How was your Labor Day weekend? Mine was surreal.
I drove out to Detroit and back to visit my dad in the hospital for a couple of days. My dad didn’t resemble himself, hospitals are strange, I think a tornado touched down in my parents’ neighborhood (even though the weather people there kept calling it a wind shear but I don’t think I buy that), the power was (and still is) out so we came back every night to a dark house, dozens of hundred year old trees upended pieces of sidewalk and smashed garages and punctured roofs making the whole area look like a tree-seeking bomb hit it. (What a time to forget my camera.)
So. That was a lot of stuff. And now I’m home and trying to process it all.
I started my trip in our twelve-year-old Hyundai, minus the radio that was stolen out of it last week. (That’s the third time. People keep asking if we lock the doors to the car, but I’d rather lose the radio than have the window smashed and lose the radio, so no, we don’t lock the doors. I guess with the newest one we’ll bring the radio’s faceplate indoors each time.) I brought along an iPod and listened to various podcasts on the insanely boring drive that is the trip from Milwaukee to Detroit.
I stopped in Chicago on the way to say goodbye to my brother and his girlfriend before they moved to Germany. It was too short a visit. I don’t see them enough, and I don’t realize until I’m with them again how much there is to say. I wish we’d had more time, but for some things there is never enough time.
I arrived in my hometown of Pleasant Ridge, MI to find dozens of downed trees. My mom called to warn me ahead of time that there had been a severe storm and there was no power, so I came armed with my favorite flashlight and a headlamp. It took me a while to find a path to the house. The normal route was blocked by fallen power lines and trees, as were several alternate routes, but eventually I found my way. I think our specific block and a couple on either side of it got the worst of the damage. It’s both impressive and sad. I dropped off my things and headed to the hospital around dinnertime.
My dad was awake when I arrived, and glad to see me, but he wasn’t awake for very long. He’s weak and thin. Swallowing anything causes him enormous pain. He fades in and out. He winces in his sleep which is hard to watch. He’s disoriented. He just wants to go home.
The main thing I was able to provide for my dad in the hospital was music. It was too hard to read to him or carry on a conversation because he was seldom conscious for more than half a minute at a time. I put a mute on my instrument to keep the volume lower and played a lot of Bach. My dad loves Bach. There were times I was sure he was sound asleep and I kept playing, only to hear him say without opening his eyes, “Very nice” when I got to the end of a piece. I don’t think there is any applause this season that will mean as much as those quiet words.
There are several good things about playing live music for someone in the hospital; it blocks out all the beeping and chatter that is a constant part of life there, you can sleep to it or actively listen and it’s all fine, and I think it help set my dad apart as a patient. Everyone in the oncology ward said they liked hearing the music, and I would see people pause in the doorway as I played. (One nurse was even proud to have figured out I was playing a viola, not a violin.) I think anything that draws attention to the fact that my dad is loved and adored gives him an advantage in an environment that is dehumanizing, and now even the people who don’t deal with him directly know he’s the man whose daughter plays music for him. He’s not just some old man hooked up to a million tubes. He’s special. He’s my dad.
Mom and I didn’t stay until the very end of visiting hours each night because it helped to get back to the house while there was still some natural light. Having the power out at home was such a strange added twist to the trip. We walked around the house in headlamps and never got over the habit of flicking the light switches when we walked into certain rooms. We could still use the stove top if we lit the gas ourselves with a match, but cooking in the dark is weird. My first night home it was warm enough we went for a long walk. (The temperature dropped by about thirty degrees not long after I arrived and I hadn’t packed for that. Mom gave me a jacket but for the most part I was really cold in Michigan.)
It’s hard to describe what the storm did to my old neighborhood. No one was hurt, and most of the houses were spared, but the few that got whomped by trees really got whomped. Several garages were crushed, as were a few cars. My parents’ property was spared, which is good because I don’t know how they could handle one more thing. With luck insurance will do what insurance is supposed to, and I’m hoping nothing too personal was lost by any of the people who experienced damage to their property. It’s a lot of expense and inconvenience but probably not the end of the world for most of the neighbors. The thing that has changed is the general look and character of the street. The trees that came down were about a century old, most of them on personal property, not city trees. (Although the ones by the street that came down ripped up the sidewalks, which was something to see.) There is a lot of light suddenly where no one is used to seeing it. Everyone’s view has changed.
I’m glad I was able to be there with my mom at such a strange and trying time. It felt good to make her laugh. I made her go with me into the chapel at the hospital and I taught her how to play Heart and Soul. The place was empty, and my mom looked alarmed when I sat down at the piano because she thought we were being disrespectful. But to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, all music is sacred. And music makes things better so I didn’t feel for a moment we were doing anything wrong. I bossed mom around on the keyboard until she was able to poke out enough of a bass line to play along with, and she laughed and wiped at her eyes. It was worth the drive to Michigan just for that.
My dad was doing well enough when I left late on Tuesday that I felt it was okay for me to go home. The medication that sent him to the ICU (Xeloda) had horrible effects on his body and he nearly died, but the ever encouraging and kind Dr. Pearlman said we’re past the hump and dad was improving. I trust him. All the nurses were excellent, and I am forever impressed at how caring yet firm the physical therapy people are.
On the downside, some people in hospitals need to remember that discussions about life and death are not casual events for many of us. One well-meaning young doctor rattled my mother badly in the hall when she stopped us on the way to lunch to ask if we had orders in place about whether or not to revive my dad if he got suddenly worse. She saw a frail man with stage four cancer and was calling things as she saw them based on her everyday experiences, but she doesn’t know how hard my dad wants to fight. She just kept saying, “Because he’s really very sick, and if you’re not here we need to know whether you want us to let him go if his heart stops.” My mom was flustered as she explained that at this point in time we’re quite sure my dad would want to be revived if possible and of course she’d signed papers to that effect. It was not appropriate to approach us in that way. We had been feeling okay on our way to lunch, and that doctor destroyed our equanimity for the day. There was also a palliative specialist who talked to my mom only in terms of dad never leaving the hospital and how to go about pulling the plug. I hope we never see either of those doctors again. I know there is a time and a place for those important discussions, but they shouldn’t have been sprung on us when what we needed was reassurance.
The thought at the moment is that if they can solve the problems that are preventing dad from eating, he should be able to put on some weight and gain some strength with the help of physical therapy, and maybe in a few weeks return home. By then there should be power, and the chance for something closer to normal. Not what it used to be, but with luck, still something worth enjoying for as long as we can make it last.
On the drive back to Milwaukee I thought about the trees of my childhood. When I was little, Pleasant Ridge was filled with huge, majestic elms with limbs that spread out like fountains shading all the streets. When I was nine, our neighborhood, like much of the nation, was struck by Dutch elm disease. We lost all of those trees. The neighborhood seemed unbearably bright for a long time. But the truth is that there were many smaller trees in the neighborhood that could suddenly reach for the light. I looked around my old street before I left, past the endless rows of tree removal trucks and wood chippers, the debris in the streets, and damaged maples with what was left of their splintery limbs poking at the sky while awaiting chainsaws and cranes coming to take them down. I saw the new generation of smaller trees, some of which had grown up leaning odd directions just to find some sun. The neighborhood will be different, and for a while it will be unbearably bright. But now the new trees have a chance to grow into new roles. It won’t be the same, this new view, but for some it will be the view they grow up with. The new view will become home.