by Russell Reece
Todd was normally an animated three-year-old but that October morning in 1978 he seemed on the verge of falling asleep at the breakfast table.
I shook his arm. “Hey, buddy. Are you feeling okay?”
He smiled at me and wheezed.
“Sounds like he’s getting a cold,” I said.
Dianne held the back of her hand against his forehead. “I’ll give the doctor a call after you leave.”
Ten hours later I walked into the crowded children’s unit at the hospital. Inside a small room Todd was shirtless under a plastic oxygen tent with sensors pasted to his chest. A monitor rhythmically beeped. Asthma attack.
He smiled at first, but then his lower lip started to tremble. I grabbed his hand under the cover. “Hey, big guy. I’m sure glad to see you.”
He gasped a short breath, smiled again.
“His fingernails were blue.” Dianne got out of the chair and pulled on her coat. “When I told the doctor he had me rush in here. I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared.” She straightened her collar and made a wry expression. “Your trip to Baltimore was perfect timing.”
“Sorry, babe. That’s always the way, isn’t it?” I kissed her hello.
“He’s a lot better. They’re just keeping an eye on him now; probably go home tomorrow.” As she hugged me she whispered, “He’s worried about being here by himself tonight.”
“Hmm.” I nodded. “So is he going to keep having these attacks?”
“The doctor didn’t know. Sometimes kids outgrow them.” She picked up her purse and bent over the bed. “Mommy will be back first thing in the morning, Honey. I have to go pick up your sister, but Daddy will stay with you until they kick him out.” She lifted the tent and gave him a kiss. “You’re going to be fine.”
She turned to me. “Are you going to be okay?”
“Sure. No problem.” I hoped there wouldn’t be one. It had been four years.
“They said you could stay till nine.”
“Okay. Go on. Get out of here.”
She pulled keys from her purse and stopped at the door.
I waved her off. “Shoo! I’ll see you in a couple hours.”
Smiling, she turned away. As I watched her disappear down the corridor an old feeling of apprehension stirred.
Thankfully, Todd was better. Between the nurse’s visits we talked and played a magnetic board game. Then he watched The Dukes of Hazard as I watched his small, wired chest move up and down to the rhythm of the monitor that constantly beeped in the background.
Monitors. Through five terrible months Dad had been connected to dozens. Wires and tubes were everywhere, poked into orifices or attached to sensors or prodding needles thickly taped across his bruised, pallid skin.
I wrung my hands together and shuddered. Todd looked at me. I smiled reassuringly and he turned back to the TV.
It had been a difficult time with Dad. At first there had been hope, and he was strong and determined. Confident doctors minimized the illness; he just needed to tough it out and things would be okay.
But then came long days in the ICU, the frightening drug-induced hallucinations, the diseased, eroded hip bone that snapped apart and was left unattended causing terrible pain with every body movement. And all the tests—the pre-MRI and pre-CT—scan tests that never stopped and were so horrid we couldn’t even talk about them without wincing and choking up. In spite of Dad’s strength, how could he go on? How could anyone?
During those months Mom rarely left his room and when she did, only for a few hours at a time. Her familiar presence comforted Dad, as did visits from friends and work associates. And he was always happy to see me. I went every day, at first. But after months of watching his body and spirit diminish, my visits dwindled to just one or two a week. I blamed my absence on the 1974 gas crisis, but that’s not what stopped me from visiting. Just walking into the hospital petrified me.
Todd shifted in his bed as a gurney rattled past the door.
I still get queasy when I think about the trip from the lobby to Dad’s room in the cancer ward. Each time, as the elevator creaked up to the fifth floor, my shoulders tensed and a heartbeat sounded in the back of my neck. The door opened to a hallway cluttered with hospital carts, monitors, wheelchairs, gurneys and assorted tanks and stainless steel contraptions. The busy, hardened staff buzzed around with cheerful, but emotionless smiles. Moving quickly through the blur of people I would stare straight ahead, careful to avoid open doors where wrinkled sheets and thin blankets covered the flaccid arms and legs of gray-haired patients who twisted and moaned or lay perfectly still with sunken cheeks and gaping mouths. Every smell and sound, every nook and cranny of the long corridor seemed draped by the shroud of Dad’s diminishing condition. I walked fast, ignoring horrors that seeped from every door and the clusters of somber visitors, who often searched my face with their own red, watery eyes.
A brief period of relief would come when I finally made it to his room, where things were familiar and organized. Mom would explain Dad’s current status and what was to happen next. HIn spite of the futility of his condition, having a plan always offered a sense of future and provided distance, if only temporary, from the morbid world outside the door.
But then Mom would leave or take a break. I would watch her go as I had watched Dianne earlier, and my heart would sink as she was swallowed up in the congested hallway and I was left to take care of things in the room.
Todd asked for some juice. I held the cup for him as he sucked on the flexible straw. He shook his head affirmatively when he had finished, then settled back against the pillow.
On rare occasions, when Dad was conscious and his old spirit present, I was glad to be there, and thankfully, we said some important things to each other. But most times, he struggled with his illness. And I struggled. Inevitably, the nurses would come into the room to methodically poke, prod, lift and turn, oblivious to anything but the task at hand, and Dad would cry out as his broken hip caused horrible pain. In his anguish and confusion he begged for my help, pleaded with me to do something, but I never knew what to do and was ashamed at being so helpless and weak. I just looked at his drawn terrified face and his frail body and wanted to run away, to blank the image from my mind, to escape.
I could see in his eyes he knew how uncomfortable I was, and that only made things worse. My visits became tense and awkward, not the comforting respites he enjoyed with others. I failed him. Every time I was in the room alone with my dad, I failed him.
He would never have let me down. Never.
“I’m okay now.”
I looked up from my wringing hands. Todd stared back at me with a countenance much older than his years. A chill slipped through me. I whispered, “What did you say?”
“I’m okay now. You can go.” And then, as if he hadn’t spoken at all, he turned back to the TV program.
“But Todd, I’m going to stay with you for as long as I can. There’s at least another hour before I have to go.”
On the screen, Boss Hogg’s arms twirled round and round and his face showed a comical, frightened anticipation as he fell backward, white suit and all, into a mud-puddle. Todd pointed, laughed and wheezed again as the monitor continued to beep.
Later that night, driving through the country toward home, my thoughts churned. Thank God Dianne had been worried enough to call the doctor this morning. And thank God Todd was going to be all right. But, how strange it was the way he had spoken to me. How very strange.
I pulled off the quiet road and stopped the car next to a moonlit field of cut corn. The slow tick, tick of the idling engine sounded against a backdrop of crickets and autumn night sounds. I closed my eyes and listened.
I’ve always believed that there is something in the ether that surrounds us; a divine energy that connects people, makes strange things seem familiar, and gives us those funny feelings just before something is about to happen. Was that juice flowing a little this evening? And with my emotions stretched so thin, did it somehow color the words from my young son?
I stared at the silver reflection on the corn stubble.
I’m okay now. You can go.
I don’t know why, but it seemed a strange thing for a frightened three year old to say to his father, and so authoritatively.
The engine tick, tick, ticked.
It’s more like something a father would say to a frightened son.
I’m okay now…
The evening sounds and the silvery night grew brilliant.