I recently had a dream that my father and I were riding a tandem bicycle in the country. We had left a family gathering for a short ride because my father loved towns without street signs where you could travel for miles without seeing a single soul. He sat in front, leaning forward with anticipation, gripping the handlebars with his age-spotted, craftsman’s hands. I sat behind him. We zoomed along, swallowing the azure sky and admiring the maple sentries lining the sides of the roads. Every breath we took in was brisk and full of the moment.
The further we went, the faster we sped along. We were now miles from the family picnic we had left behind. He started plunging down hills without using the brakes, picking up speed and rounding corners sharply. Curving around one deep bend, we narrowly missed a few cars, and I almost fell off. I held the handlebars tight, and tried to call to him to stop. But he just kept going, going, going, pedaling as fast as he could.
* * * * *
My father was an airplane mechanic in the Air Force and an engineer by trade. He could fix everything and build anything. He took measured precautions in his work—wore chaps when using his chainsaw and gloves when using the chipper. His woodworking shop in the cellar was right out of Popular Mechanic, with coffee tins full of screws and a pegboard full of perfectly aligned tools. He once wrote to a company criticizing their T.V. ads because they depicted men leaning over complex machinery with bright ties around their necks. Clearly a safety hazard.
If the two of us ever were on a tandem bike in real life, he surely would make me wear a helmet and strap pads on my knees and elbows. But since his accident, he doesn’t tell me so much what to do anymore. He doesn’t ask me how my car is running and if I drive within the speed limit.
Last summer, my father turned 80. I told him this is the only time in our lives that I am exactly half his age.
* * * * *
The afternoon of the 2008 AFC championship game, I showed up at my father’s house with a box of frozen buffalo wings and crab rangoon. I’d come to watch his favorite team, the New England Patriots, who were on track to go to the Super Bowl. It was frigid outside—only about 25 degrees.
When I opened his front door, I saw the television was off, and the living room was empty. Usually, I’d find him settled in his leather recliner, a Diet Coke by his side, just waiting for me to show up.
A pair of his jeans was crumpled on the floor.
“Dad?” I said.
He didn’t answer.
I called after him again, but heard no response. I finally found him upstairs in bed, watching the game on a tiny television on his dresser.
“What are you doing up here?” I asked.
He looked over at me, as if he was surprised to see me standing there. “Oh, hi,” he said.
“What are you doing up here?” I repeated.
“Oh…uh…I fell down outside.” He sounded disgusted.
“You fell? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I think,” he said. “I hit my head.” He lifted his head off the pillow, and winced.
His pillowcase had blood on it.
I bombarded him with questions, but all he could say was that he fell trying to get to the mailbox. His driveway was a sheet of ice—New Hampshire had just seen a week of intense winter storms and below freezing temperatures.
“Why did you try to go to the mailbox?” I asked. “The driveway’s barely sanded!”
He said he had lain in the driveway for close to an hour, unable to move. He finally crawled in the house, and managed to get upstairs.
“Why didn’t you call me?” I asked him, annoyed. He had fallen at about 10:00 that morning. It was now after 2:00. And I lived only 10 minutes away.
“I didn’t want to bother you,” he said, barely taking his eyes off the game.
I called my sister, and then Ask-a-Nurse. As we discussed concussion symptoms and whether I should call an ambulance, my father sat up on the edge of his bed.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” he said.
Within 12 hours, my sister and I were at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and my father was taken into surgery for a subdural hematoma. He could no longer stand or move the right side of his body. When the doctors lifted his arm, it fell with a thud on the hospital bed. The neurologists showed us two CT scans taken an hour apart, and we could see the blood spreading through his brain.
It was 2:00 am; my sister and I slept off and on in recliners in the overnight waiting room. We watched corny movies, put eye drops in our eyes, and waited for word that he was okay.
* * * * *
I thought losing my mother the year before the accident was the worst thing I’d have to endure. She and my father had been married 42 years, and she died after 10 years of battling uterine and bladder cancer. The last six months, we watched her wither away on Neurontin and Percocet, sleeping more than she was awake. All we could do was organize her meds and give her spoonfuls of orange crush, as my father straightened pillows behind her head. There were moments of grace, days where she could smile or sustain a conversation. But she struggled with letting go.
“What am I going to do about your father?” she said to me once when we were alone. “He’ll be lost when I’m gone.” She sat half up in bed, gathering strength to put some makeup on and soften the look of death that was already in her eyes. It was Christmas Eve.
“Don’t worry about him,” I said. “I’ll make sure he’s okay.”
She saw I was crying.
“Buck up, Punky,” she said, patting my hand. “You’re my rock.”
* * * * *
Since his fall, my father has been in a wheelchair. He can no longer walk—he needs 24-hour assistance to bathe, dress, and transfer into bed. He’s in a memory care unit in assisted living, surrounded by Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, which is sometimes more than I can bear. He struggles answering questions because his brain can’t track more than one thing at a time. He stares into space a lot, doesn’t remember if hummingbirds came to visit the feeder outside his window. I sometimes have lunch with him, even though he eats achingly slowly. We watch the History Channel or the Red Sox on television, with little conversation. Now and then, he calls me by my sister’s name.
He’s still stoic—the nurses love his dry sense of humor and his reserved personality. He knows who he is, and why he’s there. But he isn’t so strong anymore. He sometimes reaches for a copy of National Geographic that’s a few inches too far away, and he ends up on the floor and in the emergency room again. He has contraction in his knees from too many hours in his wheelchair, and he gets ulcers on his feet from his diabetes. His white socks and t-shirts disappear into the abyss when the LPNs do his laundry. I have to physically lift him into my car if we take him out for ice cream. I tell him to wipe his face when he gets a piece of rice stuck in his moustache. But I do all of that, because how could I not?
* * * * *
In the dream, I finally cajoled him off the front of our bicycle. He was going too fast and clearly wasn’t strong enough to control it anymore. But I could steer—and he could still ride. I clutched the handlebars and steadied the bike as he climbed onto the back seat. We continued down the windy road, slipping in between sunshine and shade. I aimed for level ground, avoiding the steep hills. Every few minutes, I glanced back to check on him. He looked peaceful; he relaxed so much that he eventually slumped off to sleep. The two of us kept going, nowhere in particular. I just kept pedaling.