What is love? Part 1

By | February 14, 2013

I am spending Valentine’s Day far from my sweetie.

This isn’t as unusual as it might be for some people. I work as a technical trainer for a very large Fortune 500 company and it’s often the case that I’m on a business trip on Valentine’s Day. Sometimes I send flowers, sometimes I send chocolates, and in any event, we often try to have a special meal out when I return.

But this week I’m not on a business trip. In fact, I was supposed to be at home this week; I expected to be in town all week long, resting up between road trips and getting in some serious running at the gym and, with any luck, having a romantic Valentine’s Day night out with Carole.

That all changed last Wednesday night, when my father, Keith Furr, tripped over his own loose sock on the hardwood floor of the hallway outside his bedroom at his house in Brooksville, Florida. Dad is 80, a widower, and had been planning on having a hip replacement soon anyway, but that fall fractured his right hip but good — the same one he’d been planning on having replaced. He lay in agony in the hallway for a while, somehow managed to drag himself back into his bedroom and onto his bed, and then finally was able to wake my sister Elizabeth up with his shouts. Elizabeth lives with him; she’s the oldest of my three siblings, and is disabled with mental health issues. She got word to my cousin Anne who lives across the street and who works with my family as driver, housecleaner, cook, and all-around superhero. And it was off to the hospital for Dad.

I got word as I was already in Illinois for a business trip. There was debate over whether Dad would even be healthy enough to survive surgery; among his many problems is a bad heart, a significantly blocked artery, and atrial fibrillation. A debate took place between his orthopedic surgeon and his cardiologist as to which surgery would take place first. In the end, they went with the hip replacement.

I knew that I needed to get down to Florida as soon as I could. For all I knew, Dad might not wake up from the anesthesia; if he did, he might be looking at months of rehab and/or hospitalization. I had vague notions of flying home, unpacking, repacking, and flying down here to Florida to spend the week with Dad at the hospital until he was well enough to transfer to rehab, then keeping him company in rehab until the weekend and then flying home to resume my work schedule. But life took another frustrating turn when my flight home from Illinois on Friday was cancelled outright; I couldn’t get home to Vermont because of a massive blizzard that hit the Northeast. The earliest a flight could get me home to Vermont would be Monday of this week.

Then the Good Fairy interceded: it turns out that I could alter my Chicago-to-Vermont flight to a Chicago-to-Tampa flight, basically at an even trade. No out of pocket on my part, and I could fly down as soon as my Illinois work assignment was over — essentially, Saturday morning. I arrived here in Florida with no return ticket; I wanted to wait to see when it would make sense for me to fly home. For that matter, my siblings in Calgary (AB) and Chapel Hill (NC) might decide to come down, so I figured I’d wait to see what their plans were.

And that’s how I came to spend the weekend, Saturday and Sunday and Monday, sitting calmly in my father’s hospital room in Brooksville, Florida, watching him sleep, serving as a go-between to make sure that he actually got fed (he kept getting left off the meal list and if I hadn’t been there, he’d have gone hungry), actually got looked after (he wasn’t functional enough to ring for a CNA when he’d wet himself, and I had to keep checking on him and summoning help), and so on, and doing my best to talk with him and keep his spirits up, despite the pain. Dad was very very loopy when I first got to Florida; he had been on an older form of anesthesia since had not had a week to wean himself off the Plavix he routinely takes, and if I understand correctly, that particular kind of anesthesia takes a long time to leave the system. That, and the narcotic painkillers he was on, left him unable to distinguish between dreams and reality. He didn’t know where he was; he was convinced that there had been a huge party at his house Wednesday night, which he was very cranky about, and that my sister Julie had been present (she’s still in North Carolina), and even though I politely, but firmly assured him that there had been no party, he kept going back to that belief.

Don’t even ask about the nightmares he’d had, which were equally “real” to him. I’d be sitting talking with him and he’d seem quite lucid, but then he’d begin talking about how “that trip to the cemetery” had taken so much out of him. I learned to recognized the signs of the false memories and could distinguish them from reality, but he would also treat his doctors, nurses, and CNAs to the same jarring tangents into horror.

We decided that it was best if he took no more narcotics and switched him to Tramadol for pain. He got some decent sleep and by Sunday afternoon, the second day I was there, he was almost back to normal, mentally.

All along we had been acting on the assumption that he would be in the hospital for five days, post-surgery, then transfer to an inpatient rehab facility. I arrived at the hospital bright and early at 8 am on Monday morning and no sooner had I walked in than Dad cheerily announced that his doctor said he could go home. Home home. Not to the rehab facility.

I had no idea if this was real or another delusion, so I went and found his nurse and got some clarification. He could go home if his physical therapist thought it was reasonable. I secretly hoped that his PT would persuade Dad that it wasn’t a good idea; I had a premonition that Dad would take home physical therapy a LOT less seriously than the intense, three-hours-per day PT he’d get at the inpatient rehab. I wasn’t alone in worrying about the prospect — the nursing supervisor for the floor and the case manager for the floor arrived mid-morning, looking alarmed at the prospect of Dad heading home as though he hadn’t just broken a hip and had emergency surgery. I could tell from Dad’s face that he desperately wanted to go home and not spend another night in a crummy hospital bed, no matter how nice. I equivocated and said that we would certainly listen to the advice of the PT and his own personal doctor, who would be coming by around noon.

You guessed it: the PT didn’t tell us “over my dead body”, and his doctor said “Yeah, okay, whatever.” And after about three hours of waiting for papers to sign and transport to arrive, we loaded Dad in a wheelchair and loaded the wheelchair in a van, and next thing you know, here we were at the house.

Dad’s going to be getting PT three times a week, A nursing visit three times a week. And a visit from a CNA three times a week. But so far, he’s not been super-dedicated about doing the exercises his PT assigns him. And when we get him up in his walker to move him to a chair, he just won’t listen when we beg him to stay inside the walker, not pushing it so far in front of him that he’s practically falling down. But he needs to be up and moving around and doing his exercises to get strong… and it’s incredibly hard to persuade someone who just feels defeated that there’s a reason to rise up and give it another try.

I sympathize tremendously. I’m not angry at him. I don’t fault him. He’s 80 and injured and weak. But willpower makes such a huge difference when fighting health issues, and I know he’s got will. The trick is trying to bring it to the surface.

But when he’s resting, and I’m waiting for the next occasion to help him, the minutes and hours sure do pile up… minutes and hours that fill, unasked, with melancholy thoughts.

I didn’t grow up in this house. Far from it. Mom and Dad retired to Brooksville in order to get away from the snowy, cold winters in Blacksburg, Virginia. But the house is full of possessions I did grow up with. And it’s full of memories of my mother, who passed away suddenly a year and a half ago.

It’s been very emotionally upsetting for me, hanging out at this house where a reminder of good times or bad lurks around every corner. And I’ve had a lot of time to ponder and mope as Dad’s needed someone to be here around the clock ever since we brought him home on Monday. When he’s sleeping, there’s not much I can do other than sit around waiting for him to call from the bedroom that he needs help. My cousin Anne has been a huge help, and she’ll continue to look after Dad after I fly home on Saturday, but she’s got a life of her own and when she’s not here, mostly I sit, do a little work-related email, and gloom.

I worry about my father. He had few friends and loved my mother very much. She was his life. And when she died, the ship of our family suddenly lacked a captain. While Dad was the breadwinner, Mom was the person who made sure things got done here at the house. Even when she wasn’t strong, when she was in her last years, she still made sure things didn’t get overlooked. Without her around, and with my father so terribly weak and frail …

I keep wanting to go around and “fix” things so they’ll be the way she would have wanted them. Books that I know no one will ever read again — they need to be straightened. Houseplants that she once looked after attentively — they need to be tended to, fertilized, transplanted, whatever. I want to pick things up, put them back the way she liked them.

I’m obviously suffering through some kind of denial. Though she’s been gone for a year and a half, I was able to push the thought of her demise away by focusing on work and my life back in Vermont. Back here in her house in Florida, the presence of my mother is everywhere. And I know that no matter what I do, nothing’s going to bring her back.

Dad is suffering from the same denial. He hasn’t gotten rid of anything of Mom’s. As you walk around, it’s almost as though he thinks she’ll be back. Her drawers are still full of her underwear and scarves and jewelry. Her closets are full of her clothes. Her rack of daily prescription medicines would probably still be on the dining table if Carole and I hadn’t taken it upon ourselves to dispose of them a couple of days after her memorial service.

I know that one of these days Dad is going to die. And I spent the first five days of this time down here dreading that like you would not believe. Not just because Dad will, ultimately, die, but also because it will be hard, HARD when the time comes to go through the house and dispose of all their things. A couple days ago, Cousin Anne informed me that Dad has altered his will putting the house in a trust for Elizabeth so she’ll continue to have a place to live after he dies, and that puts the date of us having to empty the house off for, I hope, MANY years. Dad hadn’t informed me of the change, but I wholeheartedly agree with the new plan.

I’m exhausted and wrung out, emotionally and physically. Dad’s having prostate issues and several times a day we’re having to go deal with the consequences. The poor man can’t get up to use the bathroom and a bedside urinal isn’t always easy to manage in the middle of the night when you’re in pain, disoriented, and sad. I’ve been sleeping on a sofa in the room next to Dad’s bedroom so that I can come running if he needs me in the middle of the night. The “sleep” I’ve been getting hasn’t been great; I come awake over and over again, listening and thinking “was that him calling for me? is there a problem?” only to find out that it’s just him mumbling in his sleep. It grieves me to see the man who was such a strong central figure in my life when I was a kid so foggy and frail and helpless.

Some people who know me well find it a bit incongruous that I’m down here at all. Dad was a hard man to have as a father. I was beaten up, physically and emotionally, for years. Dad never had a kind word to say about me from about the time I entered third grade until I finished graduate school, and even then, the praise came only rarely. Dad didn’t really start treating me with respect until I got a salaried position and began living a normal middle-class life. Until that happened, I’m sure he was waiting confidently for me to fail — he spent most of my childhood aggressively predicting failure in my every endeavor.

He mellowed a bit as he got older. But he’s still got the same problem that he’s always had: he’s not good at showing love. Except to Mom, and even then, he usually found a way of expressing it that allowed him plausible deniability. That he loved her is not in question. But he was never good at showing it, not when others were around. And he’s not good at showing it to his children, even today. He’s quick to criticize, quick to find fault, and the only defense is to show a quiet, unflappable competency.

But on the other hand, something pretty out of the ordinary happened the other day. The last day he was in the hospital before coming home, after a flurry of activity where I’d chased down the hospital catering crew to find out why, for the second time in five meals, he’d been skipped, chased down his nurse to find out why a promised pain pill had still not materialized after an hour, and helped him out of his chair back into bed (not an easy task), he looked at me and said “Thank you for all you’re doing to help me.”

I said “It’s no more than I should be doing — you looked after me when I was a baby and when I was a kid, now it’s my turn to look after you.”

And he replied, “Well, yeah, but …” and here his voice dropped to a barely audible mumble … “I was pretty rough on you at times.”

That is the closest he has ever come to admitting “I beat the hell out of you for most of your childhood.”

And I understand why people who know me, and know Dad, and know how we haven’t always gotten along (to say the least) find it odd that I’m down here. That I’m waiting on him hand and foot, talking with him to try to keep his brain engaged and lucid, lying half-awake all night waiting for him to call for help. That I’m going to such lengths to try to help him.

It’s not easy. But it is the right thing to do. When someone you love is in pain, you do what you have to do.

And there’s that word: “love”.

Love is a confusing, frustrating thing. It’s not an easy thing. We think of love in terms of “romantic love” more often than not, especially on today of all days. But love comes in many forms, and if it’s not love to change your father’s wet bedsheets three times a day with a smile on your face and without a word of complaint, then I don’t know what love is.

It does me no good to keep a record in my head of all the mean and angry things Dad did to me over the years. It would do me no good to hold a grudge and to say “Let him suffer; it’s no more than he deserves.” It would do me no good to sigh in exasperation and say “Oh, jeez, what now?”

I must simply remember: Dad is a human, like all the rest of us. He is not perfect. Nor am I. But we are all deserving of love. One day he will be gone and no amount of tidying or reorganizing his cluttered office will bring him back. And when that day comes, I will miss him. And I do not want to have on my conscience when that day comes that I did less than I could have.

I believe that Dad can regain his strength and live several more years, able to walk and function and enjoy life. I am optimistic that he’s going to get stronger and that he’ll be able to take care of himself and not be perpetually dependent on others to care for him. But even if my belief and optimism come to nothing, whether he prevails or whether he gives up, defeated, I still love him. With all his faults, he’s still my father.



Leave a comment!