Certain things happen when no one else is around. Little things that become significant moments.
The only time I went home for Thanksgiving when I was in college came after a midnight phone call to the nurses’ station at LGMC. I was fighting off a panic brought on by reflecting about the uncertainty of where I was, where I was going, and where I had been. So I called to talk to a nurse about my dad. He was ill and had been in the hospital for a while.
She heard me crying, but what she didn’t know is what I didn’t know. A few weeks into first semester of senior year and no one had told me my dad had been in a coma for nearly a month. But I could tell from her tone that someone there had given up, I just wasn’t sure who it was. We stayed on the phone for a while. I hadn’t told anyone anything about what I was feeling because it wasn’t anyone’s business. And I realized I didn’t want to hang up with her, because she was the only one that knew what it was like from my end.
So I went home for Thanksgiving and found my dad about 20 years older than what I remembered from August. He was on a hospital bed in the living room having his limp legs bent around by a little chirpy cajun lady that I really wanted to smack in the face for acting like the world is full of sunshine and chocolate. And I stared at my dad confused.
My dad had always been this untouchable force that swept in and out of my life bringing with him a cyclone of emotional chaos. My sister and I would dodge the winds as best we could by playing outside, staying in our room, or going to a friend’s house, but sometimes we got trapped. And after the cyclone faded, all that was left behind were dense clouds of cigarette smoke and empty green beer bottles. I craved the times he came to pick us up in his little red Honda wearing a khaki linen suit with a matching vest and his initials embroidered into the cuff of his shirt to take us out for hamburgers before returning to the office. But the visits faded and so did the clouds of smoke. So I took to the occasional visits to his place, sitting in the garage, watching him smoke, and slow, awkward conversation. And that’s the exact type of visit we had in the August before I left for school.
And that Thanksgiving I came back to an old man that couldn’t get out of bed to even use the bathroom. This man was the tense knot in my chest for so many years that I couldn’t undo. And I didn’t know who I was supposed to be striving to impress anymore. So I just cried and watched that crazy woman bend his flaccid body just to get it to do something other than lay there.
My siblings came and went that Thanksgiving. I was the last one to leave. He made it into the recovery hospital and I went to visit late in the evening to say bye. I was nervous in the usual way I get before seeing my dad, hoping he’ll notice that I’ve grown up and become independent. But I saw him and was reminded that this wasn’t a man I needed to impress anymore. He wore these goofy moon boots that hurt his legs. I helped him with them and rubbed lotion on his dry, cracked feet. I told him I love him and said bye and tears started and wouldn’t stop so I walked away. And then I looked back. He had tears rolling down his face, he looked at the nurse, looked at me, pointed to me and said, “see that? that’s my little girl. I’m so proud of her.” That knot in my chest undid itself.
I went back to school and didn’t tell anyone about what had happened. I don’t like talking about that stuff. It seemed so insignificant of a night because it was so quiet, calm, and no one else was there to share that moment. It was just me and my dad, and nothing close to insignificant.