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On St. Patrick’s Day in 1994, the principal of my school came and pulled me out of the kindergarten green food party to talk in her office. My sister Kaitlin and I sat in the uncomfortable leather chairs across from Miss Bliss’s desk as she blinked back tears.
“Your father just went into surgery. They found him a new kidney.”
Almost as quickly as the news came, I was back in my classroom, sitting on the carpet with damp eyes while one of the class mother passed out pepper slices and broccoli dipped in ranch.
I wasn’t crying because of the surgery; I was crying because Miss Bliss had been crying. As far as I understood at the time, my dad getting a new kidney meant no more trips to the part of the hospital where I sat on his lap and watched "Star Trek" reruns while they filtered all his blood through a special machine that washed out everything bad.
I was five. I thought a kidney was a giant bean that lived in your body and dialysis was another excuse to visit Space: The Final Frontier.
There are many ways to tell this story. I could treat it like a medical history and list all of the things that went wrong with my father’s health chronologically, with bullets. I could tell you that my father was gravely ill before my family was even thought of.
He was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes after going into a coma at Boy Scout camp at the age of 11. I could mention that a year after my parents got married, his kidneys failed and they had to move back in with my mother’s parents. That he had just had corrective eye surgery and the rapid change in blood pressure brought on by the kidney failure caused both his retinas to detach; they were only able to salvage one of his eyes.
I could say that while my mother juggled three girls (and later on, my little brother), my father was in and out of the hospital. He lost his right leg and the toes on his left foot to gangrene. He contracted Legionnaires disease from showering with contaminated hospital water.
He got sepsis; they cut him open from collarbone to pelvic bone and packed the open wound with wet gauze that had to be changed multiple times a day. He went through radiation therapy for lymphoma. He lost his right leg to a bone infection that wouldn’t quit after almost a year of intravenous antibiotics.
But the reductive approach doesn’t do him justice. When my parents met, my father was a bartender with a bunch of side gigs. He dropped out of college when he got kicked out of ROTC for his chronic condition and made ends meet any way he could think of.
He would brag about closing the bar and walking across the street to the greasy spoon where he was the cook and starting up breakfast without missing a beat. The man my father was in his own stories didn’t get tired or sick or complain. When he got into trouble, he talked his way out of it. When something went wrong, you could count on a sharp turn in the next breath where one scheme or another would put everything right again.
The stories people tell about themselves, by design, act as a smokescreen for the stories other people are sure to tell about them. The truth was much less carefree than what my father would have any audience believe.
He never told me what the hospital was like when he woke up from that coma for the first time, but I do remember the story of him peeing in a mason jar he’d brought on the bus just in case and pouring the urine out the window so many times he lost count.
He made a point to only ever offer up only the unbelievable details when I asked him the hard questions about what it was like to be chronically ill.
In a way, the stories I tell are similar. I have very few memories that don’t take place in cold rooms that smell of antiseptic. I couldn’t tell you how old I was when I learned to read or when we stopped practicing cursive in school, but I can describe the view from the upper floor of the Columbia-Presbyterian hospital parking garage in almost perfect detail, how I leaned against the chain link fence that stretched between levels to keep the birds out and the people in.
I can tell you about the dead pigeon inside the sky bridge we had to walk to get to my father’s room during one of the many long recoveries surgery, about its bent wing and open eye. How it looked fake, though I knew it wasn’t.
As traumatic as all of this might sound, I didn’t notice how strange it was to spend more time sitting at my dad’s beside than I did doing anything else. My mother made sure we thought of the hospital as a place that helped; if my dad was there, it meant he was getting better.
The nurses knew us so well they bought us Oreos from the vending machines and asked about the ballet recitals and chorus concerts my dad had to miss because of his health. They treated us like nieces, making us rubber glove balloon animals and sneaking us onto the transplant floor where children were forbidden, knowing that if they didn’t make the exception and the odds favored the worst-case scenario, we might never see our dad again.
But we were lucky; he always came home eventually.
During my penultimate semester of college, my dad went for a walk to the convenience store up the street from our house and had a massive heart attack on the sidewalk. The store clerk knew him well and called an ambulance immediately. It was the sixth time (at least) my father had died clinically, but they revived him and got him to a hospital in time to keep him with us.
He underwent sextuple bypass surgery, a procedure so risky that the doctor told him there was more than a 50% chance he would die on the table, but he survived, recovered, and was discharged.
A year later, a dangerously high fever put him back in the hospital for the final time. He spent his last birthday on a ventilator, frustrated that he couldn’t tell any of the tall tales he was notorious for. The hardest part of seeing him that way was knowing that there was no miracle procedure left that could saving him.
His body had been opened, closed, scanned and medicated too many times for him to bounce back. My sisters, brother, and I took turns reading David Sedaris aloud to him, and taking breaks in the hallway to hold each other and cry.
In those last months of visits, I wasn’t only grieving the man who had been dying my entire life; I was grieving for all the stories that were going to die without being told. I never got to ask him about the small stuff, the non-myths that he skipped over in favor of always telling the big story.
Hearing about getting drunk with Truman Capote in a dive bar or pool hustling his way through a few semesters of marine biology courses was plenty entertaining, but I took for granted that as long as he was in the hospital they would find a way to make him well.
The promises medicine makes about more time have a way of tricking us into believing that even the most fragile people might be somehow immortal. I had never thought to ask about the quiet things, like what kind of music he best liked to listen to on the train or what his favorite books were or what he thought about when the slow churn of the machine doing his breathing for him kept him awake deep into the night.