He lay sleeping, slightly listing to one side of the raised hospital bed, head resting on his chest. A once-broad shoulder jutted out of the neck of the thin gown. His hands rested on the covers, calm and free of tremor.
My eyes lingered on his hands. They still looked strong and smooth – the hands of someone twenty years younger. But mostly, they were pale. Almost white. Strange, for my Sicilian-skinned father, but a relief. It was a huge improvement over the yellow tinge he had been sporting in recent months.
My dad has been in and out of the hospital for the past two weeks. He’s had a total of four endoscopies during that time, first to find out why his liver counts were elevated and he was so jaundiced, then to correct the problem.
It turned out he had a precancerous polyp in his small bowel that was blocking his liver and pancreatic ducts. On the third endoscopy, the doctors put in a stent to hold the polyp away from the ducts. This temporary fix allowed the liver to drain while we decided what needed to be done.
Within hours of that procedure, he was sleeping and pale. But a good pale. The kind that meant his skin was no longer holding the toxins his liver couldn’t release. Despite my mortal horror of hospitals, I wended my way through the concrete-blocked and pipe-laden halls, up elevators and through scary sets of double doors to be with him.
The doctor came in to speak with us. She explained his condition and outlined the treatment: Whipple surgery. Whipple surgery, to be completely un-technical and probably slightly inaccurate, is a 5-6 hour ordeal where the surgeon takes out your guts, connects them to things they aren’t normally connected to, removes what needs to be removed, reconnects everything properly and replaces it.
Recovery time is up to two months and involves feeding and drainage tubes. This sounds horrible for a normal person in otherwise good health. For a diabetic Parkinsonian, this news was just left of a full-on catastrophe: heightened risk of infection, possible complications during the surgery and other delights and wonders.
The alternative? A potential for pancreatic cancer – one of the most aggressive forms of cancer. I went home and sobbed on my couch.
The next morning, the sun rose on a new ballgame. My mother called: The doctors think the polyp can be successfully removed endoscopically. The procedure takes about 90 minutes and the recovery time is just a couple of days.
Relief flooded through my family.
The procedure was scheduled for Monday – my birthday. So, yesterday, my dad had his fourth endoscopy. It went well and he came home this afternoon, tired but already on soft foods.
I know my mom and dad both felt bad that they had to be in the hospital on my birthday. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a birthday brat. I’ve always loved my birthday – it’s the one day of the year that I feel belongs to me; that is ripe with possibility; that is, well, special. So, yeah, I was a little disappointed that I wouldn’t be spending time with my family on my Day of Days.
But then I picture my dad, holding a cup of broth in his newly pale hands. He’s not had solid food for almost 48 hours and has only recently been started on liquids. The broth smells delicious and I’m so glad for him. He takes a slow, careful sip.
“That smells really good,” I say, to encourage him.
“Yeah, it really does,” my mom sounds surprised, hospital food having the reputation that it does.
My dad holds the cup out to me. “You want some, Sah?” he says, calling me by the shortened form of my name that maybe only three or four people in this world use. Then he offers it to my mom.
We refuse, of course, but the scene strikes to my heart and stays there. A man who hasn’t eaten in almost two days is still willing, quite literally, to give us the food right out of his bowl. I know he feels like he has so little to give these days, but it’s times like this that he gives more than I can quantify.
How does one measure inspiration? Kindness? Example?
When that scene flashes through my mind, as it has so often during the past week, it ceases to matter that he was in the hospital on my birthday. In fact, suddenly a successful surgery seems like the best birthday present ever.