Good health is something I’ve generally taken for granted, my own and that of my family. We’ve been lucky over the years and despite some major issues with Missy, our daughter, last year, I’ve never thought of us as being anything other than blessedly ‘normal’. Anything that has occurred has been relatively routine and the patient at the time has recovered well.
We’ve been lucky that my parents have been healthy too. Now in their 80s, they have always lived life at full speed and people generally assume they are 15-20 years younger than they are – including the medical profession. Which augurs extremely well for the rest of us.
However, having such independent and capable parents has almost lulled us into a false sense of security. Any suggestion they might slow down, take things a little easier, are met with an icy silence and a change of subject. The word ‘stair lift’ was enough to freeze hell over.
Surviving an aggressive form of prostate cancer a few years ago left my father a little more tired, but certainly not frail or defeated. The recent news he was to have a new knee thrilled us all – being physically curtailed and dealing with chronic pain was seriously impacting his quality of life, to say nothing of my mother’s. A local anaesthetic, a five-day hospital stay and he’d be racing around like a man half his age.
We were also delighted his age was not a barrier for the procedure, that his doctors recognised he was a man whose life would be enhanced by this relatively simple operation. My father started the pre-op muscle-strengthening exercises immediately – he is nothing if not enthusiastic and committed to whatever he’s doing.
My going home to help out was not something that was needed, ‘Oh darling, we’ll be absolutely fine,’ my mother chatted airily, ‘he’ll be home before we know it. You know what he’s like, we’ll be absolutely fine.’ With our family vacation booked 10 days after his operation, it was working well for everyone. He’d be home and recovered before we left.
Except it didn’t go like clockwork.
When the local anaesthetic failed he was given a general anaesthetic. Although the procedure went well, he required a blood transfusion and rehydration with a drip afterwards. The drip caused his sodium levels to dilute, which mixed with heavy-duty pain meds and a double-dose of anaesthesia led to severe mental confusion.
Five days after the operation he suffered a fall. Late that evening, taken to the x-ray lab to assess any damage to his new knee, he refused to have the x-ray , started to get aggressive and threatening with the staff and subsequently refused all medication.
My mother phoned us early the next morning, a Sunday, to give us an update. Waking up from a deep sleep I realised my alert spouse was dealing with the call and ended it before I’d come round.
‘You can call her back in a minute when you’ve got yourself together,’ he said before I had a chance to say anything. ‘She’ll want to talk to you, but at least she’s got it all off her chest now. She’s fine, really.’ Except people don’t phone early on a Sunday morning if everything is fine and we both knew it.
‘Do you think I should go over? Today?’
We knew the week ahead was full for both of us. Missy arriving from Houston the next morning, him leaving for Dubai Tuesday, two dogs to put into kennels which we knew were already booked for the summer, and Missy and Harry scheduled to be working all week. To say nothing of our leaving for vacation on the Friday night. We looked at each other.
‘Let’s think this through before you phone your mum. I’ll go make a cup of tea and get the laptop fired up, we can figure something out. This kind of thing is what we do best. And one of the main reasons we moved back to Europe was to be closer for our parents when we were needed.’ He smiled, ran his fingers through his sleep-mussed hair and headed to the kitchen.
Fifteen minutes later I made the call to my mum. Holding herself together to speak to her son-in-law had been one thing, putting the phone down and facing the fear that something had gone seriously wrong with my father had reduced her to tears.
‘Mum, it’s me. Listen… I know what’s happened and I’m coming over… today. The flight’s booked, I’ll be there this afternoon, I’ll come to wherever you are. I can stay as long as you need me to, a couple of days, a week, whatever it takes. Okay?’ There was a gulping silence at the end of the phone and then a whispered, ‘Thank you.’ It was the first time my mother has accepted help without discussion or debate.
Seeing my father was a shock – the same can be said of him seeing me. That I was at his bedside obviously meant he was on his way ‘out’. He was confused, his speech incoherent, struggling to connect through the brain-fog. Over subsequent days, as the pain meds were replaced by paracetamol, the sodium levels restored and his head cleared, we began to understand where his mind had been after the operation.
In a pretty weird place it seems – Alice would have felt very much at home. Chatting with my mum the day after I arrived, he looked at her in fascination and suddenly announced, ‘I’m so sorry to interrupt darling, but I wanted you to know a snake just crawled across your face…’ It seems there was also a two foot long white caterpillar living in the bathroom, which moved across the floor whenever he went in, a mural of Roman centurions on the wall behind his bed, garlands of flowers wrapped on the curtain rails around his bed, birds flying across the opposite wall and he was blown away by the psychedelic uniforms worn by the nursing staff.
He was mortified, after recounting a terrifying dream he’d had about being kidnapped in the middle of the night, to discover that was when he had refused the x-ray and his medication, and accounted for the appalling language and threatening behaviour aimed at the nursing staff.
As the confusion cleared his own fears emerged, why wasn’t he at home, why was he still here? What was wrong? I held his hand one morning, sensing his frail mood and frustration that things hadn’t gone as he’d hoped.
‘I’m not scared of dying, y’know,’ he announced from nowhere, his restless fingers in mine. ‘I’d just rather not be there when it happens.’ I figured he’d turned a corner – his spirit had been dimmed for a while, but not diminished.
I was with my parents for only a few days, it was all that was needed. Perhaps just knowing someone else was there was enough.
We were lucky this trip has ended as successfully as it has – a Skype with my parents this past weekend has assured us of that – and I’m thankful for the silver lining: the reassurance and unspoken promise we will be there, that we will do whatever it takes to be with them when they need us. That despite parental assurances things are ‘okay’ we can read between the lines, that they don’t ever have to ask, it’s a given.