There’s a global pandemic happening. Alone in my home, I have a lot of time to think, and a lot of my thoughts have turned to my dad. He died two years ago. I had to look that up. Years are hard for me. Dates and numbers were his thing. I still might be wrong but I’m pretty sure it’s two.
This fog is the kind of fog I was in for the rest of that year and at least half of the next. In times of extreme stress, like when you’re banished from your job and the world shuts down and some of your friends are telling you how you might not be able to leave to get food soon, the fog can set in. The fog isn’t necessarily passive. Sometimes it’s more of an anxious brain scramble. This fog is part of grief. This pandemic is putting a delay on the life I really started to live beginning last June and really revving up in January and February (Long Island Poet of the Year! Oceanside Library Poet in Residence! I was dating and looking friggin fantastic in short skirts!).
Back when my dad was in the hospital, I would have the sudden thought throughout the day, What will it be like to think about him when he’s gone? I didn’t really think about it after his first stroke. Not after the many mini strokes. Only after the last one, the second major one, the one that sent him to critical care, the one that wasn’t funny anymore.
Strokes aren’t funny. Sometimes, though, funny things happen and funny things are said. Like the one time we were in the ER after a TIA, and I was standing bedside, clearly having been crying, and my dad looked at me and said, It’s gonna be okay kiddo. Never in his life had my dad ever used the word kiddo, let alone called me that. So I answered, Thanks, Pop!, which made my mother laugh so loud she shushed herself. This wasn’t the only time we laughed in an ER or intensive care. After my dad’s first stroke, he had a visit from a very close family friend, and they told each other dirty jokes, which led to riotous laughter (I thankfully didn’t witness the dirty part—that’s gross). The staff asked them to keep it down but also said it was nice to hear laughter for a change.
That first stroke was hemorrhagic. He’d been stroking for hours before he knew something was wrong. Only after did we know how long—he’d been at a street fair the night before and couldn’t remember how to get home. Someone who knew drove him home, not realizing that could be a sign of something wrong. The next morning he got up, got dressed, and started breakfast. My mom thought something was a little off. We went to the ER. This became serious when they said they were rushing him to another hospital that specialized in this kind of stroke.
My dad survived that stroke. He was in critical care for maybe a day. While there, he was very concerned about the Walk for the Poor. He was supposed to walk soon. What did all this mean for the walk. As usual he was concerned about other people.
That was the same concern he showed on September 11. After a day of almost dying, he was upset about the young firefighters he saw running into the building and up the stairs while he was making his way down and out.
The first stroke should have caused more damage. He had some sight problems and some cognitive stuff going on, but the sight returned quickly as did most of the cognitive stuff. We had a running joke that pre-stroke dad kind of walked offbeat to the beat of his own drum, so like, when he would knock over a cup of water, we would think, that’s not the stroke—that’s dad. It wasn’t a rationalization; it was simply reality.
Mini strokes are sneaky little buggers. They slip in and take away tiny pieces, but those tiny pieces aren’t apparent until much later. So right after a TIA, he could seem fine, and then a few weeks later, something would be suddenly and strikingly different. Like he once had a mini on Easter, so I brought him his Easter basket in the hospital. The next day, the basket was pretty much empty. He’d eaten all the chocolate. We laughed about it. He was still dad. A few weeks later, he couldn’t remember dates.
I lost my dad long before he died. Slowly, over the course of about 7 years, he was becoming someone who wasn’t the whole man. He never lost the capacity to recognize us. He lost the capacity to be independent. There were times I didn’t want to visit my parents because it made me sad. I’d feel foggy and sometimes I wouldn’t feel anything. Other times, I was the most upbeat person ever, tearing into the house, telling my dad to grab his coat because we were going out. He never said no. My dad rarely said no to anything. He loved going out, seeing the world, helping people, talking to people, and walking.
That man could walk! Everywhere. For however long. He’d be gone for hours, walking, stopping to talk to people, and walking more. Sometimes my mom would be out in town and she’d get so excited to see Joe Rau walking along the street. The two of them were always excited to see each other even while they lived in the same house.
After the last stroke, my dad was in the hospital a long time. In addition to his being mostly asleep, he got itchy. His skin was always sensitive, so whatever cleanser they were using made him red and inflamed and all he did was scratch. It was awful. He had some bad days when I’d go in for a visit and they’d tell me I should talk to the head nurse about what happened that day. I thought about what it would be like to not have him around, and it didn’t upset me. It was more of a statement instead of a question because it had no answer and simply was a thought in a fog of thoughts.
When he came out of the hospital, that statement went away for a while. He went into a rehab home, and he couldn’t walk. He also couldn’t swallow or talk much. Still, if I played Elvis, he found a way to slowly push out three words of In The Ghetto. He also was my teammate on holidays when we brought games, and he would look on intently and laugh and laugh. Whenever his mind would clearly wander, I’d hit him in the arm and say, Pay attention! And he’d laugh and pay attention for a while again.
The first night in the home, he got sick and went right back to the hospital. High fever. They thought he might not make it. And then? There was my dad laughing in the critical ER room when someone joked about him being high maintenance.
Then he kept getting sick. That happens when you have a feeding tube. He was back to the hospital and then back to the home. Back and forth and back and forth.
Then finally, we all decided this wasn’t a way to live. He got sick and didn’t go to the hospital. Instead, he stayed sick and stuck around for longer than anyone expected.
I no longer had to ask myself how I’d feel when my dad wasn’t there. It was real. I still felt nothing. We said our goodbyes, and my dad’s last gift to us was to not have a funeral or wake but to simply be cremated, easy peasy. That was it. I asked my mom if I could open her house for a few hours at the end of the week to avoid random people dropping by at all hours, and so we did just that. A few months later, my brother organized a lovely memorial tribute.
I won’t say I wasn’t upset. Of course I was upset. Still, the fog of all those years was constant grief—grief over losing my dad each time he had a stroke and came back a different dad. I’d get used to that new dad and I’d lose that version too. Constant grief lurked and grew, and I didn’t know it. I knew I was sad to see him sometimes, but I didn’t know the unfeeling was a real thing.
I’m grateful my dad isn’t here today living through these strange, fatal, uncertain times. If he were in a home, we wouldn’t be able to see him, and we wouldn’t be able to keep on top of his care, and I wouldn’t be able to play Elvis for him.
If he were living with my mom, the version of him before the last stroke but after several TIAs, I could imagine what it would be like. His face mask would always be on wrong. He’d probably have to try at least 20 different masks before he found one that didn’t irritate his skin. The mask elastic would get tangled in his glasses and he’d curse at his glasses and mask, and we’d probably laugh but then help, and then he’d laugh too.
Recently, a friend who didn’t know my dad told me he seemed like a happy person. He said, Whenever I see a picture of him, he’s got that same smile that seems so joyful.
And he was. If I manage to live my life with even a small fraction of my dad’s happiness, I’m one lucky person.