Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Making Calls For Daddy...

“Hello?” I answer in my best I am already awake voice. The phone call that woke me up is from the hospital. The voice on the other end says “This is Mr. Crabill’s nurse. He’s not sleeping and we need you to come and get him settled down.” I look at the clock and it’s close to midnight. “I’ll be right there.” I don’t ask any questions because I already know what’s going on. Several weeks ago my dad had a stroke. He has been in the hospital ever since, pretty much confined to his bed. At first, he did not speak much, but has now gotten his voice back with a vengeance. He cannot swallow very well, so he has a feeding tube (which he has pulled out several times) and can’t handle solid foods. The first week or so we weren’t sure if he was going to make it. But there he was, at 84, fighting his way through to stay alive and letting everyone know about it.

Dad does not sleep well and the nurses call regularly. My sister Patty and I share the task of going to sit with him and calm him down.

Since he has been in the hospital, Dad disturbs everyone with his calling out and making all sorts of racket to get their attention. His favorite thing is banging his “pull up” bar that hangs above his bed. Intended to strengthen his arms, it looks like one of those dinner bells in the shape of a triangle you see in old westerns. The cook comes out and bangs it with a piece of steel to let everyone know “chow’s on”. Well, my dad must remember those scenes too because that’s what he does – bangs this bar to get someone’s attention when he is bored. Which happens a lot. One night when I came after one of their calls, they had his bed pulled out in the hallway, near the nurses station because it was the only way they could get him to quiet down. His vision is very poor, so being able to hear activity helped.

So, after this latest call, I throw on some clothes, tell my sleeping husband what is going on, and make the 10 minute drive to the hospital. I come in, greet my dad and get “Susie, I’m so glad you’re here!” He seems oblivious that it is late at night and I should be home and in bed. So, I smile and ask how he is. These visits usually go the same each time; we chat a little, I ask if there is anything he needs, then after he tells me how glad he is that I am there, he calms down, and I try to sleep in the recliner in his room. It gets quiet, save for the TV that is on 24/7. Many times, as “Nick at Nite” or CNN drones in the background, I would just begin to fall asleep and he would call out to me – “Susie!” “Yeah dad, what do you need?” I would say to him. He would respond, “Oh, nothing, I just wanted to make sure you were there.” Several times a night this would go on. As I said, Dad doesn’t see very well, so perhaps he needed the extra assurance of my voice to convince him of my presence. “You sure you don’t need something Dad?” I’d ask. “No, no, go back to sleep” he’d usually say.

But one night, hearing my voice was not enough. He was wide awake and wanted something. He wanted me to make some phone calls for him. “Dad, it’s 2 a.m., I can’t call people now. Who do you need to talk to?” I asked. He began naming people he wanted to call. “Why do you want to call them now Dad?” He all of a sudden got hit with the urge to “right” some things…there was $20 owed here, some guy he talked bad about there. One guy he just wanted to check on because he was concerned about him for some reason. But everything he was telling me about happened 30 or so years ago. “But dad, it’s late, let’s wait till tomorrow” I said. No deal. He was very insistent that he needed to talk to them right then, it could not wait till the light of day. I pleaded with him to wait till morning but he was on a mission and would not be swayed. He even remembered their phone numbers! I could hardly believe it. I mean, he had not even seen some of these people since before I was born I bet, but he could recite their phone numbers, using the old alphabet exchange for our area - CE (23), short for “Central”.

I was not sure what to do. I knew that most likely the phone numbers were no good anymore. But, what if the number did have a home and I got a hold of someone? It was the middle of the night! The chances that it would be who dad wanted to talk to were pretty slim, but I’d be waking somebody up, that was for sure. And even if the call was from a long lost buddy, I did not think the person on the other end of the phone would be any too happy about being called in the middle of the night, even if it meant getting that twenty bucks returned. But, he was very insistent that I call.

Now, even though I was in my 30’s at the time, married and had three kids of my own, I was still very much his little girl when it came to his instruction. His tone of voice could still cause me to tremble a bit, so with reluctant obedience, I picked up the phone. He called out someone’s name and repeated a phone number. My heart was pounding as I dialed, and inside I was praying that no one would answer. God’s mercy was there and the number was disconnected. I breathed a deep sigh of relief as I told him this, thinking it would bring him to his senses and put an end to the task.

Nope, there were more numbers, others he wanted called. I pleaded again for him to wait, but he would not be reasoned with. There would be no peace this night until I made these phone calls. Realizing I might not be so lucky on the next call, and someone might actually answer, I made a decision that makes me cringe to this day…I dialed time and temperature instead of the number he was reciting. I can’t say I felt good about it, but at the time, felt it was for the best, since in case someone did answer the phone, I knew there was a pretty good chance it would not be who he was looking for. I mean, my dad was 84 at the time, how many of these people were even still alive? So, I told him there was no answer. I guess I was more willing to face my dad’s disappointment than having a stranger cuss me out at 2 a.m. I was more than willing to call them later, at a more reasonable hour, so I figured there was no harm done.

After these two attempts, he gave up, satisfied that I had tried. We talked a little about the people he was trying to reach and why, which seemed to help. Then he let it go, never bringing it up again.

There would be several opportunities like this in the next few years to get to know my dad a little better. It was only when he got sick and began to share some things about his life that I realized how little I knew of him. My dad was 50 when I was born, so much of his life had already happened, out of my sight. He was from a generation that didn’t share much of their struggles. But his sickness changed that. Stories of childhood surfaced, lost loves, dreams, and unfinished plans. I saw for the first time just how much pain my dad lived with every day. Not a physical pain, but a pain that was on the inside. He was tormented by many things that happened in his life. Harsh words and actions from his childhood that had taken root and had never been resolved, like never being good enough for his dad and his mom resenting him from the moment he was born because he weighed 13 pounds.

I thought about this quite a bit afterwards and wondered what brought on this sudden urge to make things right after so many years? Was it his brush with death because of the stroke? Was it our talks about God and heaven? Whatever it was, I am thankful for the chance to know him a little better, even though it meant exposing his pain and hurt.

It’s hard sometimes to imagine your parents as “real” people, separate from being “mom and dad”. But to do so gives you much more insight into them as adults and the way they parented you. Some of the bad stuff I experienced in my childhood was due to the bad parenting my mom and dad had, but so was much of the good. They fought against many of the painful things they experienced and refused to subject their kids to the same pain. As rough as my childhood was sometimes, after talking to my dad while he was ill, I realize it is miraculous that it was not a disaster.

It’s an odd thing being the child of an ailing parent. Roles are reversed and you become the caretaker, the protector, maybe even the decision maker. The fine line between treating them as a child and respecting their place as your parent gets crossed sometimes. You get as confused as they are in how you should handle situations. I was fortunate to have a measure of grace in dealing with my dad. Realizing he could not do much anymore, yet at the same time understanding his need for some “control”, to feel he still had some independence – to respect him and all that he had been to me. In those last years of his life, much of the “bad” stuff from childhood became less important to focus on.

While at the time those late night visits were rough, exhausting and frustrating, I am so grateful for them. When I think back, I can even smile at his noise making, calling out and odd requests. He was with us only a few more years after that stroke and he became even more challenging, especially for my mom, who chose to care for him at home till his death. But, the older I get, the more precious I realize time is. My dad spent a lot of his life locked up inside, carrying the burdens of guilt and pain. My experiences with him helped me to understand his life better and to remind me to keep my slate as clean as possible, not holding onto things that could weigh me down. Even in death, his fathering continues.

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