The Grateful Living

Let me tell you a story from two years ago, a story that few people outside my family know.It’s probably two or three in the morning–I’m not sure, and I don’t really care at this point. It’s my turn for bedside duty while the rest of the family gets some much-needed rest. I’m watching the monitors above the hospital bed as they peak with each heartbeat. They cast a faint glow over the mostly-darkened Intensive Care Unit, where my dad lies sleeping after emergency surgery. It’s a restless sleep, one where he awakens every ten minutes or so to shift position. Except that he’s so weak, I need to physically roll him from side to side. Feeling his arms and legs cold and limp under my hands, there’s no doubt that he’s a long way from the dad who was lifting weights and cycling intensively just a day or two ago.

hospital patterns

It’s funny, the kind of things you remember when you’re alone. When all goes still and dark, and you don’t know if tomorrow will completely upend your life. Watching him with the breathing tube down his throat, unable to speak, I can hear him calling me “my little one”, a name that persisted even into my twenties. Hearing him shift feebly beneath the sheets through the night, I miss his loud snoring that echoed down the hallway of our house; snoring that could wake everyone but him. I want to race him on our bikes again; pit my strength against his in arm-wrestling (and leg wrestling!) competitions; have him taunt me for being out-jet-skiied by someone over sixty.

All I can do is rest my head on his hand and hope that everything will look different in the light of day.

But when morning comes, he’s still the same. After a fitful nap on the plastic-covered sofa in the waiting room, under a jacket that’s both a blanket and a shield from the glaring phosphorescent lights, I reluctantly tag back into the ICU. I think I’d rather face the knife without anesthetic than have to watch helplessly as someone I love is stripped of their health and vitality.

My dad can hardly sit up when the nurses come in. I stand with my cousin and watch from one side as he sits there, barely able to keep his head upright, and they take a few shots with the portable x-ray machine. When they remove the breathing tube, we try to talk to him. His eyes are still clouded over from the anesthetic, and whatever other painkillers they’re pumping into him–or so we hope. At this point, the doctors can’t offer any reassurance that this isn’t permanent. There’s no hint of the incisive mind that juggled figures and finances, leaving everyone who tried to follow his train of thought in the dust.

We stick to simple questions: “What’s your name?” “What’s your birthday?” He answers them perfectly. He remembers my mum’s name–I’ve never been so happy to hear it. He remembers my sister’s name, Natalie, and a seed of hope sprouts. Then we get to my name.

“What’s my name?” I ask, pointing at myself.

His face wrinkles up, and there’s a long, dreadful silence. “Natalie,” he says, but doesn’t sound sure. It’s as though he knows something is off, but he’s not sure what.

So I ask him again. He thinks a bit longer this time, but his answer is still the same. I ask him how many daughters he has. “Two,” is his prompt reply.

“What are their names?”

“Natalie. And…” He trails off again, and I can tell he’s distressed. “And Natalie,” he concludes after a long while.

I don’t want to upset him any further, so I tell him he’s right. Then I flee the ICU, because he shouldn’t see me cry.

There’s a happy ending, as far as happy endings go. He eventually remembered my name, and was discharged from hospital a week later. He’s around two years on, and he’s still the same stubborn, occasionally irascible, occasionally plain frustrating dad that I absolutely love.

But there are some days, when he runs out of stamina after a short walk in the shopping centre, or muddles up simple dates and numbers, or forgets something he’s been told mere minutes ago. It’s the little things he does that evoke the strongest emotion.

Strangely enough, the pain is something I’ve come to treasure. On the days when I’m frustrated by his inconvenient demands on my time, the pain reminds me, that I should be grateful he’s here to make such demands. The pain reminds me that I shouldn’t take anyone’s presence for granted, because things can change so quickly you might not be able to say sorry, or thank you, or goodbye.

So I’m sorry for always being lost in my own world and losing patience with you, Daddy. Thank you for everything you’ve done, and continue to do.

But I won’t say goodbye just yet.

Leanne Yong’s thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by the bombing. Check out her blog at Clouded Memories for more information and a journal chronicling her latest foray into novel writing.

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