My Kind of Champion

The AFC championship game in January marked the four-year anniversary of my father’s accident. I remember it was frigid outside, well below freezing that day, so he probably put on his parka and his snow boots before he went out to get the newspaper. He made it down the front steps okay, because he had sprinkled salt on them. But then he fell on the sheet of ice in his driveway, and hit his head. He ended up with a subdural hematoma, and pretty much lost everything.

Dad was lucky—he managed to get himself inside the house after a while and into bed, where I found him a few hours later. Of course, he didn’t call any of us—he just put on his pajamas and crawled under the covers, ignoring the fact that he was bleeding a little from a cut on his head. I was going to watch the game with him, so when I found him several hours later, I immediately called my sister to let her know. Within 15 minutes, he was vomiting and so we brought him to the hospital, suspecting a concussion.

Within 12 hours, he was in the operating room, having brain surgery. This surgery saved his life.

He now has a long scar on his frontal lobe. We had to sell his Ford Ranger, most of his possessions, the house where he and our mother had lived for 20 years, their furniture and antiques. When you’re trying to fit someone’s life inside a nursing home, there’s not much room for trinkets.

I went to see him last weekend at the Veteran’s Home where he now lives. I reminded him about the AFC game that would be that afternoon, even though it was written in black Sharpie on his calendar. I also reminded him that it had been four years since the accident.

He looked at me, puzzled.

“Don’t you remember the accident, that it was on the AFC championship day?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

So I started telling him the story about the accident. How we brought him to the hospital that afternoon. How after a CAT scan and a few hours, they immediately transported him by ambulance to Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Lebanon for brain surgery. That was an awful night—my sister and I tried to sleep in one of the waiting rooms on chairs that really didn’t recline, watching bad television through the night.

Dad didn’t remember any of it. He didn’t remember the rehab center, with its sterile white walls and shiny floors, where the nurses shuffled him down the hall using a walker, trying to keep him walking. He didn’t remember moving to that dumpy post-rehab facility, where he spent Easter that year and one of his roommates died in the middle of the night.

He couldn’t even remember his favorite place after that—the assisted living facility where he had his own studio apartment and privacy again. His room was in the memory care unit because he needed so much help from staff. They had a dining room like a cruise ship and we’d go there many Sundays to have lunch with him. But that was also where he stopped walking completely—the contraction in his knees from sitting in the wheelchair for so many months eventually kept him from being able to straighten his legs ever again.

They eventually told us he had to move on because he soon required two-person assists and by state law, they were unable to give them. So we eventually found the Veteran’s Home, where he could live for the rest of his life. Once he ran out of money, the government would help pay for his care because he was on active duty during the Korean War.

I was shocked that he didn’t remember any of it. Not the accident, none of the centers he had lived since then. Maybe his lack of memory is a gift—maybe his brain is shutting out some of those details in order for his life to be bearable—for him to be able to experience the present where he is now.

He’s always interested in hearing about what is going on in our lives—he likes to hear the news. That day, when I asked him what had happened at the Vet’s Home that week, and said, “Anything exciting?” He said, “Well, we didn’t bury anyone this week!”

I had to laugh. His sense of humor is there some days—which makes all of us grateful that we have some of our father back. But we never know what to expect. I have read that’s pretty common with head injury patients. Some days he’s his old self, bright and intellectual—others he is quiet and barely responsive. He’s getting out of his bed less frequently—when I go visit him on the weekends, he is often dressed, but sleeping under the covers.

I don’t know if he will now remember the story of his accident, now that he’s heard it again. I told him that the hardest part was that first year or two.

“You barely talked at all. We would go visit you, and ask questions and try to engage in conversation, and you just didn’t say anything.” I became teary, remembering.

He looked at me, very deliberately. 

“That must have been really hard on you guys,” he said.

“It really wasn’t that bad,” I said. But I looked away.