My father spent the majority of the last four years of his life in and out of hospitals and nursing home rehab facilities, places that are supposed to be safe for the patient and the families. As his health declined, so did my faith in humanity. I became angry and bitter. Basic needs were ripped away from my father. Eating was a faded memory. Conversations were often cut short due to exhaustion and sickness. He could not use the restroom or bathe himself without assistance.
The majority of the last four years of my father's life were spent screaming in pain.
For seven years, I had a front-row seat to witness the fury of Stage IV tongue cancer eradicate his body: seven years of treatments, medication, and procedures, and countless doctor and hospital visits. Cancer raided my father's body and hijacked every part of his being, gradually ransacking his quality of life. Intense radiation treatments stole his ability to eat or drink; he survived on a peg tube for the last four years of his life. Doctors were stumped. Nurses were confused. Praying seemed to stop working. Watching my father slowly die was my worst nightmare come true.
My father's hospital room had a revolving door of strangers with good intentions, each one with one goal: to help him during his time of need. These strangers were heroic doctors, nurses, and aides. I felt fortunate that his team of nurses provided my dying father with exemplary care, stellar kindness, and compassion. I spent as much time as possible by his side and, believe me, he desperately needed the wonderful care he was receiving.
Inside, he was my dad, but his body was changing. Drastic weight loss resulting in the vertebrae in his neck sticking out so much that I could count each one. I remember rubbing his neck to ease the pain and counting the vertebrae, terrified if I massaged too much I would hurt him or even worse break one. His body was so weak that even changing the channel on the remote was a difficult task. A piece of my heart broke during each visit, and often I would excuse myself to cry in the hallway and beg God to help.
It was at this time I met the aide.
I visited my father daily, and during each visit, his aide made me feel like a worthless object. He made my skin crawl and my stomach turn. He was the one person who I met during my father's treatment that I instantly did not like. He made my skin crawl. During our first encounter, I was sobbing quietly outside my father's room, and the aide grinned and said, "Hey, little girl, you OK?"
He startled me. Then I was angry. I'm not a little girl. I'm a grown woman helplessly watching her father die. Overcome by emotion, I pretended that I couldn't hear him, dried my eyes, and slowly walked back into my father's room. I thought if perhaps I played deaf he would "get the hint." Then, I put that comment in the back of my head and tended to my father. I had to prioritize things, and I certainly was not going to let one comment distract me from my dying father.
At first, the aide seemed like a nice guy, other than his "little girl" comment. He always politely smiled at my father, talked sports, and managed to get a smile out of him. My dad was more comfortable with another man assisting him with bathroom needs, so I decided to ignore my instincts. But the aide made me nervous. Even the way he carried himself screamed "creep." If my father needed assistance in the bathroom and I had to ask the aide, he would look at me in the eyes, smirk, and reply, "In a minute, sweetie."
Occasionally he would enter my father's room with a female aide, roll his eyes, and say, "You know how these women are, always late."
My rational brain knew these were not normal responses, but I was so devastated that my father was dying before my eyes. I simply had no room in my brain for anything but my dad. I began to think, Maybe it's me.
I remember the first time he officially made me feel uncomfortable. I was rushing in for a quick lunchtime visit and began to remove my giant winter coat. I was wearing my favorite black-and-white wrap dress. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the aide's eyes moving up and down my body. He was so distracted that the urinal in his hand began to tremble. I could see the urine shaking so much it began to form little bubbles. Instantly, I wanted to put my coat back on. I felt vulnerable, as if I were standing in my underwear or naked. I no longer felt like a grown woman with a career visiting her sick dad on lunch; I felt extremely exposed and dirty.
My thoughts were quickly interrupted by the sounds of my father moaning in pain, tears rolling down his cheeks, as he pleaded with me and God for help. My feelings had to be back-burnered; my father was dying and crying out for me. The aide was now a faded memory. My priority was my father.
Accepting my father's mortality has always been extremely difficult for me. Allowing a stranger to assist my father with basic needs was heartbreaking for my father as well as the rest of his family. To watch my real-life superhero wave his white flag and accept help was a moment I will never forget. I was relieved he was finally accepting help but heartbroken that my young 67-year-old father now had a total stranger helping him perform tasks that so many of us take for granted. As the aide became more familiar with me, his jokes became more and more out of line. It didn't matter how many times my father told him I was his daughter Lisa, the aide always referred to me as "sweetie" or "little girl" when my dad was out of earshot.
My father was extremely sick and frail. With each visit, a small piece of me died. I would sit in my car and sob at the beginning and end of each visit. I would cry my heart out driving home, and I would cry myself to sleep. My only concern was my father. Was he getting proper care? Was he comfortable? Was he being treated with dignity? Nothing else mattered. I'm not the kind of person to sit back and allow someone to disrespect me, but I was so focused on my dad and his well-being. I felt awkward complaining about how someone was looking at me despite my gut screaming that something was not right.
Little did I know, my father would be the one to put his foot down.
It was a cold February evening. We were patiently waiting for the aide to come in and assist my father with his shower. (Please understand my dad refused my help. I was his daughter, and he fought with every fiber of his being to avoid asking for my help. He clung to his dignity.)
The aide walked in, smiled, and helped my father make his way to the bathroom. Each footstep broke my heart as I watched my dad slowly choo-choo with the help of the creep.
"I'll be right here, Dad. Take your time."
My dad smiled and whispered, "I love you, honey." My heart hurt; tears were streaming down my face.
They were almost at the door when the aide turned to me and quietly said, "And you're next. Get ready."
I should have spoken up, but I was paralyzed with fear. He was responsible for my very weak father's well-being.
I froze. Disgust and horror filled my veins. Instantly, I felt as if cement blocks were holding my feet in place and a muzzle was placed over my mouth. I tried to speak up, but I couldn't find my voice. The aide was holding the most important person in my life. I was afraid to yell back. What if he hurt my father?
My very weak, frail father roared, "That's my baby! Just because I'm weak and sick doesn't mean I won't hurt you!"
The aide turned red and began to sweat. "I'm sorry, I was kidding."
My dad yelled, "Kidding? That's MY daughter! My baby! As long as I have breath in me…even when I'm dead, I'll protect her. Apologize to my daughter NOW!"
The aide hung his head and feverishly apologized to both my dad and me. Then, right before my eyes, I watched the aide's entire demeanor change. His hands were trembling, his face flushed, beads of sweat rolled down his forehead. The aide was no longer a pompous pervert; he became a nervous pubescent little boy. Suddenly, the aide reminded me of the pimply faced boys in middle school caught snapping the girls' bra straps. Weeks of being objectified came to a screeching halt. I stood tall and watched the aide exit my father's room shaken and mumbling, "I'm sorry" over and over.
The next day, my dad had a new aide. A week later, my father was discharged.
Misogyny hides in plain sight. Men who objectify and threaten women often strategically obscure their actions from other men, harassing women when other men are not around. My instincts were spot-on. I chose an option that many women use, appeasing the aggressor. It seemed like a rational choice at the time, despite the fact that I know better than that. I was petrified by all the "what ifs" because this person was responsible for the well-being of my sick, frail father. This person was alone with my dad when our family left. The entire situation was terrifying for me, and I generally don't frighten easily.
My dad was admitted with one goal: to get well and return home to his family. Never once in my father's admittance paperwork did it state that it was an open invitation to harass the patient's daughter and make crude jokes. My dad, the man who protected me my entire life, found the strength to protect me even as he was facing death. I will never forget the moment my father heard the aide's comments. My very sick father turned a horrible moment into a moment when I knew, even in death, my father would protect me. I realized my instincts were right all along: The aide was inappropriate, and it wasn't just me. At that moment, that my faith in humanity was restored, and I realized two very important things: Trust your instincts and love never dies.