The nurse in the Intensive Care Unit looked down at her clipboard and then back up at my mother. She explained that my father had been in-and-out of conscious much of the day and his condition remained unchanged. His blood pressure and heart rate were improving, but not out of the woods. She encouraged my mother to make her visit brief.
When my mother asked about me, the nurse hesitated. Kids weren’t allowed on the floor. She took a deep breath and then looked down again. She paused a long time like she was going to say no, but shook her head yes, adding that I could stay for a few minutes and I shouldn’t disturb anyone else.
While my mother went in first to visit my father, I sat by myself in the waiting room, rigid like one false move would bring the walls tumbling down. The room smelled like the cupboard at home where we stored the household cleaners. I counted the minutes on the wall clock, waiting for my mother to return. My 12-year-old brain was trying to process everything, but I felt lost.
My father had a heart attack and had been rushed to the hospital. I’m sure my mother wasn’t sure what to tell my brothers and me. She couldn’t pass things off, we had witnessed everything. I saw him convulsing on the couch. I saw the white foam sliding down the side of his mouth and him straining to breath. I knew things were serious.
In the days following the heart attack, my mother would stop by the hospital to visit with him and get an update on his condition. She would ask the doctors if things were improving, but they spoke in a complex language that was hard to understand.
Under the boardwalk
As I sat in the lobby, I remember hearing over the intercom the song “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters. It’s funny that the song sticks out in my memory all these years later, but I had never heard the song and it sounded too happy-go-lucky for the circumstances.
The lyrics played out over and over in my head.
“Out of the sun
(Under the boardwalk) We’ll be havin’ some fun
(Under the boardwalk) People walking above
(Under the boardwalk) We’ll be fallin’ in love
(Under the boardwalk) Yeah (boardwalk).”
I was furious, I wanted to stand up and yell, to tell someone to turn off the radio. My train of thought was only broken when a voice came over the intercom calling for a particular doctor to “come to the ICU stat.” I didn’t know who the doctor was and I didn’t know what stat meant, I barely knew what ICU stood for, but it was all very scary for me.
As much as I wanted to leave, I knew my brothers had visited the previous day, and I knew I should too. When my mother turned the corner to come get me, I immediately jumped up, glad to see her. She walked back with me to the ICU. The lights in the unit were turn down low, giving the unit a dark and scary, morgue-like look to it. I kept waiting for Lurch, the tall, pale, butler from the Addams Family, minus the silly TV laugh-track, to come out of one of the screened off sections. I reached up and grabbed my mother’s hand, aware that I rarely held her hand anymore.
I was old enough to know better, but I still worried that I might catch whatever put my father in the ICU. My father looked like he was sleeping. His hair looked tousled and he had stubble on his face. I remember thinking something must be wrong, because my father never had his hair out of place and was always shaved. We didn’t stay long. My mother told me to tell my father I loved him. She then put the tips of her right hand to her mouth, kissed them and placed her hand overtop my father’s, like she was passing him a kiss. We then turn turned to leave.
The heart attack had changed everything. The world still seemed to keep moving forward, but time stopped for our family of five. I skipped Little League Baseball practice. My brothers stopped whatever they were doing. The last days of summer vacation passed by in a blur. We stopped and we waited for whatever was going to come next.
Get well soon
Fortunately, my father’s health improved enough to get moved to a regular floor. I didn’t feel so scared of his new floor. First, he was awake now. He still looked tired like he had gone ten rounds with a professional boxer, but his hair was combed and he had shaved. His room seemed brighter and rosier. I could sit on the edge of his bed with him, being careful not to get caught in his IV, and steal ice chips from the cup his nurse had brought him.
In addition, I wasn’t so worried about Lurch. There were still announcements for doctors to come and go, but they didn’t sound as intimidating, like the fate of the world rested on what happened in the next five minutes.
My father stayed a few more days in the hospital, maybe even weeks, I have no idea, but eventually he came home and the clock on our lives restarted again. My father’s life was most certainly changed and on a different course, but thanks to my mother’s determination and perseverance, we survived and were still together.