Monday, December 25, 2006
Christmas comes but one a year and all I can say is thank God for that.
My father is back in the hospital, having suffered a seizure on Saturday night, so forgive me if I get a little Ebenezer on you.
I had just gotten off the R train at Prince Street and was hanging out in the Housing Works Used Book Cafe when my cell phone went off.
It was my sister, telling me that my father had just been taken out of the house in an ambulance. I was supposed to meet up with my bud Hank to see Letters from Iwo Jima, but I knew that couldn't fly.
I told my sister I was on my way, called Hank to tell him the story, and then I was back on Prince Street, where I hopped on the N train to Brooklyn.
I guess I was numb, or perhaps I thought it wasn't that serious, but then my cell phone went off while I was on the Manhattan Bridge, indicating I had a message. It was Edith, our night aide, and she had apparently called me first before dialing up my sister.
"Robert," she wailed into the phone. "Come home! You're father is dying!"
I felt so helpless listening to that message while riding over the bridge. I couldn't go any faster and I couldn't even respond as the train was going back into the tunnel.
I got to the hospital and met Mary, our daytime aide, in the ER waiting room. It was Saturday night and the place was packed--there was even a bunch of soccer players in one corner, waiting on the condition of an injured teammate.
There was some kind of commotion going on in the ER, so I had to wait outside with Mary while my sister sat with our father inside. I found out later two federal agents had brought in an injured or ailing prisoner so they cleared out the place for security reasons. Just another Saturday night in Brooklyn.
I sat there watching Ghost on the TV and wondering what the hell to do next. The guards finally let people inside and I found my sister sitting next to my dad in one of the cubicles.
He looked terrible, but to be honest, he had been looking awful all day Saturday. He was non-responsive and confused. He would only point for things he wanted, refusing or unable to speak.
When Mary served him spaghetti for dinner, he walked away from table with tomato sauce spread all over his face and strands of pasta hanging from his mouth. It was painful to see him like this.
My sister said he had had a seizure while she was there, and from her description of the incident I was glad I missed it.
The doctor seemed to think that the fall my father took earlier in the week might have been the cause of the latest trouble. (They later backed off from that theory, but I was feeling pretty guilty, as the fall happened on my watch.)
We broke from a dinner break at 11 pm, went back to the house and got two bites out of a turkey hotdog when Mary called to say my father's blood pressue had nosedived. So, back to the hospital we go and wait some more while the doctors conducted more tests.
My sister had befriended a nice Italian lady who had brought her husband in for treatment. I forgot what his problem was, but he had just been discharged a little while ago after a lengthy stay. Sometimes it's hard to quit the ER.
The woman told my sister that she had bought a ton of food for the family's Christmas dinner, but she now planned to throw it all away. I hope she changed her mind and found some use for that food.
There was a young Asian man in the cubicle next to our father's. I don't know what his problem was, but the nurse was making him drink this thick, black, horrible-looking stuff that bore a strong resemblance to motor oil. His friend said the guy was about to throw up and I don't blame him one bit. It was bad enough to watch he swallow that crap.
The doctor finally told us we could go home and on the way out we stopped to chat with an old Scandinavian lady who was propped up on a gurney and apparently forgotten. She was suffering from a bad reaction to some medicine and all I could see was this lonely lady by herself in the ER two days from Christmas. It was heart-breaking.
We talked for a little while and then she squeezed our hands and wished us a happy and a healthy Christmas. I hope we gave her some comfort during our brief talk.
She struck me as being from this old immigrant stock that is slowly dying off--the kind of people who are tough and resourceful, the ones who do a job without complaining. That's really the kind of people we can't afford to lose.
"That'll be us some day in the ER, since we don't have children," my sister said later.
We visited my dad on Christmas Eve, but he was still sedated. The doctor was pushing him and shaking him, but he didn't open his eyes. Everything was up in the air, so I went to Manhattan to have dinner with my aunt. There wasn't much to do for my father and I didn't want my mother's sister to be alone on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Day saw us back at the hospital. My sister and I had actually gotten a tree and decorated the thing early Monday morning. We bought cakes and wine and told the folks on my dad's side of the family to come over for dessert.
My dad was talking a little bit, but we couldn't understand much of what he said. In case you were wondering, being in a hospital on Christmas really does suck, and I suspect being a patient there is even worse.
We had to leave at 4 pm, so we wished our dad a merry Christmas and left to get my aunt. Our cousin called us and said they might not be able to make it. Since my sister and I dropped a lot of dough on the food, we were pretty pissed--but we held it in.
Meanwhile, we went over to a Chinese restaurant on Sixth Avenue and bought our Christmas dinner. For those of you who saw A Christmas Story, this might sound familiar, though none of the waiters sang to us.
There were a lot of things going wrong, including some screw-up with our order, and then we couldn't get the wine bottle open. I was starting to wonder whether it was Dec. 25 or Friday the Thirteenth.
But then my cousins showed up, we got out the cakes, and managed to pull the corks out of those goddamn wine bottles. Even the Christmas tree, which was a little on the scrawny side, was looking better.
This was nothing like the Christmas dinners of our childhood, where my mother cooked all day long and the house just filled up with people. Today we just had the next generation, older, childless, and probably not much wiser. Still, I was starting to have fun.
I was walking through Gramercy Park on Christmas Eve and I saw all these lovely decorations and beautiful Christmas trees in people's homes, and I felt a twinge of jealousy.
Why couldn't we have a nice, enjoyable holiday instead of running back and forth to the hospital, wondering whether or not our father will survive to see New Year's Day?
But I know that all families go through this grief, and that envying other people's happiness is a loser's game. Everyone is happy for a while and then things change.
And everyone has the Christmas they will never forget and the Christmas they will never stop trying to forget. It's the way of the world. If you're lucky, you have more of the former and a lot less of the latter.
So, let's lift our glass and thank God for whatever time we have. Next year, we're doing sushi.