Dad’s Back

It’s 6 o’clock Wednesday morning. I’m listening to music, smelling the not-so-fresh-but still good smell of the seaweed washed up on the beaches, and finding a nice pace for my warm up at the beginning of my run.  I pass an elderly man who is walking along the side of the road.  He has a scraggly beard, bright eyes, and a kind smile.  He reminds me of my dad, and that gets me thinking about how my dad will probably never be able to go out for a seaside walk again.  As I run the long loop of Marmion Way, I think about all the time my dad has been in pain— since before he fell on my mom in July.  I turn onto Eden Road and feel tears start to come.  I try to stop them, to will them away, but it is impossible.  As I run past the twin lights on Thacher Island, I am sobbing so hard that when I reach up to wipe my face, I know there are more tears than sweat.

Last week, the visiting nurse decided that before she completed her care of my dad, she would try once more to determine the true source of his pain.  She called my father’s doctor and asked him to order an x-ray of his back.  The doctor did not call my parents with the result, but when the nurse returned for her final visit with my dad, she brought the results.  The test showed that my father had multiple compression fractures in his spine.

I draw one jagged breath after another along Pebble Beach.  I cannot not stop thinking about my father.  Before he fell on my mother in July, he had been suffering from undiagnosed pain.  He had fallen a few times before, but not hard enough to merit a trip to the hospital; he had been to the doctor to be checked.  The source of Mom’s pain was obvious— the x-rays taken right after dad fell on her  revealed spinal fractures.  She was popping two extra strength Tylenol every six hours, watching the clock to see when she could have her next dose.   We had so much trouble remembering the exact time for the next round of pills that we finally began a log to keep track.  Two OTC pain killers aren’t much in the way of relief.  I know.  I have had my own bouts with pain.  It really just takes the edge off.  And for days we cried, she and I, about the demise of our summer and the even larger one of her life.  She hurt when she sat or lay down.  She hurt when she stood.  Showering was a major effort, as was using the toilet.  And because her back hurt, she walked differently, which made her legs hurt.  And her hips.  Even the simple act of opening a window or a cabinet increased her pain.

As my mother continued to take her pills and to rest, waiting to heal and get on with her life, my father continued to sleep in his recliner chair in their den.  He napped and watched television in that chair all day; night came, the lights went out, and still he stayed in the chair.  He was unable to sleep in his bed.  He could not lay on his side, nor on his back.  He was vague about where he felt pain, but insisted he was unable to walk, get into a bed, or even come to the table to eat.

I think back to that time, just weeks ago, and can see him struggling to gain a comfortable position in that chair.  He would use the remote to raise himself to almost standing, push his body back, then return the chair to recline, over and over again.  I could hear him from the bed where I slept in down the hall, the sound of the chair’s motor engaged and moving him up and down, all night long.  That whirring, grinding sound insinuated itself into my dreams, my mind taking hold of it and trying to make sense of it by creating disturbing night visions of steamships docking over and over again, of planes landing outside my bedroom window, or of tremendous construction trucks idling in the driveway, waiting to carry me off to some insidious dream-place.  My mother heard it all night, too, from her room at the end of the hall.

His source of pain was at that point undetermined; the doctor had not noticed anything significant during his office visit or in the results of the CAT scan the visiting nurse asked him to order at the beginning of August.  During that time, the same nurse, Alex, discovered a yeast infection the doctor had missed.  It festered under a skinfold on my father’s abdomen.  I had never seen a yeast infection like that— raw and red, inflamed— spanning the distance from one hip to the other.  I assumed that must have been the source of his pain.  Yet after the infection cleared, my father still claimed a sedentary pain level of 4 or 5, which rose to an 8 when he stood up and tried to walk.

His physical therapist restarted his program of mild exercises and walking, but some days he was not able even to make it out the front door and down the driveway.  We were all puzzled— the visiting nurse, the physical therapist, my mom and I— because there did not seem to be a reason for the pain.  His doctor reported some digestive issues, and we figured that milk of magnesia would clear things up.  But it didn’t stop the pain.

One day in particular, after his shower, my mom and I were trying to apply anti-fungal ointment to his belly for the yeast infection.  We made him lay down on his back upon his bed.  Never had I seen such a look of pain on anyone’s face.  His sparkling green eyes opened wide in panic; the grimace on his face made him look like someone else.  He bared his teeth and cried out, grasping for my mother’s arm to help him sit up.  Although we were not mean to him, we were impatient and annoyed with his lack of pain tolerance.  There was nothing wrong with him.  The doctor had said so.

As I push myself up South Street’s long, slow hill, I am struck by a blinding truth that makes me run and cry even harder.  Although I cared for him as best I could, I resented having to take care of him when I felt it was his own fault— for all the choices he has made in his life to bring himself to where he is today.  I love my father and I know I should not judge him for making those choices.   My heart clamps down on itself  for not clearly seeing how much he needed my love, support, and kindness himself while my mom was recuperating.  I feel a physical ache of my own for all the pain he has been in all this time.  For knowing in my heart that it should not matter whether he had broken bones too in order for me to give him my sympathy.  That I should be loving, kind, and gentle whether he is in pain or n0t.  That I should not have to be given a concrete reason for why he hurt in order to give him the same care I gave my mother.

A simple x-ray showed that my dad’s back was in much the same condition as my mom’s.  While she had been in the hospital, then at home resting, taking Tylenol for the pain, and I had been catering to her every need, my poor father was in the same pain for the same reason.  With no pain medicine.  Trying to please the physical therapist and do exercises.  Asking and expecting me to bring him his meals on a tray.  And me, pleasant but not very sympathetic, waiting on him and wondering why he couldn’t get up and do anything at all for himself.

By the time I reach the return loop of Marmion Way, the tears have subsided.  I am exhausted from this run but want to complete the nine miles I planned.  I pass my house and decide not to stop for a drink but to keep going.  I shift into tempo pace as I take the hill toward downtown. I head to the small roadside beaches and I run hard, trying to wipe all thoughts from my mind.  I want to run off the rest of these feelings so I can focus on how to help my parents get my father the health care he needs.  As I make the final the loop toward home, I count my blessings— how lucky I am to have a wonderful, tender husband and good, kind children, that my dear parents are both alive and close enough to see regularly,  that I am able to run and clear my mind, and that I live here on the very edge of this earth, surrounded by sea and sky.

When I arrive at home, I stride straight to the phone and dial.  He answers on the second ring.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Hello, Elizabeth.”

“How are you today?  How’s your back?”

“I’m doin’ well.  Feeling a little bit better.”

That’s what he always says.  I take a deep breath.

“Dad, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry about your back.  I’m sorry that I wasn’t kinder to you.  I should have been nicer to you when I was down there taking care of you and Mom.”

“You weren’t nice?  I thought you were nice.”

“Well, I know I could have been a lot nicer than I was.  I’m really sorry, Dad.”

“That’s okay. Don’t feel bad.  And I appreciate all that stuff you did.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

“You know I love you.”

“Yeah.  I love you, too, Dad.”

The forgiveness in his voice brings the tears back.  When my mother comes on the line, I know she can hear me crying.   She joins me; our reasons overlap and bind us closer than ever before.  I am weary of the ache carved in me from always learning life lessons the hard way.  We vow to get this one down right once and for all.  We affirm it, each taking our turn:  be good and kind to the people you love, no matter what.  Do your best.  Treat the people in your life as if this were the last chance you had to let them know you love them.  Live each moment in that moment; let there be no reason for regret.

Explore posts in the same categories: Run notes that run into life

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6 Comments on “Dad’s Back”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    Amen! Thank you, Elizabeth.

  2. Craig Says:

    See? And sometimes you wonder why I am hovering around you as you are trying to get out the door in the morning, just so I can give you a proper kiss goodbye. I hope it will only have to last for the day, but one never knows. Thanks for describing how I feel, too.

  3. Pat Earle Says:

    You have spoken for all caregivers/children/ spouses…Thank yopu forputting it so elegantly…I fouhd my eyes filling up…xo

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