By Allyson Shames
The before part is easy. There is a diagnosis, a plan, steps to be followed and items to add to a to do list. Airfares and train tickets are compared, childcare found, teachers contacted, dinners to cook and notes written. The little one doesn‘t like peanut butter and jelly. Pajama Day is Friday, but don‘t send them in light colored ones. You make checklists, minutiae that keep you away from the dangers of the internet and search terms: “open heart surgery,” “valve replacement,” “bypass.”
You decide to take the train, and your father-in-law agrees to fly out to watch the kids because for your husband this is a bad week, an awful week, to be gone. He’ll be working eighty hours and he’ll need the help. It occurs to you that your father-in-law hasn’t watched a child, much less three, on his own in a quarter-century. It occurs to you that he’s never made a school lunch or managed booster seats. You email the school, teachers, friends. Items checked off the list.
By the time you arrive, your father is out of surgery and awake. He’s groggy from the anesthesia and saying things that don’t make sense. “Do you remember my friend from work whose daughter taught you how to ski?” he asks. “Yes,” you reply. “We were eight. You let us go off on our own while you sat in the lodge and drank coffee.”
“He’s dead,” he says, and you don’t know what to say to that.
In the hospital room there are many machines. You were an EMT and have spent enough time in hospitals to know what the squiggly lines mean, but here, after someone’s heart has been stopped, there are more tubes, more wires, more bags of fluid. You notice insulin, but no one will tell you why it’s there. Your father has an IV in each arm, tubes and a central line. His gown has fallen open and if you didn’t force yourself to look away, you’d be able to count his ribs.
It’s not until hours before you’re supposed to leave, your last night there, that you look at the machine and see numbers that don’t make sense. The machine beeps. You look at your uncle, a doctor, and he leaves and comes back with a nurse, who contacts your father’s doctor. They schedule a cardiology consult, but tell you they’re not concerned, that this is normal, these fluctuations in heart rate. Your mother, knitting knitting knitting in a chair next to your father, tells you she’ll drive you back to the train station. On the phone, your husband tells you maybe you should stay but your mother tells you to go and because she looks you in the eye you listen.
On the train ride home you watch your childhood course by out the window, the colonial houses of New England, small towns and white churches and parks shaped like squares. You notice that there’s a Porsche dealership and a trailer park only two minutes apart, but you can’t tease out what to think about that, so you file it away for another time. You enter New York and pull away, the invisible threads of identity pulling you back as the train pulls forward, southward, away.
You thank God for Amtrak wifi and drown in the drudgery of work for nine hours. The architecture changes as you cross the Mason-Dixon line and when you walk in the house the children are fighting, bickering over a Wendy’s Frosty that one child got but not the others, hardly looking up to see you there. One hits another, but your father-in-law, who raised four children of his own, is not bothered. You realize that he did just fine without you and that he might be the only sane, stable person in your orbit, at least until he leaves, which will be soon. You avoid him, avoid everyone, dealing only with quantifiable items like making lunch and driving to play dates, things with start times, end times, definitives.
Over the next few days, your father’s heart rate doesn’t get better. The emails fly, the doctors come and go. You wait for the phone to ring because your mother can’t ever remember to bring her phone charger to the hospital so you can’t call her, she can only call you when she decides to turn on her phone. She is the granddaughter of Russian Jews who fled the Cossacks and staidness is in her blood, but when she tells you she stayed the night in the hospital room you know she’s scared.
It’s now that’s the problem, because the surgery is over and you’ve come home and you can’t worry any more about whether your father-in-law knows how to cook a veggie burger or navigate the school dismissal line. Now all you can do is watch the clock and wait for the phone to ring.
Your father calls, finally, and you get to hear his voice, but it’s strained. He tells you to talk, to not stop talking, but then he’s silent and says, “I couldn’t hear you.” He says, “I held the phone to my left ear but I couldn’t hear anything at all.” He says this with a mix of wonder and fear. You do a Google search and find this can happen after cardiac surgery, it is rare, but it can happen. You do a lot of Google searches. It’s something you can write down on a to do list.
Each day the cardiologist visits, saying he’ll come back again, and finally they decide the cocktails of medication aren’t enough and they’ll have to do another procedure to stabilize his heart rate, which somehow keeps flying to extremes: too high, too low, a roller coaster of beats per minute. If you close your eyes, you can see the machine in the hospital room, blue lines on a black screen, and hear the beeps that call the nurses in when the wave crests too high or falls too low. You go to the fourth grade class play and for half an hour your brain is somewhere else. But then the play is over and you look around and realize you don’t know what to think about anymore.
You get in the car and the phone rings and it’s your dad’s cousin, and she asks about your father. She tells you she’s had health problems of her own, big ones, but she’s okay now, she’s finished radiation, she’s okay. She makes a joke about how if you still have boobs by seventy they’ll sag down to your stomach, and she laughs, and you say, can you call my dad? Because I think he needs to hear from you.
You hang up and there’s an email from your mother that the procedure is about to begin. You think, I should go home, I should wait by the phone because there isn’t anything on the to do list, you’ve done it all, at least all the things that matter. But the iPhone betrays you because you don’t need to go home, no one uses the home phone anyway, so instead you drive to the pool, noticing the gathering clouds and thinking you’re in a cliché, the clouds matching your mood of hovering darkness. You drive to the pool and shove the phone in a locker and swim sprints until you can feel sweat break into the water.
You swim until your legs can’t kick any more and you get out of the pool and there are mothers and babies all over, so young, and you leave, driving home as the rain starts and the wind picks up. At home, you circle the computer, drawn to the blank page and repulsed by it as well, because you know that if you give into it the words will come, and putting the fear on paper will make it real.
You pace, waiting for the phone to ring. The minutes tick by and become hours. The phone doesn’t ring. It occurs to you to eat the entire box of peanut butter Girl Scout cookies that you’ve hidden in your office so your teenager doesn’t eat them all first.
The wind gets stronger. You take the dog out, realizing no one has done that yet today, and you want to praise her for having such a strong bladder but of course she wouldn’t understand. She wags her tail and comes back inside and curls up by your feet and you think she is smarter than many people you know.
The first branches to come down are twigs, many tiny ones, and they fall in the yard like sprinkles on ice cream. You stand by the window and watch the storm, nervous about the big branches on these old trees. Each one hangs over something that can’t be easily fixed: the van, the porch, your bedroom, your daughter’s room. These are old trees with long, creaky branches. They bend too much but not enough and that makes them terrifyingly fragile.
The storm picks up as you wait for the phone to ring and you watch, paralyzed, by the window as the branches sway and bend, but they never come down.
Allyson Shames is an at-home parent and fiction writer. She lives with her husband and three children in Charlottesville, Virginia. This is her first published essay.