The Joy Menu #41: Hover

"I watch my father, in the wide, cushioned armchair, next to the mobile computer station. As it is happening, I’m already thinking: this is it — this is that moment."

Dear Creators,

There is a shift to vulnerability: suddenly, a man impenetrable, impermeable, lies in a paper thin robe beneath a chorus of beeping monitors. 

By the time I arrive, he’s back within himself — shaken, but self-possessed. Worrying, silently, over what’s next. Smiling a bemused but stunned smile. Opening a hand to mine to say hello.

We gnaw at our fingernails as they wheel him away for one test, back for another. Await a simple verdict: a stroke. And solutions: a regimen, a diet, some drugs. We’re heartened by how quickly his language has returned.

He is a monolith; a buttress between the self, the family, the world. 

When he sprains his ankle in a hole while surveying a field at work and can’t walk for weeks, we marvel at his hurt, confused; as he lays on the couch, we hover in nervous awe. 

When he pulls his back at a soccer match and takes to bed, we tiptoe through the house, hushing the dog when she low-growls (as if even she should know).

Later, when he gets an infection in his eye and stays in his room for a month with the lights dimmed, it’s as if the Earth’s very orbit slows and we all lurch forward with inertia at the shift. 

That’s it though — a few colds (rare), a bad bout of hay fever (every few years). I can remember the days he slept in on a single hand. 

“Dad,” nervously. “You need anything?” We stand back, stay in the doorway. Bewildered and off-balance.

He has a corner room, which is large and oddly shaped. The bed is by a window, which overlooks an empty patio ten floors down. The foyer (it has a foyer) is wide and oblong, connected to a private bathroom, where he goes again and again to piss, his robe trailing like a cape. (He drinks from a giant water bottle that they’ll let him keep — a souvenir he throws out as soon as he gets home).

The doctors read from charts, as one piece of news is compounded by the next — it’s nothing; it’s a good thing; it’s meaningless; it’s tentative — we assure ourselves and are reassured. 

As the hours blend into each other, we adjust our sharper joints to the hard grooves the hospital provides and we wait: napping on plastic chairs, walking in roughly manicured “meditation gardens,” ordering drink after drink at the Starbucks stand in the lobby, pacing hallways as blank as the faces we pass.

Along the back of the ward, large glass windows open across a view of Anaheim — in the far distance, even, a grey haze of coast. I take to standing there as I make my way along a loop away from my father’s room and back. I watch car-ants crawl along the 57 as I talk on the phone to my sister, leave and listen to voicemails, wait in expectation, contemplation, strain.

Do the cars carry the promise of escape? From this tension, this unknowing, this stress? And if so, where to? Another family? Another time? 

I find comfort in the large metallic “A” of Angel’s Stadium, which sticks up behind the freeway like a bent paperclip. I remember one game we all attended as a family (could it have been the only one?): shrieking in fear at the celebratory fireworks after an unlikely Angels win — how my father scooped me into his arms and carried me to the car to hide me from the chaos, as the rest of the family trailed behind, amused or unperturbed.

Perhaps it’s not coast, but a low-hanging glaze of smog. 

Can a freeway be home? Can a freeway be a way home? Can home be a way away from pain?

For a moment, there is some hope. The CT scan is clear, the blood work is good. It seems there was no stroke at all.

As we wait for more, we find ourselves enraptured by the hospital menu — to our great surprise and delight, we discover it’s pretty good. It’s also a steal: ten bucks for an entrée, two sides, a soda, a coffee and a tea. (Dad’s, of course, is included in the price of his stay).

Suddenly, it’s an engaging topic of conversation. There is life in the room, and it’s not under threat.

After they lift the stroke restrictions, my father’s choices expand. We survey, and discuss, we critique, and compare — we order every single thing that’s offered, most more than once, nearly giddy at the abundant options, the variations allowed, the possibilities of combination and wild mixtures and surprising contrasts: bacon and eggs, omelets, pancakes, waffles, French toast, potatoes, yogurt, fruit cups (of ample portion and quality), burgers, Boca and beef, stir-fry (quite pungent), macaroni, lasagna, butter pasta, salmon, chicken breast, veggies steamed and raw.

When Benny arrives straight from the airport, the first thing we do is pass him the menu, help him choose, pointing excitedly to the laminated page, offering recommendations and alternate replacements for things he might not like, as if the euphoria of ordering can lift us from the tight misery, the anxiety, the loss of control.

When AJ comes, we do the same. And then Brian. And then Nade. As if the pages of the laminated menu can take us from the hospital and place us back in the quotidian hum of entertaining, tea time, regular visits from regular guests on a regular day in regular life.

And then the doctors come with news.

I watch my father. In the wide, cushioned armchair, next to the mobile computer station. As it’s happening, I’m already thinking: this is it — this is that moment.

The doctors speak. My father is attentive. He nods. I think: he’s so polite. So deferential. So calm.

This is what it’s like, I think. This is what it’s like to be told

No fireworks. No leaping from our seats. No running to the car. 

Alright, of course, CAT scan, then the surgeon will come, OK, we’ll see, we’ll see… 

The food arrives — hot, under a little plastic hat. 

It shrinks away.  

And the mass? The mass?

My father’s hand unfurls at my side; I hold it.

Hope is pulled from the flesh of the moment like a splinter from the soft of his palm.

More soon.

For now — onward

toward creative joy,