Christmas loomed this year with a sense of predictability. I knew exactly how the weekend would unfold, like Christmases of years past, down to the meal, the music. I was ready to dedicate 48 hours to the experience and then get back to work. I was ready to take it all for granted.
What transpired instead was the most emotionally raw experience of my adult life. There’s nothing more humbling than watching your father fight for his life in the ICU.
I got the call late afternoon on Monday December 19th. I was steeped in my own noise — work, relationships, the general angst of Mercury in Retrograde, when I heard the words, “Your dad fell. He broke his pelvis. The ambulance took him to the ER”.
I snapped into a state of clarity, knowing nothing else mattered. What mattered was knowing Dad was OK.
And surely he would be fine, it was just a fall.
I left Los Angeles and got myself down to Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. Upon entering his hospital room, I could immediately tell the situation was much worse than previously thought. Surrounded by doctors and nurses, countless IV bags and machines beeping a cacophony of disconcerting sounds lay my father — completely unconscious, relying on the village around him to keep him alive. My mom standing there, stoic and strong but visibly concerned.
What the doctors hadn’t anticipated when dad fell off the ladder in the garage is that he tore a major artery and was on blood thinners so the internal bleeding was massive. By Tuesday he had a hematoma the size of a rugby ball amassed in his stomach. The doctor compared it to being 9 months pregnant and by the looks of his belly that seemed accurate. They needed to go in and get it out as quickly as possible.
Dad came out of that successful surgery on heavy drugs — Propofol, Michael Jackson’s elixir of choice, and another heavy pain med Fentanyl — completely sedated and uncommunicative. We didn’t know it at the time, but he would stay like that for 7 days.
I started writing to myself — making notes of all the things that mattered and all the things I was going to do differently going forward. I wrote out all the things I love about my father, what makes him so unique and special, the traits I want to seek out and celebrate in other people. I gave thanks for every experience we’ve had together as father and daughter and family. I confided in a tight circle of friends and family, trusting them with the sensitive information I was holding in my hands: “I’m not sure what’s going to happen…”
I said many prayers.
Each day we would come in hoping they could take out the breathing tube, but he wasn’t strong enough to breathe on his own yet. Each day we hoped he would open his eyes and sit up in bed, but he didn’t. The trauma from the fall and subsequent procedures was life threatening — if this worked, the doctors said, it was going to take a while. We had to be patient.
Each night I would leave unsure what might happen overnight. It’s an unusual thing trying to stay “normal” during a stint with a loved one in a trauma ward. You very quickly realize what you previously perceived as normal was probably largely contrived. Nothing matters but keeping that person alive and helping them fight back.
There was all sorts of symbolism to this experience and we grasped at it all. It was the winter solstice — a time of renewal and rebirth, moving toward longer days and increased sunlight. The hospital was located on Genesee Avenue, our father was once a Congressman representing Genesee County, Michigan. Scripps Memorial Hospital was started by Ellen Browning Scripps, a brilliant philanthropist who started Scripps College, where my younger sister Allison is an alumnus. My half-sister Laurie, who’d flown in from Michigan to cheer dad on, drove through a rainbow on the way to the ICU with me one morning. All of these moments, every connection with a nurse or doctor we could identify helped point us toward the one conclusion we had to believe in: Dad was going to make it.
The most striking and humbling experience of the week was not our own anguish but experiencing that of families around us. My younger sister, highly sensitive to the emotions of those around her picked up on everything. “Ash, their family member isn’t going to make it. I just heard them speaking on the cell phone in Spanish about how to tell her kids”.
This was Christmas Eve.
Laurie flew back to Michigan to be with her husband and kids for the holiday, and the three of us prepared to continue down the path of the unknown.
Allison, mom and I spent Christmas at dad’s bedside, playing the roles of nurses in waiting. Our job was to make sure Dad was being medically monitored at all times — including by the three of us. We reviewed every element of his medical procedures like we were studying for medical school, asking the doctors about his numbers and progress. In the evening we watched Elf on TV and ate chocolate covered pretzels, as he slept with a Darth Vader like breathing mask and experienced a painful detox from the drugs.
We spent 12 hours with him that day, each in an arm chair with a view of the California hillsides behind us. There wasn’t anywhere else we would imagine being, even though it was unclear if he knew we were there.
I developed a deep gratitude for every nurse and doctor putting in their time over the holiday. Hospitals are communities of their own that operate 24/7 whether we acknowledge them or not. This was our time to be part of the Christmas ICU experience. I thanked everyone repeatedly, trying to glean any new information or contribute in some way to make the situation improved. I smiled knowingly to every family member I spotted in the hall. It’s the rawest human emotion standing by the bedside of a loved one and not knowing if they’re going to make it. I too was crying uncontrollable tears for my loved one in limbo.
What I realized during the late night drives home from the hospital for a few hours of fitful sleep was that this gray area — this space where circumstance and fate collide — that space is real life. It’s none of the events, roles or identities we work to build and maintain. It’s not social media or keeping up with the Joneses, it’s staying alive and being lucky enough to have a family and community around you cheering you on, privately, steadfastly.
Our father is larger than life, but this injury reminded me that he is human like everybody else. He is just as susceptible to injury and accidents — perhaps more so because he is fearless. And as his loved one, there’s nothing I could do to change the circumstances. Aside from remaining emotionally strong, optimistic and supportive, the rest was up to dad and the doctors and fate.
We knew he was going to make it when on the evening of December 26th, he opened his eyes and started talking. “I’m dying of thirst”, he gasped. I couldn’t believe it and started weeping on the spot. He could name his daughters and answer basic questions. He knew he was born in Flint, Michigan. He knew his sister’s name is Dee. He knew he had served under seven U.S Presidents in the Congress and Senate. When asked his favorite president he replied, “Lyndon Johnson, because he was a tough son of a bitch”.
He was breathy, and he was weak, but he was alive.
Of all the predictable things I was anticipating about Christmas 2016: making Christmas cookies, the candlelight Christmas Eve church service, our traditional Christmas Eve meal, Mariah Carey on the stereo over a lazy day exchanging presents, none of that happened. All the wonderful things that I was ready to toss off as typical, we skipped this year.
Instead we got to watch Dad wake up. And that’s all we could’ve asked for.