On New Year’s Eve my dad went to the hospital complaining of pain in his right arm. Over the next twelve hours he was flown to The Cleveland Clinic for open heart surgery. When they cracked him open, they found a number of troublesome things. What started out as surgery to patch my dad’s torn aorta turned into a double bypass and a valve replacement.
This would be intense for any human, but my dad is eighty-two. And his kidneys aren’t really functioning due to a preexisting disease. Unrelated to my dad’s health, yet another complication was that I told my parents I didn’t want to speak to them the preceding November. As though this isn’t enough, I moved to Seattle in September making all visits require timezone changes, flights, and accommodations.
Dad was very clear about not wanting complicated medical procedures when a good quality of life wasn’t a likely outcome. Dad didn’t want to live in a nursing home. He didn’t want to live on dialysis. He didn’t want a feeding tube. He didn’t want to live in a wheelchair. And so, when I learned that he was in the ICU on a feeding tube, ventilator, and on dialysis I was concerned.
For a man so peculiar about his wishes, I assumed he must have a living will or advanced directive. And much in the same way he failed to show up for me in many ways during my childhood, he failed to show up for me and mom now by documenting nothing. This lack of documentation put my mom, his wife, in charge of making decisions.
This is how I found myself looking at him to a background of arrhythmic bleeps and bloops. Monitors with numbers keeping their silent vigil over his head. His face unshaven to the greatest degree I’ve ever seen due to all the tubes weaving in and out of him. All I could really think was how pissed he would be to see himself.
My mom didn’t leave the house when I was young. I was ashamed to bring my friends over, because I knew even at a young age she wasn’t like other moms. Now at sixty-three, she’s been watching the outside world through the TV screen and books for nearly forty years. In her cacoon, she’s surrounded herself with the things that don’t challenge her order. She’s avoided making decisions and living is many ways.
This lack of living, this absence of issue resolution left her ill-equipped to have adult relationships. I don’t get the sense that she was cruel to me intentionally, it’s just that I tramped mud and complications into her cocoon. And with no real interaction and learning overreaction was the only emotional card she had to play. And she played it to my childhood terror many, many times.
I say this less to explain why I removed myself from the situation and more to provide context. Someone who cannot drive, has difficultly leaving her home in Canton, and hasn’t made many decisions in four decades is in charge of my father’s care. And my father due to his inaction has engineered this situation.
I watched the monitors and felt angry. I was angry that I was back in Ohio. I was angry that I was going to need to see my mom for the first time in months. And, I was scared. Since starting therapy the previous spring I had learned that I have PTSD and Attachment Disorder. I have only taken the first tentative steps in identifying my triggers and choosing different responses to them.
And then, of course, I felt guilty for feeling angry. The moment isn’t about me. Yet it’s impossible to make choices in this context without considering all the things that have come before it. I worked very hard to ensure I would never be subject to the whims of my mom again. But here I am. And I can’t ignore the ways in which our roles have flipped–him now helpless with me able to advocate for him in ways that he failed to advocate for me when I was a helpless child.
There is one decision I have here. What can I do to improve this situation while keeping myself healthy? As much as I feel for dad, I also know he could have taken steps to ensure other outcomes. The degree to which I would need to expose myself to mom to influence her will be a substantial strain on my wellness.
It was with these thoughts that I book a flight back to Seattle after two weeks in Ohio. Dad is still in the ICU. He is still intubated and on dialysis. The medications and his sluggish kidneys keep him from regaining consciousness fully during my vigil. I am getting on that plane because I have learned the difference between taking care of myself, and blindly doing as others would have to my detriment.
Healing doesn’t always feel good. Sometimes it’s like cloying cough syrup that one must force down stifling the urge to retch. When all you’ve known is the cough it’s hard to see what the delight is in living without it. Trusting that the medicine will work is less and emotion and more an act of will.