Wednesday, February 04, 2004

a trip to Sinai-Grace Hospital

This morning, my father had a CT scan to see if the cancer has gone to his stomach. It's one of the next logical places, after the brain. There, and the bones.

My father has very little energy these days. Other than his daily walk with my mom down the hall and back, he spends a lot of time asleep, or taking what he calls "pre-naps." When he's awake, he reads, or sits at the dinner table smoking and looking out the window at the wide expanse of clean snow between the apartment building and the television station. Sometimes I look in on him in the bedroom and he's sitting up in bed, but his eyes are closed. The Helios makes a regular small thunking sound as the valve opens and closes; oxygen on demand. I've been instructed, if I don't hear the thunking, to make sure the cannula is pushed firmly into his nostrils.

So anything that involves leaving the building is an odyssey. There's the Helios, which holds four pounds of liquid oxygen, and can be carried in a nylon bag. I call it the oxygen purse. He doesn't need it all the time, but he doesn't go out without it. There's the Vicodin, against the pain in his arms. There's the cane he was given as a gag gift at his fiftieth birthday party. There's the meander down the hallway to the elevator, and waiting in the lobby for Mom to bring the car around. The automatic revolving door at the hospital is an unexpected nightmare; and I find myself puffing up, trying to make myself bigger, trying to make myself into a better shield between my father and all the other shamblers, the wheelchairs, the rushing orderlies, the people who just aren't watching where they're going.

I am five-six, as is my mother. My father is a full six feet tall, but he's so hunched, unsteady, nebulous. He's so, well, bald, that I'm starting to feel positively massive next to him. And protective as all hell. The wisps of hair on his scalp, the pink skin, make me think of a baby bird. My mother and I surround him, a fence of salt and pepper hair (both of us are silvering), black jackets, purses, glares. We take over all the chairs in the waiting area with our things. We watch the receptionist, the phlebotomist, the people waiting on stretchers in the hall, warily; we are picking out the path that he can take between them without tripping, or running into something. We are, ultimately, trying to stand between my father and the beyond. And we both know that the beyond is stronger. But we do what we can.

There is still some controversy about who taught me how to use power tools. I remember my dad teaching me to use the drill, but my mother claims she was the one. There's no question when it comes to who taught me how to throw, catch, and hit a softball. Who played math games with me. Who taught me to ride a bike by running along behind, holding the seat until I was stable.

And then I was riding in the late afternoon sun, and he was no longer holding on. But he was still behind me, telling me that I had it, that I was doing a good job. The gentle slope of the parking lot, empty on a Sunday, went up and down and the Shwinn went up and down and I was riding, alone, when I hadn't thought I would be able to.

This is a ride that every child expects, eventually, to take. I have always known that some day my father's hand would no longer be stabilizing my bike.

But my mother. How many people, when they marry, think about this moment? She was 19, he was 21. She'd already lost her mom, she was conversant with death, but he wasn't. They were so young. Could they see the future? The Shwinn, the businesses they would build, the winters, me, this cancer? Marriage is an incredible leap of faith. We shouldn't be upset that fifty percent fail; we should be impressed that fifty percent survive.

I will ride beside you, two people are saying, until one of us falls. And if you are the one, I will carry you until my strength fails. And when my strength fails, I will lie beside you and comfort you as best I can.

Fifty percent.