He looked so small as he walked away from my car and into the Veterans’ Hospital. I had to drop him off an hour and a half before his scheduled appointment, but he was never comfortable unless he was early anyway. For two days he had continually repeated, “I hope they can keep me.” He had been tired and shaky for weeks as he came in and out of our lives to visit other family and friends.
I can’t remember the last time I saw him before he reappeared in my life. The years in between have faded into memory. Then suddenly there was a call from my sister, Brenda, and he was on his way to Arizona to visit the family. After spending some time with her in nearby Black Canyon City, Ariz., (The Black Hole, as he referred to it), he called me to pick him up and take him to the bus station. And once more he was off and running around the country. Sometime later he ended up at my house again and my brother, Ken, took him to the VA Hospital for a checkup. When Ken deposited him back at the house, he said the nurse practitioner thought he was hypoglycemic. That made sense to me since he never seemed to eat regularly while off on his adventures. Fast food was his mainstay.
I stocked the refrigerator with V-8 juice and quizzed him on what he was hungry for. We filled the fruit bowl and encouraged him to eat several small meals a day since he had no appetite. Then I noticed the aspirin bottle on my dining room table. Headaches can result from low blood sugar I reasoned, but it didn’t feel right. Before I knew it he was off to Kansas City to see his sister. I couldn’t imagine him traveling but he insisted. A few days later my aunt called. “What’s the matter with your father?” she asked when I answered the phone. After hearing an explanation of the diagnosis he had gotten from his last visit, she went on to tell me about him passing out while trying to get out of a chair. She assured me she would encourage him to head back here as soon as possible.
My heart lurched as he climbed from a Greyhound bus. He looked so disheveled and vulnerable. I swallowed back the tears that threatened to betray my smile and grabbed his bags. We made small talk on the way back to my house, and when we arrived, he went directly to the guest room. After that we saw him for meals, occasional trips outside to smoke, and at the table to use the phone.
I tried to push his medical appointment out of my mind. After calling my sister and finding out she was sick with a cold, I went to the grocery store to stock up on chicken soup and cold medicine to take to her. That’s when my cell phone rang. It was my 17-year old daughter. She explained that the doctor from the Veterans’ Hospital called and said a CT scan had revealed multiple tumors in dad’s brain, and he had been admitted to the ICU. After a quick call to my sister, I paid for my groceries and headed for home to start making the calls no one ever wants to make. Fortunately, dad’s offspring were all in Arizona so traveling was not an issue.
Brenda arrived within an hour with our brother Don in tow. We decided not to call Bernie in Golden Valley until we found out more since he had to make travel and work arrangements for himself and his young family. Ken lives in Phoenix but I couldn’t find his number. Without thinking, I called my mom in Prescott, Ariz. She and dad have been divorced for years but I felt compelled to advise her of the situation facing her children. She assured me she would be down as soon as her relief worker came in the next day. As a live-in caregiver, dropping everything and jumping in the car was not an option. We met at my house loaded with regrets. Why didn’t I encourage him to stay here and seek another option. Why didn’t we keep in closer touch over those years we had lost. Why didn’t we tell him we loved him every day. Wait! I reasoned, he chose to leave Phoenix and drop out of sight, and there is nothing we can do about days, months, and years that have gone by. What we do now is what we live with for the rest of our lives.
We headed to the hospital completely unprepared for what we were about to walk into. The nurses directed us to a small room off the main ICU ward. The man I dropped off that morning was gone. In his place was a frightened, confused, and extremely agitated man, fighting to get out of bed and insisting someone remove the catheter that had been inserted into his bladder. We fought back tears as we tried first to come to grips with the fact that this was dad lying here, and then to calm him down and convince him to be still and leave the catheter alone.
At this point a doctor introduced himself and explained that the VA hospital was not equipped to run the tests dad needed to complete a diagnosis. The nursing staff was on the phone to Barrow’s Neurological Institute, trying to arrange his transfer. There are only four physicians in Phoenix who can do the type of biopsy dad needed and two of them were out of town, one was a patient in the hospital, and obviously the fourth was very busy. It was a struggle to get the one available doctor to agree to take dad’s case.
As we stood by his bed, the doctor tried to get a history of past illnesses from dad. We helped as much as possible, but soon discovered there was a lot he had kept from us over the years. We were in shambles. Brenda was devastated to see him lying in the bed, trying to get up and out of there. Don sat on the floor close to the bed but out of everyone else’s way and would jump up when dad called out to him.
As I tried to compose myself in the waiting room, the doctor came by with the films from the CT scan done earlier. While pulling them out of the long envelope, he explained that they indicated the brain was both swollen and full of small lesions, which could either be an infection or cancer. The top view of the brain showed no separation of the right and left lobes. The right lobe was so swollen it was pushing halfway through the left. No wonder the man had headaches. It was at that moment I began to prepare myself for the worst.
An ambulance driver and a helper showed up and prepared dad for the move to Barrow’s. We tried to explain to dad what was happening while assuring him we would be right behind him, but his concern was the removal of the catheter. It had to stay put until we got him moved. I hadn’t seen him so agitated in years. I picked up his bag of belongings and headed for the parking lot with Brenda and Don.
Having no idea where dad had been admitted, we sought out the assistance of a helpful unit clerk and eventually located him in an intensive care room. Ten minutes later we were informed he would be moved up a floor where patients are watched on screens located at the nurse’s station. Finally, the catheter was removed and we all calmed down a bit.
A nurse informed us the biopsy would not be performed until after the weekend, leaving us three or four days to tread water. Bernie would be here on Sunday from Golden Valley. Exhausted we headed home to rest. On Tuesday the biopsy procedure was explained. It involved attaching a helmet-type device with grids marked off. After it was attached, a MRI would be used to locate a lesion for the biopsy. Then, a simple 1/8-inch hole would be drilled through the skull and the tissue removed and sent to the lab to determine whether an infection or cancer had caused our nightmare.
Dad’s spirits remained good throughout the wait for the test to be run. In the days leading up to the biopsy, he called friends and former co-workers and visited with the five of us. Our mother spent the days at the hospital with us, helping care for and feed dad. The strongest lesson in compassion was unfolding before my eyes.
Tuesday arrived and we were told it would be difficult to predict exactly when dad would go to surgery. We were all surprised when an orderly came to get him at 1 p.m. Dad was transferred to a gurney and his apprehension became evident. Brenda and I went into the pre-op holding room and tried to distract him with small talk. After half an hour a nurse apologetically explained he had been brought down by mistake and someone would be down to move him back to his room soon. We all tromped back up to the seventh floor to wait once more.
After five hours on the gurney, dad was rolled to surgery for the real thing. By this time his nerves were raw. The idea of someone drilling into his brain had him a nervous wreck. Our trip to the waiting room was made in silence as we all wrestled with our own demons. After two hours we were called and told everything went well and to expect the results in 24 to 48 hours. We headed for home exhausted.
Before we could make it back to the hospital the next morning, dad had been returned to the VA.
The following evening I sat on the edge of dad’s bed visiting with him. The look on the doctors face was glum as he walked into the room. As expected, the biopsy indicated a malignancy. There was no stopping the tears for either of us. All I could do was tell him I was sorry. Finally, he looked up at me and said through a forced smile, “I hope it doesn’t hurt to much.” “It won’t Daddy, I promise.”