There is no fear until you’ve faced the fear of wondering if one of your loved ones will make it through the night.
Last month, I had to face that fear as my dad went in and out of the hospital. I learned a lot through that time, and my perspective changed on many things. The blessings God has given have made me speechless. But I’ll go into more detail on that with Part II of this post. Right now, I just want to tell a story. The story not as it ended, but as it began-before I learned the lessons.
When Dad first went into the hospital, we didn’t think he was suffering from anything more serious than food poisoning. The doctor sent him home with instructions to drink lots of fluids. Mom and Dad were on their way home when they got a call telling them to come back to the hospital immediately. The results from a test were back, and Dad’s sodium levels were so low that he was in critical condition and could have a seizure at any time. Normal sodium levels for most people are between 130-140; Dad was at 113.
That was scary, but they immediately hooked him up to an IV, and his sodium levels began to rise. The doctors didn’t seem concerned and told us he could go home on Sunday, so we counted our blessings for having caught it in time and looked forward to his homecoming.
However, something in my heart told me he wasn’t coming home that particular Sunday. I called Mom that morning to see how he was doing, and knew immediately from her voice it wasn’t good.
“He’s slurring his speech, Lizzie. And he can’t stay awake.”
My heart plummeted with her words.
I packed my bag right then, knowing I needed to get to the hospital as soon as possible. Right now he was still talking and still pretty cognizant. What if he slipped into a coma and this was the last time I got to speak to him? I needed to get there while he was still aware enough to understand what I was saying. I needed to see him awake at least once more. I needed to tell him I loved him and have him understand.
When I arrived, the doctor made my sisters and I leave the room so she could talk to Mom. I knew that wasn’t good, and I was mad. We were his family. Didn’t she know Mom needed us? Who wants to hear bad news alone? We should be there to support her!
Once we were allowed back in, Mom was sobbing and inconsolable. The doctor told us Dad had a tumor on his Pituitary, and we girls were going to have to be strong for Mom. On one hand, I agreed with the doctor. I stepped up to the challenge. The other part of me asked: but who will be strong for me?
The nurse wheeled Dad in from his CAT scan, and the room grew quiet. I could barely recognize the strong, brave man I’d known and loved all my life. He sat in a hospital gown his shoulders seemed too wide for; a wheelchair his legs seemed too long for. Hospitals, wheelchairs-they were for frail, old people. Not this man. Not my dad.
He looked haggard. He covered his face. He tried to speak, and his voice was hoarse. Only two words emerged: “What now?”
The sight broke my heart. I wanted so badly to be brave and strong for this man who had always been brave and strong for me. I recognized in him the person I’d been at different times of my life-maybe not physically, but at least emotionally. Times when I’d been broken, discouraged, wondering, “What now?” And I wondered how he’d always found the right words to say.
Mom replied that we would be taking him in an ambulance to St. Mary’s.
He tried to drink from a straw, and I watched as he missed his mouth twice before taking a drink.
He fell asleep in the middle of the day, and we gathered around him to pray. I wanted so much to pray. To cry out to God, to speak hope into this situation and to be brave for everyone else around me. To remind them-and myself-that God was with us.
But I stayed mute. What could I say? What words could express the anguish of my soul? What plea would be desperate enough to plead for the life of my father? What words to explain the depth of my confusion? Words were empty. So I let my soul cry out instead.
I nearly cried when our dear friends who’d come to the hospital found the words for us. They said the things I wanted to, but couldn’t find. They asked for healing, strength, peace, answers.
We ended the prayer. Mom’s face blanched, and I followed her gaze to find out why. A stretcher was outside waiting.
Suddenly desperate, I asked Mom if I could hug him before they took him. I needed to touch him. To tell him those three words. To wake him up.
I needed to find a way to wake him up. If I didn’t, he might never wake up.
I hugged him tightly, and suddenly I didn’t want to let go. I knew my sisters were waiting for their turn, but I stayed where I was. My face was buried in his chest as it had been so many times before, but I’d never been so eager in my life to stay there. How had I taken this for granted before?
I finally drew back. “I love you, Dad.”
His eyes fluttered, and he focused on me for an instant.
“Bye, Dad. I’ll see you soon, okay?”
He nodded once, his eyelids fluttering back shut. He briefly pressed his lips into a kiss as he always did to say goodbye, and I almost cried. At least he could still understand.
When we arrived at the ER room of St. Mary’s, the doctor told us the Pituitary Tumor was nothing to worry about; it was very large and would need to be removed, but it wasn’t what was causing his problem now. He didn’t know what was causing his problem now.
95% of the time Pituitary Tumors were not cancerous, so he wasn’t concerned about that; what concerned him was the sudden change in my dad. From being healthy and normal the day before, to slurring his speech and having mental fogginess a day later after no significant trauma puzzled him. He’d treat him for an infection and would stop by later to check on him, but that was all he could do for now.
I remember reading the sign above me as we were transferred to a nicer room: “Neuro Trauma.”
Mom and I opted to spend the night in the hospital room with Dad. I slept in a chair, while Mom slept in a chair that rolled out into a bed beside me. She instantly fell asleep from the stress of the day, but I couldn’t even close my eyes.
I stared at Dad in the bed. I just wanted him to be himself again. To have a conversation with him, like we always did. Dad and I loved a good talk. It’s what we did. I wanted him to hear, respond, and understand. I wanted to hear his voice. I wanted my daddy back.
The tears came to my eyes, and in the dark I begged God, “Please, please, please. Let my dad be normal again tomorrow. Please let me talk to him again. Please just let me wake up to him talking and acting like himself.”
I prayed the same thing over and over until finally God answered. With a strong and confident voice that felt like arms wrapping around me, He said, “You will.”
You will… Finally at peace, I fell asleep.
I woke up several times during the night to nurses checking on Dad, poking him for blood draws, and asking him his birth date.
They’d shake his shoulder and say, “Terry? Terry? Terry?” It would always take at least three tries to wake him.
At one point they asked him to cross his arms on his chest. Confused, he rolled to his side. “No, like this,” the nurse said, demonstrating it for him. He finally got it on the third or fourth try.
Once I woke during the night to the whisper, “His fever’s back up.”
I had a dream. A peaceful dream. Dad was fine, and walking and talking normally. He was carrying a suitcase of some kind, and we were going home.
I opened my eyes. My heart sank. It had only been a dream. He was still laying in the bed. We were still in the hospital. And even though it was morning, he was still asleep.
Mom got up, and we talked for a little while. Not long after that, Dad opened his eyes. And he spoke. And he didn’t slur. He’d made it through the night, and he was here. Really here.
I spoke to him, and he responded normally and as himself. No longer slow, no longer with a slur. Completely awake and present. I smiled through the tears as several whispers throughout the night came back to me in a rush…
Terry, Terry, Terry.
His fever’s back up.
I squeezed Dad’s hand and savored the sound of his voice.