Friday, November 22, 2013

Well Worth the Effort

Many mornings when I get up before the sun rises to see my daughter off to high school it reminds me of how I used to drag myself out of bed in the early morning on school days when I was her age.  I got up then, though, not because my school started really early like hers does, but because I had to get in a run before school when I was in the midst of a training season for track or cross-country. 

Early morning running with my dad

I’ve never been a morning person.  On most days, I get up because I have to, not because I want to at that particular time, and, truth be told, I hated getting up for those early morning runs.  It was always dark, and the temperature always seemed to be cooler than I preferred, even in the late spring or early fall months.  I was always a little stiff and often so tired at that time of day that I could hardly keep my eyes open as I ran down the street, guided by the streetlights, counting freshly thrown rolled-up newspapers in the driveways to pass the time as I went along.  Many afternoons or evenings when I ran, often for the second time in the same day, I did it because I loved it, but, on those mornings, I did it because my dad expected me to put in the extra effort.  It was part of the plan he had written out for me each week, the training program that he said would pay off at the next race, which, for me, was always just around the corner.  I loved the racing part, too, but not those morning runs – those I just struggled through.

I remember on so many occasions looking up as I crossed the finish line at the end of a race so that I could see the look on my dad’s face.  I judged my performance in each event by the look I saw in my dad’s eyes at the end of the race; in an instant, I could tell what he was thinking – and many times it was this: it was well worth the effort. 

I knew it then, and I know it even more now: there is such privilege that comes with knowing someone well enough to know what he or she is thinking, a secret code of which it is an honor to have an understanding.  I often think back to the few episodes of perhaps oddly placed confidence that I had when I was helping my dad during the weeks of his illness. One instance in particular occurred on the day my dad went from the hospital to a rehab facility across town. The hospital staff wanted to have him transported by ambulance, but I felt it was essential to his mental state not to have to ride in another ambulance at that juncture in his recovery. Somehow, from out of necessity I guess, I found the confidence to tell the nurses that I was certain I could safely help him get from a wheelchair to the car at the hospital and then from the car to the wheelchair and inside the rehab facility.  "I have no doubt I can keep him safe," I remember saying to a couple of nurses in the hallway outside his hospital room.  I felt like they were looking at me doubtfully, but they said ok and that was that.  I am trained in assisting with patient transfers like that, but I work with children, not adults.  I felt sure though; I knew I would do anything to help my dad, and I was confident that together our effort would pay off.

Doing whatever it takes, with both of us wearing the same expression of determination

There were a few more things that happened like that while he was sick, with my certainty coming from almost out of the blue, each time tied to the fact that I was completely determined to do whatever it took to help take care of my dad.  The most striking bout of unexplainable conviction that I experienced during his illness, though, was when he asked me how we would know what he wanted if he lost the ability to talk.

I’ll just know,” I told him, somehow without missing a beat after he threw that question out into the room.  I cannot explain the sense of sureness I felt in the moment; looking back, I realize that it would have been much more reasonable for me to feel a sense of terror and uncertainty in the moment.  We were in the den of my parents’ house, the day after we’d brought him home from the hospital for the last time.  It was New Year’s Day, and my dad had not rebounded the way I’d thought he would once he was on his home turf.  He was still trying to eat to get his strength back, and he had been asking for small servings of food since he’d woken up that morning: “maybe a piece of bacon,” “some fruity dessert,” (which is what he called the cut-up pieces of fruit in a plastic bowl purchased from the produce section at the grocery store), and, the request always accompanied by a gesture of the quiet snapping of his fingers, “just a little piece of chocolate.” He’d asked for and had eaten a little of each, along with a sip of his favorite beer, Foster’s, which he drank through a straw while he sat up against the cranked-up mattress of the hospital bed in the middle of the den.  His voice was hoarse and breathy, and it seemed to be getting weaker as time went on despite the efforts of my dad to eat and take medicine that was supposed to make him feel better.

His concern about losing his ability to talk was legitimate, and I honestly don’t know the source of the confidence I heard in my own voice when I answered his question that day in the second-to-last verbal exchange I ever had with him.  I guess I would have to say it was an accolade of sorts for the extra time the rest of my family and I had been lucky enough to have with him over the weeks of his illness as we battled along with him.  I knew that if necessary, I would look at my dad and just know what he was thinking, just like those times many years ago when I crossed the finish line of a race. And again, it was well worth the effort.