I learned that my dad had a difficult time remembering things when I was around nine. We were at my doctor’s office when he asked me when my birthday was. To say I was livid would be an understatement. I was his daughter, how could he forget my birthday? I made it very clear to him that he only needed to remember three dates out of the year: my mother’s birthday, my sister’s birthday, and my birthday.
He never did remember them. Luckily, dates were the only thing he seemed to struggle with at the time. I never imagined that his memory would get worse.
See, my parents were considerably older than most parents I knew growing up. My mother was nearing forty when she had me and my sister, and my dad was already in his forties. In my baby photos, you can clearly see wrinkles littering his face. People always assumed he was my grandpa and not my dad.
I eventually got used to people pointing out how old he looked. I didn’t see it as an issue. Ever since I can remember, he’d always had wrinkles, so I didn’t really notice when more started to appear. I laughed along with my sister every time he came up to either one of us asking for help with his phone or his laptop. He was a stereotypical parent who had trouble with technology, nothing to worry about. I went off to college convinced my aging father would spend his days barricaded inside his workshop or laying back in his recliner enjoying his retirement.
It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college that I got a frantic call from my mother telling me my dad had blood clots in his legs. She cried as she told me that they were life-threatening. I was over a thousand miles away and in the middle of finals. As much as I wanted to drop everything and go to him, my mother convinced me that he would be okay and that I should stay at school.
Luckily, he did recover and I was able to visit him during my spring break. I thought the clots were a fluke, a one-time thing. That he’d completely get over it and it’d never appear in our lives again.
That summer marked a turning point in his health.
His legs were still hurting, so he had to start taking blood thinners. And since they couldn’t be mixed with alcohol, he had to give up beer which was a very difficult thing for him to do. His head and joints began to keep him up at night, so he took medicine for that. Then lumps began to appear on the back of his neck. An endless barrage of small issues not only wormed their way into every conversation I had with my dad, but they began to take over them.
But they were little things. Not life-threatening. I convinced myself he’d be fine.
One night I came home from work exhausted. My dad was laying on the couch in the front room, his arm covering his face. I didn’t tell him goodnight as I stalked off to my room. Within the hour, my mother came barging into my room telling me that dad wasn’t acting okay and that she had called the paramedics to take him to the hospital. Since I had work early in the morning, she told me to stay and sleep and if things got too serious, she’d call me. Okay, I went back to sleep not expecting her to call.
The next thing I know, it's two in the morning and my neighbor Melody comes barging into my room telling me to go to the hospital. My mother had called me several times, but I was too far gone to hear it.
Almost an hour later, after I had accidentally driven to the wrong hospital, I was escorted into my father’s hospital room. In the middle of the room, he was hooked up to three different machines with wires everywhere. Before that image could set in, I was shuffled out by my mother, sister, and the doctor on call. Said doctor sat me down and explained to me that my dad must have hit his head at some point in the day, as he was suffering from a brain bleed. The blood thinners he was on made the situation even worse.
I didn’t have time to convince myself that they were going to cure him as within seconds, she told me that he was going to die. There wasn’t anything they could do but make him comfortable. The best option going forward was to take him off life support.
The way she talked was so clinical that I just nodded along to her every word. From the glimpse I caught of my dad and from what the doctor said, he was already so far gone that he wouldn’t feel any pain and that it was the most humane of choices. Whereas if we did keep him on life support, he’d be nothing more than a vegetable.
There wasn’t time to grieve. I could only sit by his side as they took the tube out and wait for his heart rate to flatline.
I held his hand, convinced that he couldn’t feel me. He didn’t know I was there. He was sleeping, and soon, he’d be at peace.
From what movies and TV have taught me, I thought it would happen in a matter of minutes. He’d be in a better place while I’d be left alone with my mother and sister. Eventually, a resident explained that the whole process would take hours. Days even. Gone was the quick and painless option, and we were left to watch as his brain slowly suffocated him.
The first day came and went with little change. My sister and I went home while my mom stayed with him. I came back the next morning expecting, hoping for him to have passed on. As cruel as it sounds, I was growing impatient. I kept telling myself he wasn’t really there. To me, he was already gone. I couldn’t talk with him or feel his thumb brush up against my fingers as I held his hand. All that was left of him was a body that was slowly dying. It was too hard to be there with the shell of the man who raised me.
On the third day, my dad was starting to show signs of life. His breathing and heart rate were stable, and he was showing no signs of deterioration. All things that the doctors told us were weird, but that we shouldn’t get our hopes up. Because as soon as it’d look like things might be better, we could lose him.
Then he began making sounds. And answering questions.
He got softball questions first. A nurse asked him if his name was Brent, and a guttural moan came from somewhere deep within him. She asked if he knew his wife’s name, and though he did it slowly and quietly, there was no mistaking that he said her name. It was like watching Frankenstein’s creature rise from the dead.
The worst shock came later that day. The doctors had convinced us that we had ample reason to believe he’d make a full recovery, so that convinced me I could go home for the night. I was in dire need of a shower and a change of clothes. I went to his bedside and told him I loved him right before I kissed his forehead. I thought of it as a meaningless gesture since he couldn’t feel it, but I didn’t tell him goodbye the night he got hurt, so I felt like I needed to do it. To get some closure.
And as I pulled away from him, he quietly mumbled, “I love you too, El.”
I made it down three flights of stairs and a football field’s length of a walk from the hospital to the parking garage before I broke down. He was alive. He was in there. The comforting thought that if he died, he wouldn’t know it or feel any pain was gone. The doctors said that he was almost out of the woods, but less than a week ago he wasn’t anywhere near the woods. The doctors said it could go either way and what if he suddenly took a turn for the worse? Now, he’d know he was hurt and he'd be scared to die.
But he didn’t. Miraculous recovery is the best explanation other than that he decided not to die. He had almost three months of physical therapy before we could all feel somewhat normal again. The only physical difference now is he has a small dent on the side of his head covered by a rather grisly scar. Internally though, it’s like he’s aged thirty years.
He doesn’t remember any dates. Unless he writes it down, he forgets anything you ask him to do. He has two entire shelves dedicated to pills he has to take twice a day. He blows up whenever he gets frustrated, which is often now. He leaves the house to go on errands only to come back an hour later because he didn’t know where he was going and got lost.
I’m terrified every time he leaves the house without his phone. I’m scared when he doesn’t tell me where he’s going. And I know it’s only going to get worse.
The only grandfather I knew lived till he was almost ninety, and I’d say he carried his age well. He was independent up until about five years before he died and maintained his memories and lucidity right up to when he passed. His wife, my grandmother, also lived a long and happy life. I thought I’d get to enjoy another twenty-plus years with my dad before I’d have to start worrying about him.
My mother and I’ve had to talk about taking away his license.
I know that we’re lucky because we didn’t lose him. I don’t know what the odds were for him to come back, but I can guess they weren’t great. And despite all these new things we have to get used to with him; I wouldn’t give him up for anything.
But it’s hard to get used to.
Recently, my dad confided to me that when he was young, he was one of the first acknowledged cases of dyslexia in his home state. He cried as he explained how he was treated like an idiot every single day of his childhood because of it. His bullies' taunts seemed to work as he believed himself to be stupid.
I’ve known that he’s been dyslexic my whole life so the news wasn’t exactly shocking. But then he told me that he feels as stupid now as he did back then. That just reminds me, no matter how difficult it is for me and my family to get used to his condition, he’s the one living with it.
As hard as it is for me to deal with all this, I have to be there for him. I don’t want him to feel stupid or alone. I want whatever time I have left with him to be good.
So while I still have time, I’ve been learning everything about him. I know now that when he was five, his grandparents took him to see Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! When he was the linebacker of his high school football team, he and his teammates took their math teacher’s Volkswagen Beetle and carried it up to their school’s roof as a prank. He says Led Zeppelin is his favorite band (but he only has one of their albums on vinyl and he owns every single album ABBA has ever made, so I call bullshit on that). He also wanted to name me Mary Katherine in honor of a family friend. My mother wanted to name me Leia, so neither of them got what they wanted.
Someday, I know he’s not going to remember some of those things. He may even forget my name. I’m nowhere near ready for that, but I know I’m going to be there for him when that day comes, and beyond that. Because I don’t want him to be alone.