My father will be 84 this spring. For two weeks I was with him constantly, as he lay in a hospital bed, thin and frail and mumbling incoherent phrases. I’ve wondered, despite knowing the answer, how this could be the man who used to carry me, in one of thousands of fatherly deeds, into the Atlantic surf, back when I wore ruffled polkadot swimsuits and captured my hair in long twisting braids. When I could not stand on my own against the force of the waves. I can still feel the skin of his chest and shoulders against my body and feel those waves crash against us. I screamed in the delicious fear that happens on roller coasters and in creepy movies. We spent summers in cottages built on spindly stilts that shuddered at night in the strong coastal winds. He felt bad that he couldn’t afford a studier place; I felt comforted by the creaking beams, driven deep in the sand, swaying against the force of the tides.
My father fell on the sidewalk in his neighborhood. Multiple fractures, undiagnosed by a busy emergency room doctor, who saw, I imagine, just another old person crumbled on a stretcher, not the man who could brace his arms and hold back an ocean. He sent my father home, with a prescription for a pain medication. By morning Dad was barely able to move. He spent the next day (unfortunately a Friday) on a gurney in the emergency room hallway and the weekend that followed screaming in agony as muscle spasms wracked his body. A hospital physician finally bothered to see him at a convenient hour on Monday and, impressed by his terrible pain, over-medicated him until he was unable to recognize my mother, with whom he has lived for the past 60 years. I am angry about how it all happened—or, more accurately, did not happen. My father was a caring physician—he did not deserve such inexcusable treatment. No one does.
I thought of several blogs about this wrenching experience: preventing falls in the elderly—take up throw rugs, rid the house of clutter, encourage the use of canes, walkers and sturdy shoes, install rails in the bathroom—or the absolute necessity of having an advocate when hospitalized, or the blessing of a careful, caring physician. Instead, although I may revisit those subjects later, I’ll give this advice: Speak those words of love, thanks, forgiveness and reconciliation you’ve privately edited and stored in your mind, without waiting for a perfect moment when they might be heard in the deep, altering way you intend—a moment that may never come. The sea endures; relationships don’t: We humans are fragile.