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I arrived at 3 a.m. to find my father on the floor, unable to get up.
I paused out of fear and stopped breathing for a moment.
He was in the breezeway, the most lived in room of the house. He was beside his Barcalounger, where he goes in the middle of the night so as not to disturb my mother’s sleep. He never even made it to the bedroom that evening. Instead, he fell at 11 p.m. trying to transition into a wheelchair.
As he fell, I was wasting 45 precious minutes looking for a hotel room in Northern Pennsylvania.
All the hotels were booked, and as a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, I kept driving. I was the only car on I-81 that dark night through construction zones and winding country roads. I followed the light of a full moon, extremely thankful my Subaru is loaded with so many safe driving features it practically drives itself.
My mother was sound asleep at the opposite end of the house. Unfortunately, she has dementia and had had a stressful day. She was having a good morning though as she called me 20 hours prior to my arrival in tears as my dad could not get out of bed. I have learned to be extremely thankful for her small moments of clarity.
The breezeway has always been the center of life. Walls of windows and doors on the north and south sides, the east wall opens into the kitchen, meaning lots of sunlight. My mom has a green thumb, so beautiful flowers bloom throughout the seasons through every window. My parents enjoy watching the squirrels, birds, and rabbits scamper about.
In the mornings, you can see bright yellow school buses as they transport children to the grade school at the end of the street. In the evenings, the lights of the soccer fields with cheering sounds of encouraging parents and coaches, fill the brisk New York air.
The west wall is knotty pine, with pictures encapsulating a life well lived.
We celebrated—as only Italian families can—many birthdays, Christmases, and life events in this room. It’s a space filled with love and laughter. In semi-retirement, this is my father’s favorite room in the house. A house he built brick by brick with his own strong hands. Arms that could no longer lift him off the well-worn, brown, Berber rug-carpeted floor.
I was frantically searching my favorite leather purse for the house key as I could see my father laying on the floor. Then I was startled by the sound of an engine and blinded by the headlights of a truck pulling out of the neighbor’s driveway. I remember feeling uncomfortable on the steps of my parent’s brick house at 3 a.m. I hurried into the house and locked the door.
It took me a few attempts to get this skeleton of a great man off the floor. He was trying to make light of the situation. I was scared sh*tless.
I did not feel like there was death in the air. Frustration, yes. Unhappiness, yes. Sickness, absolutely.
Little did I know the unfolding of the next six weeks would change my outlook on life completely.
There were signs. Some more prominent than others—his scattered mind, the color of his urine, his refusal to eat. If he did eat, he would gag more than swallow. I am not going to lie, it was gross, sad, and scary. It was a battle to get him to drink as he was dehydrated.
He slept too much and was confused. He was out of character and viciously mean. He was walking on a Monday and in a wheelchair the next afternoon. The doctors called it overuse. Days later, the emergency room ruled out deep vein thrombosis without a urine culture or a blood test and sent him home.
I had been at my childhood home for 48 hours before I saw that look in his eyes. He was sitting upright in his well-worn, blue leather recliner (sorry dad, Barcalounger) on the breezeway, the massive 65” TV blaring four feet from the end of his chair. He was staring straight ahead at “Judge Judy,” not moving. His eyes were wide open, black as coal, not rimmed in white as we come to expect. His hands resting folded on his lap like he was praying. His feet and fingers that always jiggled slightly were completely still. He was covered mid chest with his favorite blanket. I got 18 inches in front of his face and moved from side to side, nothing.
I think I spoke, “Dad?” Still, nothing.
I sank into the scary moment and could hear an audible breath, too quiet, like a raspy Darth Vader. I took a few steps backward, still looking at his beady, non-human eyes, and walked away. I think I was going to get my mother, but my heart couldn’t let her see what I saw, so I took a deep breath and snuck back around the corner a few seconds later.
He was back in his body. He had no idea what I had just witnessed. He was commenting on the current court case like he had been fully present the last few minutes. My heart was racing, palms sweaty, forehead wrinkled with worry, and I exhaled a great sigh. I can say that this was the only time I was thankful for Judge Judy’s courtroom voice. His mind had been listening to his first of many reality judge shows of the day, but he definitely wasn’t in his body.
I was shaken. I couldn’t explain what I had just witnessed to my sick, 93-year-old father. My mother was having a bad day. Although in hindsight, I think she may have witnessed moments similar to mine. I called my husband, and he started to talk like death was just around the corner for my father, preparing me for the worst. I called my brother. Like many things I would tell him in the next 45 days, it made him uneasy. He said he would be there after work. I called my best friend who said what I was thinking, “WTF.”
The next 10 days would uncover exactly how sick my father was. He was at death’s door. If he wasn’t such a stubborn, mean, Italian man who wears his heart on his sleeve concerning my mother’s disease, he would have died.
He was septic from a double bladder infection he did not know he had. The infection had landed in his 15-year-old knee replacement. The orthopedic surgeon saved his life.
What followed were weeks of navigating an overstretched, post-Covid, broken healthcare system. I found my voice as an advocate for my father’s best interest. I sadly watched my mom’s disease worsen due to the stressful circumstances. I had to pick my battles, and some of them were poor choices.
He was in the hospital for a week, home care for weeks later. I learned how to be of service to my father from doctors, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, and my brother-in-law—all incredibly caring and compassionate people who in today’s society are not celebrated as they should be.
I am more of a nurse now than I ever wanted to be. I was always squeamish around blood, but not anymore. I have seen things much more disturbing than needles and red blood cells.
Hospitals always made me uncomfortable; I left that unease behind me, forever. I have seen it all and survived with humor, frustration, tears, and lack of sleep. I can administer lifesaving antibiotics through a PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter). I would be honored to help your family if need be.
I reconnected with friends and family from years past. Leaned on the small-town community and asked for help. Met an angel or two—okay, more like a dozen.
The truck at 3 a.m. in the neighbor’s driveway was the newspaper man. He would throw the paper at the door and my dad would flicker the light as a signal that all was well. The light had not flickered in days. His wife, an old friend of my father’s, showed up at the door the next day to make sure everyone was okay. The newspaper man was one of my brother’s coaches 40 years ago.
A sweet couple who ran a daycare for generations of Ballstonians saw dad being transported via an ambulance and hoped for the best. Weeks later, they walked up the driveway hand in hand with three toddlers and all said hello to Louie. My heart melted.
Dog owners were concerned that the old man on the corner was not working in his garage, but they were also happy, as their dogs got skinnier. Dogs have always been my dad’s best friends as he has pockets full of biscuits wherever he goes.
My dad went to the Catholic Church every Sunday. The tallest steeple in town, my father had outlived many of the priests. Fellow parishioners called the first Sunday he wasn’t in his usual pew and a bulletin was placed in the mailbox every week thereafter. I have a picture of him, hours after surgery, with rosary beads around his neck. Church was the first place he drove to, cane in hand, a lightness in his heart, and a spring in his step.
My dad’s godson, a second-generation pharmacist, and his staff were amazing, supportive, and thoughtful. The doctor-daughter of the couple who stood up at my parents’ wedding 53 years ago heard my first tears and came to the rescue with her newlywed husband. The son of one of my dad’s dearest friends proved that not all Trump supporters are heartless fools.
Four of the strongest women I know—a thoughtful neighbor and grade and high school girl friends—helped keep me sane as only badass women can do. And then there was the livestream yoga from my community in Charlotte, North Carolina, that carried me through the turmoil.
Thank you for helping us. Thank you for being there for me. For all you have done for my family, we are forever grateful.
Fall of 2022 was one of the most challenging times of my life, but it made me a better person. It helped me fill the shoes I was meant to walk in in this lifetime.
Elephant Journal taught me about maitri. In reflection, after I wrote this piece and asked for editing help from my peers, I realized that my experiences were easier because of my maitri practice. I was able to see the loving kindness others shared throughout the weeks as selfless acts of love. The importance of community and family. How the not so simple act of being present and breathing helped ease the most difficult moments.
I am not the same woman as I was at 9 a.m. on September 13th. Life changed me. I know now that I will not put my son through what I have gone through. I will gladly walk through the doors of an assisted living facility when the time is right.
I will be healthier than not: eating right, sleeping, exercising, and meditating.
I will stay connected with friends and family.
I will find beauty in the small things.
I will be there for others as others were there for me.