This morning I woke up to the most unwelcome sort of phone call: the hospital calling to tell me my father may have an infection in his abdomen (which he and I have both been told could kill him, rather quickly, should it occur). I called Dad and he said he felt awful, nauseous, and weak–and that he was headed to the hospital as soon as possible. When I got there, he was frustrated and berating the nurses because they hadn’t brought him any nausea medication, which he’d demanded as soon as he checked in. I understand his urgency: Unlike most people, to whom occasionally throwing up when ill is normal, we don’t do that. I haven’t been physically sick without the involvement of alcohol since I was four years old, and even with alcohol, it’s infrequent. My father, before this afternoon, hadn’t been sick in about ten years. It’s a terrifying thing for those of us with strong stomachs, at least it has always been terrifying for me. I chimed right in with Dad and started demanding on his behalf, and they got it to him–but they were too late.
I have become accustomed to hospitals recently, which I never hoped or expected to do. When I walked in this afternoon, one of the nurses recognized me, and was surprised and disappointed to hear that my father was back–he was the nurse that was treating Dad on Tuesday, and had hoped not to see him back so soon. Still, regardless of how routine the hospital bit has become, I have yet to leave there a single time without crying. This thing is defeating us both, Dad and I. I think perhaps Dad’s physical and emotional weakness is taking an equal toll on me–it’s a reality check I’m not quite ready to deal with. But, then, I suppose we never are. The ups and downs are maddening–even a plateau would be stable, if nothing else. The fluctuating condition of Dad’s illness is like the little curly-headed girl I was compared to as a child: “When she’s good, she’s very very good, but when she’s bad, she’s horrid.”
There was a philosopher or a wise man who once said that often the solution is the simplest of the possibilities. I don’t know who it was that said it, or how badly I’ve paraphrased it, but the saying has particular relevance to this afternoon, where something which appeared so incredibly complicated and dangerous turned out to be pretty simple after all.
Dad was nauseous, but after he’d received the much-demanded nausea medication and the family with three squawling toddlers left the other half of his room (Dad’s intolerant of other people’s misbehaved children), he seemed to improve almost instantly. I noticed, and so did the doctor. Would someone who had an internal infection that was potentially lethal improve with something as simple as an anti-nausea drip in his IV? Likely not. He’d have a fever, and chills, and redness, and a plethora of other symptoms. Dad had none of these. His color was good, his eyes were clear, and when he could speak again, he was his old chatty, lecturing self.
When I was grilling him to find out if he’d eaten enough or drank enough fluids, he mentioned that he’d had eggs for breakfast and that he hadn’t eaten eggs for a long time; perhaps the eggs were bad. I immediately and involuntarily thought of Jack Sparrow’s song in the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies: “…and really bad eggs.” Could it be that the test results which showed “contamination or infection” were indicating that the specimen had just been contaminated, and coincidentally at the same time, Dad had given himself food poisoning with his simple boring breakfast? Or could it be that Dad, like me, has developed an intolerance for eggs from not eating them? Was it really that simple?
Apparently so. According to the doctor, Dad doesn’t seem to be in immediate peril. Not this time, anyway. In fact, when the nausea medication kicked in and made him drowsy, Dad all but kicked me out of his hospital room. “Go,” he insisted, slurring, his eyes drooping. “Get out of here and go do what you do. I’m gonna go to sleep now.” I walked toward the door and by the time I got there, Dad was sleeping. And though he probably didn’t need to drive all the way up to Boston over a simple case of food poisoning, I was comforted by the fact that while I was out of town, he’d be looked after. I suddenly realized–not that I would ever do this–why people sometimes put their loved ones in nursing homes–just to know that someone is watching over them when you can’t be there to do it yourself.
Over the past three months, the journey to a diagnosis for Dad has been a labyrinth of tests and hospital visits, adjusted medications, fluctuating symptoms and mysteries. His history defies the diagnosis–cirrhotics are usually alcoholics, and Dad’s probably the most notorious teetotaller I know. Before he ended up hospitalized the first time, he’d had no symptoms that anything was wrong at all. And despite drastic muscle loss from inadequate nutrition, Dad’s got a strong constitution, and he’s managed to ward off infection twice, it seems. And when the bad gets bad and he starts to get down, things seem to turn around just in time and he gets optimistic again. It’s been a long, strange trip but, like many trips I’ve taken, the bad days seem to have made the good days that much better.
Today was both a very bad day and a very good day–bad in the immediate sense, because Dad was uncomfortable, but good in the long-term sense, in that it looks like there is a long-term after all.
And at the end of the tunnel is not just a light, but a party. Hopefully a good party–a great party. By night’s end I will have run the full gauntlet of emotions, from terror to relief to, hopefully, joy.
And really bad eggs.