[about the author]
i actually like speaking in front of large crowds. freakish,
i work crossword puzzles in ink.
i am the american nigella lawson. or maybe the american eddie
izzard. can't decide, really.
i would be a really good mom, but i'm cool with being a really
i am sometimes more perceptive than i would like to be.
i am fiercely loyal. sometimes, stupidly so.
i never play dumb. never.
i am way too hard on myself.
i am a change agent.
i sometimes cross that fine line between assertive and aggressive.
i am not afraid to tell people that i love them.
i am militantly pro-choice.
i am pro-adoption.
i know a little bit about alot of things.
i typically enjoy the company of men more than women.
i am capable of being really mean and nasty, but i fight it.
i am a lifelong cubs fan. do not laugh.
i have been known to hold a grudge.
i have hips.
i am not my sister.
i am lousy at forgiving myself.
i am an indoor kind of gal.
i am a bargain shopper. to the point of obsession.
i am 32 flavors. and then some.
life is a funny thing
they had wheeled my father out. taken him downstairs to run a seemingly endless list of tests. tests that would tell us whether or not his heart was strong enough to survive the surgery needed to save his life. i gave my mother a reassuring hug and sank down into the chair as they disappeared around the corner. numb. glad they were gone for a while. relieved that i could stop pretending, even for a little while, that i’m not scared. that everything is going to be perfectly fine. that i’m not falling apart.
from the other side of the curtain dividing my father’s hospital room came a voice.
“so, this fella’s goin’ to get on a plane. and he’s not wearin’ anything but a raincoat and some shoes.”
i sat quietly.
“so, the stewardess at the gate there, she says, ‘sir, i need to see your ticket.’ and this fella just opens up his raincoat, and he’s just standin’ there smilin’ from ear to ear. real proud of himself.”
this shouldn’t be happening. wouldn’t be happening if the cardiac icu ward wasn’t full. if a private room had been available.
i picked up the stack of booklets on my father’s tray table.
“so, the lady there, she just looks him up and down. then, she just looks right at this fella and says, ’sir, i said i needed to see your ticket...not your stub.’”
i took my jacket off and opened the first booklet.
a head appeared at the edge of the curtain.
“that didn’t offend you, did it, young lady? i surely didn’t mean no offense.”
“no, sir, i wasn’t offended.”
he came out and sat down in the guest chair beside me. his pale legs spindly as they made their way from the hem of the now-familiar hospital gown down to the hospital-issued blue booties. his silver hair was mussed and he wore the same eyeglasses my grandfather had worn -- the same eyeglasses every man who worked at union carbide in the 1950s wore.
“well, then, let’s have us a chat. name’s norman,” he said as he extended his hand. overlooking the iv shunt, the medical tape and bandages and the dark spots of age, i could see he had long, graceful fingers.
“nice to meet you.”
“now, before we get started, i’ll just go ahead and tell ya right off that i’m open to questions. so, don’t be shy.”
“that’s good to know, norman. thank you.”
“i’m on my second pacemaker. not why i’m here this time, though.”
as he began talking, i realized that i wanted nothing more than for him to stop. i ran my hands over the stack of books in my lap.
after the stroke
your diabetes and you
living with congestive heart failure
what is atrial fibrillation?
i had made it as far as page three of the first book before norman joined me.
we had learned that my father’s stroke was the tip of the iceberg. the least of his problems. and now i needed to understand what we were up against. there were terms i needed to learn. diet restrictions. guidelines. assuming, of course, that he would survive. all of this lying on my lap. all under my fingertips. all just waiting. but, now, here was norman. talking and talking.
maybe if i just kept reading. politely nodding. muttering “uh-huh” at the appropriate pauses. maybe he’d get the hint.
“so, i knowed there was a shine still up that holler. but there was also mighty good squirrel huntin’ up thata way, too. so, i reckoned i’d just go on up there.”
“i’s only ‘bout fifteen at the time. boy that age didn’t really know how serious them boys’d be ‘bout protecting that still.”
“so, there i go, just pretty as a picture, walkin’ right on up that holler.”
“next thing you know, i’m lookin’ down the barrel of a shotgun!”
“and this fella looks me over and says, ‘i reckon you’d be up this way a’lookin’ for the milkin’ cow?’ and i’m scared to death. and i finally say, ‘yessir, i reckon i am.’ and he says, ‘well that cow went right back down the holler the way you come in. reckon you oughta do the same.’”
“say, you know how to play setback?”
“setback. you had a deck of cards, you and me could play setback. used to play it in my navy days.”
“i'm afraid i don’t know that one.”
we continued this way for about twenty minutes.
“so, you got any brothers and sisters?”
“one younger sister.”
“two of you girls, huh. i got four kids of my own. five, really. i raised my granddaughter, too. she took my name. that’s somethin’ else, wouldn’t you say? took my name. yep, i raised her, too, so i reckon that counts as five.”
i looked up. i saw my father’s empty bed surrounded by cards and flowers and balloons. pictures of my niece were on his bedside table.
norman’s side of the room was empty.
i thought about my dad. how strong he is. how stoic. and then i thought about how small he looked that morning as they wheeled him out the door. how scared. and how, even with all of his flowers and balloons, how alone he seemed. the way he had tears in his eyes as he told me he loved me. how happy he was to have me here.
“she’s a paralegal now, my granddaughter. lives down in north carolina.”
i thought about how scared norman must be. how alone.
i closed the book on my lap.
“what’s her name?”
he smiled at me.
“i was wonderin’ if you’d forgot that i was open to questions.”
“her name’s shauna. she makes almost thirty thousand dollars a year. can you imagine that? in my days at carbide i don’t think i ever made that much. she’s done real well for herself. she’s finishing up here degree from marshall. i reckon she might just be a lawyer herself.”
“you must be very proud of her.”
“now, i’m waitin’ for you to ask me. aren’t you gonna ask me how it is that she’s gonna get her degree from marshall while she’s livin’ in north carolina? it’s all computers! you ever heard of such a thing? i’ve lived an awful long time and think i might just have seen it all now. aren’t you gonna ask me how old i am?”
“i wasn’t sure if you’d think it was rude.”
“i’m 84. 84 years old. that’s a lot of life. a lot of living. more than a good number of folks get to live.”
“i imagine so.”
“man my age...you see a lot of things. learn a lot. i reckon there might be two or three things i don’t know something about. but that’d probably be just about it.”
“well, that’s pretty impressive.”
“’course one of them two or three things is women. never quite figured that one out.“
“life just doesn’t always go the way you want it to. life is a funny thing.”
he told me about his years as an “instrument man” at carbide. how he remembered when they came up with transistors and machinery that had taken up entire rooms now fit on a single table top.
i told him about my first transistor radio. it was bright blue and i used to listen to mystery theater on wchs am 58 radio every night under the covers after i was supposed to be asleep.
we took turns telling stories until we finally came to a lull in our conversation.
“i sure wish we had some cards. you sure you don’t know how to play setback? i learned that one in the navy. used to play it for hour after hour. won me a bit of money, playing setback. lost a good bit, too, i reckon. truth is, i’m not sure i remember how to play it anymore. that’s something, isn’t it? life is just a funny thing sometimes.”
“well, what about rummy?”
“you know how to play rummy?”
“well, then, that’s what we’ll play tomorrow.”
“are you hustlin’ me, norman?”
“oh, now, you think i’d do that to a pretty lady like you?”
“well, i think you might.”
“well, we’ll just play nickels and dimes.”
and with that he got up.
“leaving me, are you?’
“gotta go round up my nickels and dimes!”
that night, they transferred my father to a private room. the next day, i stopped in the hospital gift shop and bought a deck of cards. when i walked into room 201, the curtain was drawn back and both beds were empty.
“excuse me, has he been moved to a private room?”
“let’s see...bed 2...no. he coded this morning. you family?”
i turned the deck of cards over and over in my hands. i handed them to the nurse.
“no. just a friend.”
life is just a funny thing sometimes.
note: i'd like to thank all of you who have taken time to write emails, comments and even supportive thoughts on your own sites. at a time like this, it is immeasurably comforting to feel not alone. and you have all made me feel not alone. thank you very, very much, from the bottom of my heart.
my father's condition is still touch-and-go. he is scheduled for surgery tomorrow morning, and we will know more once the procedure is completed. thanks again for all of your kind thoughts.
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