The whole hospital smelled like orange Pine-Sol, the kind my Catholic grade school used on its blue linoleum tiles. The people at the front desk were pleasant enough. They told my mom and I we’d need warmer sweaters and gave us nametags with our pictures on them. These tags lost their stickiness after the first week so we carried them in our wallets like business cards. My mom had the first shift with my father, 7am-12pm. I got the afternoon, 12pm-5pm. And then the two of us would stay for dinner and leave when it got dark.
I’m still ashamed at how happy I felt leaving that hospital at the end of each day, walking out those automatic doors, inhaling the night and feeling alive, healthy. I knew that only a hundred paces behind me, my dad was restlessly sleeping, breathing Pine-Sol air in-between the constant drone and intermittent beeps of hospital life. Still, I felt increasingly elated as I put more distance between us. That three-week hospital stint was the first time I ever thought of my 78-year-old father as an old man and it scared me.
Of course I had always known that my father was older. Kind people would constantly refer to him as my grandfather by accident and with red cheeks I’d bark back that he was my DAD. But with a wife 15 years his junior and a daughter 59 years younger, my dad never seemed his age. He was in incredible shape and could never sit still for long. He attempted and failed to retire a total of 4 times and a couple of months before this hospital stay, he had beat me in tennis. Yes, he’d had a few health problems, but nothing a couple stents and a pacemaker couldn’t fix. Strangely, what turned him into an old man was appendicitis. Because he had been undergoing light radiation a month prior for prostate cancer, a routine appendectomy left him incredibly weak, listless and malnourished, transforming him into someone I didn’t recognize.
There were still moments during those three weeks when the man I knew would shine through. I remember a couple of times when he asked his grumpy old nurse, Marlene, “so when are ya gunna take me out dancing?” His voice sounded weak and foreign but his eyes had the same bold energy. Old Marlene, with her short, kinky grey hair and slight mustache would start to giggle and my Dad would turn to me with a wink, as if to say, “See? I still got it.”
My mom and I carried on the same routine every day, flashing our business cards, donning our bulky sweatshirts, trying to get my dad to drink his Ensure shakes. He couldn’t stomach their chalky consistency even though the doctor said they were the best way to raise his albumin, or nutrition levels. My mom and I would get home from the hospital and turn our kitchen into a wall-stained laboratory. Pathetically exhausted from sitting most of the day, we’d try to remember to secure the blender top before pulsing our concoctions. First we tried vanilla Ensure with Greek yogurt, ice and strawberries then we tested chocolate Ensure with bananas, yogurt and ice. The list goes on and on, one less popular than the next.
Each night I’d make two lunchtime shakes, one for each of us. And each day I’d slurp the thick concoction down in front of him with forced enthusiasm. I didn’t mind the slightly ashen, protein-shake taste but my “yummm”s and “mmm”s certainly weren’t warranted. Despite my theatrics, my dad would take one sip, look at me apologetically, then close his eyes and go into “vacation mode,” as he called it.
The fact that the doctor repeatedly encouraged me to make shakes, while I repeatedly failed to make them appetizing made me incredibly frustrated, and not just with my dad. I couldn’t understand why he had to be subjected to something he found so unpalatable, if he already had a nutritional IV dripping into his veins. The doctor finally said adding a little bit of ice cream to the shake would be all right. Soon after, I stumbled on a hit: butter pecan Ensure with coffee ice cream and ice. I remember when my mom brought it to supplement his daily dinner of red Jell-O and a forgettable grey-tinted main course. He drank the whole thing and I felt a strange urge to give him a gold star. My father had morphed into some kind of old-man-baby. Even though he still tried to protect me, making sure I left the room before Marlene changed his catheter or moved him on his side to prevent bedsores, for the most part, in his sick lethargy, my dad’s fatherly protectiveness had given way to a child-like neediness.
With time, however, this needy distress subsided. We prematurely credited the nutritional shakes but at the end of the three weeks, my dad truly seemed better. His old self had pushed through. The day he was discharged from the hospital, I drove his wheel chair precariously fast towards our car. With that initial wind-blown taste of freedom, my father was a young, grateful, enthusiastic kid, telling me to go faster, faster as he stretched both arms out with schoolboy-excitement. We ended up having three more wonderful, almost childlike weeks with him. We played board games, watched old home videos, and had Ensure tea parties instead of happy hour. We’d clink our shakes together and cheers to “24 vitamins and minerals!” Sure he didn’t sleep well at night, but during the day my Dad was his old self, even younger than his old self, and if he didn’t have the strength to play tennis with me just yet, I was sure he would soon.
It was still summer time so I started to see my friends again and go out at night. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I hadn’t left his side during those three weeks. I woke up one morning to my mom screaming. At a youthful 78, my father died from a silent heart attack quietly and I tell myself peacefully, during the night.
Somehow, during the three weeks we spent in the hospital, his doctor hadn’t noticed the calcification building up around the stents in his arteries. Somehow, even though this same doctor told us it was OK to put a little cholesterol-laden ice-cream in my dad’s Ensure shakes, he hadn’t looked into the condition of my dad’s stent laden, pacemaker run heart. I don’t think I’ll ever get over my fearful mistrust for doctors.
My mom still drinks Ensures. I can’t go near the stuff.