staying overnight this time, or longer. The doctor in charge that day comes in and runs my dad through a series of tests, all in good humor. We dislike this doctor because he has tried to bring Jesus to Dad a few times before, and all he has done is bring my father to tears. I distrust him, but he’s the doctor.
“Can I get ya to stick your tongue out, Jim?” the doctor says.
My father complies. He’s had a mild stroke and has been listing to the left in all regards. Sure enough, his tongue comes out on the left.
My mom interjects, “Jim has geographic tongue. He’s had it all his life.”
I look at my mother, once again wondering what language she speaks. “What’s ‘geographic tongue’?” I ask.
“He’s always had hills and valleys and rivulets on his tongue,” she says. “Normal tongues are smooth. It’s a harmless condition.”
So my father sticks his geographic tongue out and it lists to the left, and this is more evidence that he’s had a stroke on the right side. A mild stroke.
In not two minutes’ time, my sister comes back in from smoking a cigarette and lets us know that a corpse has just been wheeled out, and Dr. Jesus bounces back in with one last word of cheer for my dad: “Jim! Ya know what the great thing is about bein’ your age versus bein’ my age?”
Dr. Jesus is probably 58. My dad is 79.
“No, Dave, why don’t you tell me?”
Dr. Freeman looks like the Michelin Man compared to my dad, at the moment. “Jim! You’re gonna see the Glory Land a lot sooner than I do!” Dr. Freeman is all smiles.
My dad sets his jaw against whatever Dr. Freeman is selling this time. There is nowhere for my dad to go, not a lot of fight in him today. “Personally, Dave, I’d rather see you than the Glory Land anytime soon,” my dad says.
Finally, it’s time to take my dad home. He’s passed inspection this time. Just more rehab, with maybe a closer watch. My sister and I are the last ones to walk out of the E.R. past the nurses’ station; Dr. Freeman is sitting behind it, shouting out his happy goodnights. There’s a little rage swirling between my brain and my heart: Don’t you talk to my father about the Glory Land. Don’t you sell Jesus to my father.
We take Dad home, get him inside the house, resting in his chair. At supper time, does he want soup? No. Does he want an apple tartlet? No. Does he want soup? Okay, maybe a cup. Maybe some ice cream with his tartlet.
I don’t know how my mom is dealing with it, but I know how I am. The last time I was home, I stole a few of my mom’s washcloths. She likes the cheap ones that are thin and rough; they give a better wash. I agree. This year, I steal a pair of my dad’s black socks. It’s fifteen below zero and I am cold anyway. Seems legitimate, or at least defensible.
The day of my departure—before Christmas this time, that’s just how my schedule panned out—I run around my parents’ house, gathering my gifts, my electronic devices, any other little things I can steal that won’t be missed. Who knows what might happen by the time I make it back. I stop by my dad’s chair for a visit. He’s waiting for his bath lady. Bath days are good days.
“Kathryn, are you going to be here for Christmas?” my dad asks.
“No,” I say. “I’m going back to Arizona today.”
“That’s shitty,” my dad says, but he’s still in good humor.
“Different strokes for different folks,” I say, repeating the phrase I’ve been using since he had one and we’ve been trying to reassure him that his is not serious.
He grimaces at me. All this darkness from his children.
“Dad,” I say. “Stick out your tongue.”
He looks at me like the slave-driver I am, gives up, and sticks his tongue out. It lists to the left and is covered in yellow. Those are not daisies.
“Thanks Dad,” I say.
I know the bath lady is coming and after that, my dad is scheduled for a non-emergency ambulance ride back to the hospital, where he’ll be reevaluated because he can’t really walk anymore. I run to my mom and tell her to put one more thing on the list of Dad’s new symptoms: infected geographic tongue.
My dad is hungry and would eat another cup of tomato-basil soup if he could make it to the table. His chair is electronic and boosts him up to almost a standing position, from where he can grab his walker and make it into the kitchen. My mom is doing her hair for the rest of the day; the non-emergency ambulance will be here soon. I help my dad get situated with his walker, halfway between standing and falling back into the chair, and I use the words I’ve learned in his therapy to prompt him: “Big! March!”
My dad’s feet stay planted, his whole body trembling. We are both willing those feet to move towards the table. I repeat “Big!” and “March!” for the fifteen minutes it takes us to make it fifteen feet. My father is tired from his stint in the emergency room, tired from lack of good sleep, tired from knowing that in another half hour, he’ll be leaving his house in a non-emergency ambulance.
“I don’t think I can make it,” he whispers.
My arms are already around him; I have the rib cage and arm-pit area covered. My eyes have been on his feet and all obstacles. There is no way this man is going down on my shift. I remember a lesson that one of my nurse-sisters told me just a couple days before about smaller people ensuring the safety of larger people who are falling: “Wedge your knee between their legs and begin to kneel down on the other one. Use your arms to guide them to the floor; slide them down your leg. It always works—it’s like ballet, almost.”
I am doing ballet with my dad in the hallway. I call for my mother, and she comes to help.
I still have to get ready for my flight. I leave my dad eating tomato-basil soup at the kitchen table. I hear noise from downstairs and I know it’s the non-emergency paramedics packing my dad up for the hospital again, then probably the Care Center again for rehab. I run up the stairs and there my dad is, zipped into an insulated sleeping bag on a mobile stretcher, just his face showing.
“Dad, you look like you’re in a cocoon,” I say. “Maybe you’ll come out like a butterfly.”
One of the paramedics says, “Or a moth.” Obviously, he knows my dad better than I do. He’s seen my dad more than I have.
I stand there teetering between Minnesota and Arizona. “Can I give him a kiss?” I ask the paramedics. My dad is so bundled up; only his face will show between the house and the ambulance for ten seconds.
“Of course,” they say.
I walk up to my dad and kissy-kiss him on the cheek and nose.
“See you in May.”