I pulled off of the highway near the intensive care unit into a dark parking lot of a CVS. It was freezing cold, the kind of midwest winter that causes most of us to move away. It was also late, I was tired, but I still had a long night ahead of me.
I had just left dinner with one of my dear friends who demanded I meet her and let her buy me a meal. She even threw in some pizzas for the nursing staff.
A few days prior, another dear friend sat for hours in the hospital parking lot just incase I needed her.
A few days after that, another friend showed up at 8:30am to bring me a coffee and sit with me in the car.
How did I get so lucky?
I put on my black winter gloves, put the car in park, and took a look in the rearview mirror.
“Brutal”, I thought as I looked at the bags under my eyes and tried to wipe away the chunks of mascara.
I pulled my winter hat down as far as it could go over my head and walked into the CVS.
For at least fifteen minutes I roamed the aisles.
Have you ever done this? You’re so tired you just kind of wander around looking at everything wondering if you need it.
Nail polish. Hair ties. A battery operated back massager.
I finally found the decor aisle and grabbed the best Christmas lights I could find to decorate his room.
Do we need that standing reindeer? I wondered. I decided maybe that was a little too much.
A few nights earlier I received a call around 9:45PM from my dad’s cell phone.
“T, are you coming back? These people say they want to help me but I don’t know them and I don’t know what I am doing here.”
My father, afraid.
Growing up my dad was never afraid. And if he was, he showed it in this very determined way. As if it was him versus fear and he was never going to lose.
If he is afraid, where does that leave me? I thought as I listened on the other end of the line.
On this particular night he didn’t understand where he was. I knew he was in the intensive care unit of the Community North Hospital off of 82nd street recovering from heart surgery.
He thought I had dropped him off at some stranger’s house and that he didn’t have enough pants.
I tried not to anxiously laugh as he asked if I could bring him more pants.
It wasn’t funny and at the same time it had to be.
We had never experienced anything like this with him and it was alarming.
We thought maybe the surgery had triggered early onset dementia.
A seasoned nurse had pulled me aside, “Are you sure he hasn’t had something like this happen before? He does live alone”.
No one could explain why my dad had no idea where he was or why he was having intense delusions.
In trying to talk with the nurses and calm him down, my sister and I, who were now on a three-way call with the staff, realized the only way he was going to sleep was if one of us showed up there to make him feel safe.
I tossed on a sweater, grabbed my winter coat and I made my way to the hospital.
A lot of people, when I share this part of the story, cannot believe I marched over to the hospital at 10PM and worked my way in to see him.
My sister and I did not skip a bit on the plan when we disconnected from the staff at the hospital and immediately got on our own phone call.
We have seen many hospitals, spoken to a lot of surgeons, and we have spent many nights wide awake on a cot next to a parent.
When I arrived and made my way to his unit, I called my sister again and together we requested approval for one of us to have full access to him until his cognitive function returned. Luckily the Chief Nursing Officer awarded us extended visiting hours and I began sleeping in a mask on the little hospital couch next to his bed.
On one trip back to his condo I grabbed my favorite picture of my niece, Mena and I put her right next to his bed with a post-it.
“Hey dad, if you are seeing this you are in the right place! Love, Teresa.” it read.
My sisters and I were on Facetime talking about what it might mean for dad to have no real cognitive function.
What if this is permanent?
“Let’s not worry about that right now”, my oldest sister advised.
A few weeks earlier the surgeon told my dad he could perform an experimental surgery on his heart so that they wouldn’t have to do a complete open heart surgery and risk disrupting his first bypass.
This doctor had performed a handful of these procedures, which was more than anyone else in the country.
One evening when one of the many different specialists was making the rounds on my dad he said, “You must work in healthcare, are you a doctor?”.
“No, I replied. I’ve just been here many times before.”
So many of you maybe faced moments much like this in the last year. Some of you didn’t get a chance to sit bedside with the person you love. Some of you paced outside hospitals waiting for information, or by the phone just in case the hospital could get your loved one to call you.
I wish I could give you a hug right now.
You and I? We are in a special kind of club. The club of people who have seen some stuff. When we meet each other in a random coffee shop or a networking event we immediately know.
“Oh you are one of us,” and then we know we can take the conversation to this deeper level we can’t with other people.
We even say to each other, “I hate that you are in this club, but hey, I’ve got you.”
That week where we weren’t sure where my dad had gone, and if he was ever going to return to us, I remained in an adrenalin state.
My sister spent hours researching to try to get a better idea of what was happening so she could make the most informed medical decisions on his behalf.
My other sister stayed close to her phone while she baked things and prepared to hop on an international flight during a global pandemic.
I did what I always do, I went all in on managing the situation and sat perched next to his bed trying to control every detail of his care, sending group text updates to the family.
Maybe you see yourself in one of us. Maybe your form of coping is baked goods or copious amounts of research, or maybe when shit hits the fan for you, you crumble into a ball in your bedroom and have to process alone until you feel clear.
Whatever it is that keeps you going, that allows you to push through, I promise you are not alone.
The night while I hung the Christmas lights and placed the red happy Santa on the tan hospital shelf just under the white board where they keep track of his vitals, I wondered why God had made me so good at coping with this particular thing.
Hospitals. Advocacy. Caretaking. Fear. Unknowns. Trauma.
“Whats the gift here? Help me see it. I want to see it.” I prayed.
We didn’t sleep that night. If I am honest, we didn’t sleep the night before or the night before that. Whatever was going on with my dad was keeping him up, yet his disconnection from his reality made him think he was sleeping. He had no concept of day or night.
One night he thought we were in a jungle in Vietnam. He spent the night trying to get up out of the bed while mumbling things that made no sense.
“Daddy, you are ok. You are in the hospital. Don’t worry.”
We did this on repeat hour after hour.
My sister covered the daytime visitation hours after a full day at work and time with her two-year old.
This was all hands on deck. Family was messaging their thoughts on the delusions and sharing research via email.
My friends were dropping off food and taking me on early morning walks.
Cousins were taking care of my dog, Billy and leaving us Christmas gifts.
Uncles were calling to tell me this was just temporary. Giving me as much encouragement that they had available.
Is this what God is trying to show me? I would think each time I hung up the phone with another loved one.
What do people do that don’t have this kind of support?
We are the lucky ones. About 48 hours later, my dad started to return to us. Within a few more days we were gathered at my sisters having a Christmas meal and bribing my niece with Christmas cookies so she would smile for pictures.
“Pappy boo boo” my niece said as she pointed to his heart.
We watched her open presents and she and I danced in the living room like everything was normal.
Normal. What does that even mean after all of this?
This was definitely a detour from the few months I thought I would spend in Austin exploring and finding my way. A short trip in November had been enough to wonder if I could make it home.
We had hiked in the plush green North hills outside the city.
Kayaked on the lake as the election results finally came in and the whole city cheered and honked their horns as they drove over the bridge.
We met a good friend who had migrated recently from New York and sat around bon fires and shared Thanksgiving dinner with beautiful strangers.
We chased the deer each morning as we ran the hills down to the dock and sat taking in the sounds of the water.
The city was so alive, it felt like there were endless possibilities ahead of us.
Would I be able to make it back? Would this detour home be just that, a detour?
That Christmas Eve at my sisters, wearing my favorite red dress and spinning my niece around the living room, Austin felt so far away, like years had passed since we were there. I had no capacity to know much of anything other than that by some miracle and the miracle of those hospital nurses and doctors, my dad had returned to us and the experimental surgery had worked.
Not everyone was this lucky. Not everyone got to share a meal with their loved ones post Covid scare or welcome their daddy home after weeks in the hospital. We knew mom had a hand in this, that fate had brought us this gift. This gift.
Today we say a prayer for those who need it, for those who are facing something they have never faced, trying to find the Christmas lights in the chaos and overwhelm of their emotion.
You are not alone.