My stepfather spent many decades as the town doctor. He was known for his ability to diagnose a problem. He also was recognized as one who would refer a patient elsewhere if he thought he lacked the needed expertise. I came into the world in the operating room of the four-bed clinic where my mother usually served as his nurse. After his wife died of cancer, they married and will celebrate a silver anniversary in 2011.
At least I hope they will.
Doc has been on dialysis for three years. He claimed 86 years of life on Christmas Eve but he wasn't celebrating much. He's got heart problems, prostate cancer, something's been wrong with his esophagus for years, his blood is thin and he's constantly "leaking" somewhere so that frequent transfusions are necessary.
Today as we struggled with getting him ready for a visit to the ER after a night of vomiting and diarrhea I was reminded of the portrait of Dorian Grey. Instead of age and past sins being visited upon a painting of himself, I visualized that all the diagnoses that he was famous for were somehow now manifesting themselves in his body.
I didn't cry then though. Nor did I at the thought of the indignities the sick and aging must endure such as Doc giving up a penchant for always wearing dress slacks and suspenders because sweats would make it easier to get to the bathroom. Or the independence ... like when, over expressed objections, others tell you that no matter what you have to go to the hospital to restore the fluids you lost.
Watching him moan in the van beside me as I drove he and my mother to the ER, seeing him clutch the bucket in his good hand in case he felt nauseous once again, wheeling him into the waiting area in a wheel chair ... these didn't prompt the flood gates.
It was walking away. After he was moved to a larger hospital, secured in ICU, color returning, and complaining about the order that would net him no food until the morning, I began to feel the weight of it all. As I exited the building with my mother safely tucked away in the family waiting/sleeping lounge and him monitored to the hilt, I cried.
Being the long-distance daughter has never been an issue for me or my mother. I think she reveled in my freedom and celebrated all my unorthodox choices as small victories of her own. But tonight when I hugged her small frame goodbye, I felt the magnitude of those miles. While tomorrow I will board a plane and return to Houston, she will be there, beside him, and still in the midst of his continuing and daily transformation from doctor to patient. In that hug, I traded places with her. I wasn't the little girl any more and she felt frail. She was tiny in my arms and the forces engulfing us both were so beyond our control that while I felt larger than life holding on to her, I knew we were too weak to stop the inevitable.
As soon as my eyes welled up, I walked away and reached out to friends and family. Thanking God for them, I updated each on Doc's status and asked for prayers. Of course, they quickly came.
Now, I'm waiting for life to go back to "normal." Yet, I know I passed through that door at the beginning of this trip. Those days of "normal" will never again exist because I've seen up close what day to day "life" is for Mom and Doc.
I'm sure I'll be back this way very soon.