When I entered his hospital room, I had this strange feeling of déjà vu.
It was not so surprising. I had been here before, but it was in 2004 when my mother was in intensive care. I even blogged about it. And here it was ten years later and I was back wandering the halls of Holy Cross Hospital, in Silver Spring, Maryland. In September 2004, I was there to witness the shocking decline of my mother. She had congestive heart failure at the time and was delusional.
Ten years later it was my father in a bed at Holy Cross Hospital. At least he wasn’t delusional, as congestive heart failure is not his issue. No, it was simple pneumonia that put my father in the hospital this time, simple except he is almost 88 years old and is suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which is slowly eating away his lungs. I blogged about that just two posts ago. Two posts ago my Dad was healthy, and just about ready to take a cross-country trip on an airplane to see his mentally slipping sister. I worried he’d catch pneumonia but he came back a week ago all upbeat and chipper. I congratulated him for not catching anything and reveled in having him in such high spirits in my living room at his age. My congratulations were premature.
Who knows where he got the infection that caused this pneumonia? The airplane is a likely suspect, as they are known for nasty viruses they carry including, most recently, the Ebola Virus. If so he likely had caught it on the way back east because it took a few days before symptoms appeared. It wasn’t until last night that he finally went into the hospital. It took my sister talking to him on the phone to figure out something major was going on. Words were slurred. Thoughts were expressed incoherently. There was that and that he could barely walk. The paramedics thought he’d be okay overnight. By Monday though he was wheeled by ambulance to Holy Cross Hospital and by evening he was in a room, oxygen tubes up his nose, IVs in his arms and periodic masks placed over his face forcing a vaporous mist of medicine into his lungs. The last thing his diminished lungs needed was to be clogged with more mucus. No wonder: he wasn’t getting enough oxygen and making so little sense.
Last night another sister paid a visit to him in the hospital. She reported he made sense only about half the time. He was confusing dates and facts. And it being pneumonia, he was coughing and eating very little. The good son (me) was elsewhere. I was teaching last night. It was hard to assess these events from afar but I made the calculated decision that my students should not skip class for an emergency visit from me. It worked out last night, but one of these days I feel my luck will run out.
What I did not expect when I saw him this morning was the wispy ghost of a man I found in the hospital bed. He looked half mummified. He was gaunt with a face was so white it was hard to distinguish it from his hair, or what was left of it, which was also snow white. He seemed shriveled.
It was shocking because a week earlier after returning from the west coast I enjoyed a lively conversation with a far different man. He now seemed fundamentally changed, not just a senior citizen, but elderly. No, not elderly, but ancient with skin that was no longer elastic and full of large and reddened age spots over his arms and legs. The image that came to my mind was that of the last days of my mother nine years ago. It was an image that recalled someone not just on the precipice of death, but someone who had teetered off the precipice and had begun the fall. In 2005 my mother looked much like my father did today: ghostly white, and with her dark hair all a sickly greyish white. Given this is at least my father’s third bout with pneumonia, it was hard not to project that maybe his time had come too.
To my great relief, he was at least rested and back to his usual mental sharpness. The more time I spent with him, be more color returned to his pallid face. Still, there was no masking his gauntness or his disinterest in the food in front of him. I even brought brownies. Chocolate is his primary weakness but today he expressed no particular interest in the brownies. Most of his breakfast had been left untouched.
Health care professionals shuffled in and out as did clergy. The first clergy member was actually a Methodist minister, not quite what the spiritual doctor would order for this devout Catholic. A few hours later a priest showed up and prayed with him and gave him a blessing for the sick, which he surely was.
My father could look more ghostly than human but his personality was still there. He likes to hand out complements lavishly and started handing them to me. He is such a gentle and good man, but not all complements he hands out are necessarily correct. He may be shriveled, but I am but a shadow of the man that he is. My father instinctively finds some good in everyone, something I have a hard time doing. He believes we are all kind and loving people by nature, despite obvious indications that we are not. He may not be a saint. I have not seen him perform any miracles. But he is saintly, and a near perfect role model of a human being, even in the hospital with tubes running in and out of him, even with his body a mess and his lungs slowly deteriorating. My father’s essence shines out no matter how bleak the circumstances.
In a few days he will likely be released. There is physical therapy in his future, and something new: a walker with wheels. The physicians are worried he might fall although he has no history of falling. I have not heard that his COPD has reached the stage where he needs supplemental oxygen, but if I were his physician I would order it. It was his incoherence and blue fingernails that cued us into the severity of the problem. It was this and that he could barely make it between his bed and his water closet.
So maybe his 88th birthday party will go on as scheduled on Saturday. We can only wait and see. I do hope his appetite has returned by then. There were signs that it was coming back to him when I left today. And if my stepmother is as perceptive as I expect her to be, the party will end with a birthday cake. I t better have plenty of chocolate in it.
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