On Saturday, my dad was admitted to the VA hospital for his esophagectomy. He went through yet another battery of tests and the first round of GoLytely (which did NOT make him go lightly). The indignities of the day were made more bearable, though, by his favorite nurse, Cheri. She had cared for him after his gallbladder surgery back in July, and she greeted him fondly.
When I arrived on Sunday morning, Dad's blood pressure was very elevated. This was most likely due to anxiety, but knowing the pressure was so high made him even more anxious. The surgeon decided to transfer him to intensive care to get the problem under control.
Mom, Dad, and I all felt unnerved that Dad was moving to ICU before his surgery. I hated to see Dad's fear; Dad was always the protector, the spider killer, the intrepid investigator of all mysterious nighttime noises.
Cheri took Mom and me aside in the hall and told us that part of Dad's stress was that he was trying to be strong for us. She said we should encourage Dad to voice his fears instead of holding them in; that would be better for him both emotionally and physically.
We followed her advice, and Dad admitted that he was afraid he might not survive the surgery. We reminded him that God was in control, and that he had planned all of Dad's days. I quoted Philippians 4:4-7, my own trusted weapon against anxiety.
"Every time you feel anxious, Dad, you need to pray about it," I urged. "Every time. You're going to feel anxious over and over, and that's okay. Just give it to God, and he'll give you peace that transcends your understanding."
I saw tears in Dad's eyes, and I asked him if he wanted to pray right then. He nodded, and I laid my hand on his shin--there's so much sickness going around that I was literally afraid to touch him. Mom and I prayed that God would remind Dad that He was taking care of every detail, and that Dad would be enveloped in peace.
"Amen!" said the nurse who had come to transfer Dad to ICU.
The Best Medicine
While Mom and I waited in the hall, we could hear one of the ICU nurses joking around with Dad. We couldn't hear what he was saying, but we could hear Dad's laughter. We noticed that Dad's spirits seemed better, and Mom remarked that laughter is the best medicine.
I washed my hands with the heavy-duty antibacterial soap for two full (mental) choruses of "Happy Birthday to You" and then rubbed in the antibacterial gel for good measure. Then I sat on a folding chair and held Dad's hand while I told stories of Allyson's many antics--a preview of future blog entries, I said. Here are a couple of the stories I told him:
- During bedtime recently, Allyson asked if we could please buy a baby whale. When I said we'd have no place to keep it, she said, "All we need is a lot of water.... And we'll need to buy a bunch of milk. All a baby whale eats is milk."
I told her baby whales are too big, but she said, "We'll just keep it for a couple weeks." When I told her even newborn whales are too big, she said, "Okay, maybe we can get a baby ostrich instead."
- Another one of Allyson's grandiose plans is to start a family band. Daddy will build a stage in the backyard, and we'll give concerts for Lola and the neighbors. Ethan will play drums, of course, and so will Allyson. Daddy will play the guitar, and Mama will be stuck with the accordion. (When I told her I don't know how to play the accordion, she said I can just take lessons.)
Dad laughed hardest when I told him what Allyson says when she toots: "That's just my bum talkin'." Allyson, like most of Dad's progeny, has inherited the dubious talent of tooting at will--and probably against her will, too.
God Is Good
It was so hard to say goodbye that afternoon. I wasn't sure I'd be able to see Dad in the morning before his surgery, and there was the very real possibility that something could go wrong with the surgery. I wanted to say everything I needed to say, just in case, yet I didn't want to imply that he was going to die. So for once, I actually said very little.
I put my arms around Dad and rested my head on his shoulder. I held him much longer than usual, way past the point when I felt tempted to pull away for propriety's sake. I enjoyed the rise and fall of his chest with his steady breathing, and I felt the warmth of his skin radiating into mine. I was a little girl again, safe in my daddy's arms.
I reveled in the love that flowed between us. I knew that it was God's love, that this was His design for a family. I didn't know how to put what I was feeling into words--I still don't.
When I finally pulled away, Dad looked at me and my sister Amy and said, "I love you girls so much."
"God is so good," I murmured.
"Yes, He is good," Dad agreed. We both had tears in our eyes. I felt he understood what I meant even though I hadn't even tried to explain.
"You're a wonderful father," I said.
"Yes, you are," Amy said.
Dad smiled sheepishly. "I try."
On the long drive home, I wasn't sure why I was crying. It was partly the joy of my father's love, and it was partly the fear of losing him. I thanked God for the time I'd had with Dad, and I told him I'd sure love to keep him around a lot longer.
I cooked dinner and got the kids in bed, and then I headed to Mom and Dad's house to spend the night with Mom, Amy, and our sister Melody. I arrived around 11:00, and we all fell into bed right away.
I rolled out of bed at 5:45 on Monday morning, a good hour after Mom had risen. We were on the road by 6:30 or so, and we made it up to Dad's room by 7:45. My sister Emily arrived a couple of minutes later.
All five of us crowded into Dad's tiny room in ICU. Visiting hours didn't start until 11:00, but Mom had been told that they made exceptions for patients who were scheduled for surgery. What we didn't know, however, was whether the two visitor limit was also waived.
Emily, the only pregnant one, took the lone folding chair while Melody and I leaned against the only spare wall space. Mom stood by Dad's side, and Amy slid down against the cabinet.
"If we're really quiet, maybe they won't notice we're here," Amy whispered, just as her shoulder bumped the button that flushes the metal commode tucked away inside the cabinet. The toilet flushed with a loud whoosh, and we all jumped violently.
"Sheeze, Amy!" someone said, and we all laughed guiltily. A large group of interns was doing morning rounds right outside the open door, but apparently no one noticed.
The conversation somehow morphed from Dad's epidural to labor and delivery stories. Dad dozed contentedly as our voices washed over him.
Shortly after Rick arrived, the anesthesia team came to take Dad away. The six of us touched Dad and said one last prayer for his safety, and then each of us kissed his forehead. Amid all the "I love you's," I think all seven of us were crying.
We waited in the hall until they had wheeled Dad down to the O.R. He looked so small and frail on the gurney. Several of us called out, "We love you, Daddy!", but he probably didn't hear us.
We decided to head down to the basement for breakfast. When we passed the Starbucks shop, I spotted the surgeon waiting in line. I smiled at him, and he gave a little wave. I knew he would need the caffeine for the long hours ahead.
Waiting and Waiting
After breakfast, we settled into the surprisingly comfortable chairs in the family waiting area. We read, chatted, journaled (okay, it was only me who journaled), slept, and attended phone conferences. Periodically, the phone would ring, and our stomachs would lurch. Usually the call was for another family, but every two or three hours, the phone was for us. Each time, the nurse said, "He's doing well."
We ate lunch in shifts so as not to miss a status call. For dinner, we made turkey and ham sandwiches since the cafeteria closes at 2:00. Just as we were finishing our meager dinner, the phone rang again. It was 6:00, about seven hours after the surgery had officially begun.
Amy hastily swallowed, almost choking on the bread. My heart seemed to stop beating as I strained to hear Amy's half of the conversation. "Hello?... He is?... Okay. There are six of us? Should we all come?... We'll be right down."
Amy told us that Dad was fine, but the surgeon wanted to talk to us down in the thoracic ICU. My chest tightened in fear. The surgery wasn't supposed to be over for a couple of hours, and the doctor wanted to talk to us. I didn't think that could be good news.
"They said Dad was fine," Amy reminded us.
"That could mean anything," Melody argued, while we hurriedly gathered all of our snack bags, blankets, and magazines.
"Yeah. It could mean 'Thankfully we were able to revive him,' " I said, and then I slapped my hand over my mouth. "I'm sure he's fine," I said weakly.
On our way down the long corridor, we saw two familiar men wheeling a bald-headed man out of the O.R.
"Could that be Dad?" I asked. "But I thought he was still in surgery."
"That IS Dad," Rick said.
We reported to the nurse's station, and she summoned the doctor. He looked completely spent, but he was grinning. He explained that the surgery had gone exactly according to plan. They had removed the lower two-thirds of Dad's esophagus, and they were able to pull the stomach up to form a new throat. Dad was doing very well, and they had found no palpable mass in the esophagus; the pathology report would take a few days, but it looked like the cancer had not recurred at this point. This likely means Dad will not need chemotherapy.
He explained that Dad would be on a ventilator at least until the morning, but they would try to wean him off it as soon as possible. I wanted to tell him to get some rest, but I just smiled. "Thank you!" we all chorused.
"What an emotional roller coaster!" Rick exclaimed as we stood exulting in the hall.
"Yes!" we all agreed.
"Do you feel like crying?" Mom asked.
"We are!" someone said, and then we laughed.
After another 20 minutes and a flurry of phone calls, text messages, and an update to Dad's blog, we were able to see him. Rick warned us that it would be pretty intimidating to see Dad attached to all those tubes and machines.
He actually looked very good, but it was odd seeing his lungs inflating mechanically.
"He looks so sweet!" Emily remarked. "Almost like a boy."
It had been a long, exhausting day, but everyone seemed a bit reluctant to part ways. We all trooped up to the ninth floor to look at the tiny room where Mom and I would be spending the night.
We were surprised to find that it was quite nice. There were two twin beds, a dresser, a closet with no hangers, and a dorm refrigerator. Tasteful reproductions adorned the walls. The only thing it didn't have, to Mom's dismay, was a bathroom.
We posed for a couple of celebratory shots. It wasn't our finest hour as far as appearances go, but maybe you can get an idea of the elation we were feeling.
Mom and I collapsed into our beds around 8:30 and slept until 6:00 the next morning. We were very relieved that there were no phone calls during the night.
Over the next few days, the roller coaster ride has continued. Dad's recovery was amazing on the second day. He was awake and trying to communicate by mid morning, and they were able to remove the ventilator by noon. After that, he was not only talking, but making jokes. We were thrilled!
But the third day--Wednesday--was not so good. His lungs were filled with fluid, and he couldn't breathe. He told us later that he'd actually thought he was going to die. A doctor placed a second chest tube, opposite the side with the incision, and his condition improved dramatically.
Yesterday, he was able to walk a couple laps around the ICU on two occasions, and he sat in a chair for about twelve hours. He was looking more like himself when Emily, Rick, and I visited him last night.
Today he is still doing well, though he is tired of having tubes in his nose, throat, neck, and chest.
If you've been praying for Dad, thank you! Please keep it up.
Yes, God is good.