I suppose no one’s bucket list includes open-heart surgery, but my dad recently checked this off his list of things to do and, by default, the rest of our family hopped on with him for what has been an undisputed ride from hell.
Day One was as torturous as one might expect. Settling into the ICU for an extended, sedative-laced nap with a soundtrack of beeping, whooshing machinery in the background couldn’t possibly have distracted my dad from the realization that he’d just been run over by a Mack truck and a table saw. Thankfully, he has no real recollection of it.
The rest of us will remember Day One as it was: an excruciating boarding for the roller coaster of emotions that would follow in the weeks to come – the lows of worry, dread and anxiousness that twisted and undulated between the highs of hope, anticipation and encouragement. As poorly prepared as we were for the ride we thought we’d be taking, we were even less prepared to discover that my dad’s quick, lucid mind had climbed off the ride long before we rounded the loop-de-loop. A complete imposter had jumped on, posing as my dad.
“It’s just the anesthesia,” the nursing staff would reassure us, explaining that it’s a very common phenomenon for patients to become temporarily disoriented, confused or delirious after a major surgery.
For days, an obnoxious (OK, life-saving) breathing tube restricted my dad’s ability to speak or swallow. Despite round-the-clock hits of some really swell opiates, he slept only minutes at a time. Opiates + Sleep Deprivation = a big, fat mental vacation somewhere far, far away and a table for one.
By all accounts, my dad was doing a mental Hokey Pokey, putting his left brain in, taking his left brain out and shaking it all about: had someone really just stolen his wallet while we stepped out to make a phone call? Were the nurses really going to let him run up to Braum’s for a chocolate shake before dinner? If anything could make his illusions more alarming, it was my dad’s confident, no-nonsense delivery of complete BS. It was hilarious to watch; I now see that my otherwise unassuming dad has all the wiring of a high-pressure used car salesman and when he’s under the influence of mind-altering narcotics, he’s not afraid to use it.
The timing of his mental vaycay corresponded with the British Open, a golfing tradition my dad would have followed very closely had he not been trapped under a sea monster mask and strung up like a woven macramé Thinking Tiva. He became convinced that my nephew was closing in on winning the British Open and, even though all the cameras were focused on him, he should just focus on the ball. The minute he was able to speak, my dad confided this strategy to his nurse, Trevor Knight.
A couple of weeks into his convalescence, the mental fog began to lift and the sunny, jolly dad I love slowly reemerged. Still, when he was exhausted from a full day of visitors, conversations about here-and-now subjects would take unexpected twists. As expected, he was elated about my nephew’s British Open victory. He was very happy to announce that he has some vacation time coming up and he’d be taking it for once. In the same breath that he told me Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert were calling it quits, he added that the couple had just been on his floor of the hospital the night before. Miranda, he explained, had spent the night – “not 10 feet from my bed,” he exclaimed – and was getting some surgery on her heart. They had been cardiac suite-mates ever so briefly, but Miranda’s apparent speedy recovery had ended my dad’s brush with fame.
When he reads this article, he’ll probably have the surreal sense that he’s reading about someone else, or that I’ve made everything up. He won’t remember the hour he spent one evening doing charades in the ICU, earnestly signing to us to get him a Diet Dr Pepper. The “Hoarders” marathons we watched will be a distant memory. He will have traveled too far and too long to remember the names of the medical staff who took care of him during the terrifying nights when he almost fell off the ride completely. But he’ll be as grateful as the rest of his family that we’re all getting off this ride together.