One Hundred Seventy Days
On day one, I was worried. By day three, I was scared. I can’t explain day nineteen. I celebrated on day twenty-eight and day thirty, but the celebrations were brief. I counted every day since it started on March 18. Some days were good and others were bad; relatively speaking, anyway. The truth is that the good days were simply less bad than the bad days.
Those one hundred and seventy days changed my life. I can never go back to the way life was on the seventeenth of March. “Forever” existed back then. “Hope” was just a word for positive thinkers and “strength” was primarily a physical attribute.
Late in 2014, Dad had his left hip replaced at the V.A. hospital in Indianapolis after eighteen months of pain, which left him dependent on the support of a walker for six months. For the first time since I could remember, he began to miss meetings and events for organizations he was a member of, from his chair member responsibilities in the Boy Scouts to executive positions within the American Legion.
We knew for several months that he needed the surgery, but V.A. would not pay for the procedure unless the situation became emergent, such as falling and breaking his hip. During one of his appointments, a radiologist took detailed x-rays to find that he had lost one hundred percent of the cartilage in his hip, resulting in his femur grinding against his hipbone and V.A. finally approved the procedure.
On the day of the surgery, Mom, my wife Kris and I were sitting in the waiting room. Two and a half hours after they took him back, we heard his name announced, and met the surgeon in the family consultation room.
“All done.” He said. “Everything is great. His vitals stayed normal during the entire procedure.”
We all breathed deeply and allowed him to continue.
“I have to tell you,” he began. “It’s a really good thing that he came in to get this done. His hip joint was completely broken down because there was no cartilage around it. It was chipped, pitted and barely recognizable. No wonder he was in so much pain.”
After only three days of rehabilitation in the V.A. hospital, they released him to go home with printed instructions for at-home exercises. His surgeon explained that there was noticeable deterioration in Dad’s right hip and recommended that it be replaced soon after he recovered from the first procedure.
Eleven months later, the right side hip replacement was finally scheduled. V.A. operating rooms were scheduled to be renovated in the following weeks, so he was given a choice. He could be referred to a civilian surgeon and have the surgery at a different hospital, or he could wait until the renovation was complete which would delay the procedure by at least a month if he wanted to have it done at the V.A. hospital. He requested the referral and the replacement was complete on December 18.
Upon completion of the second procedure, the surgeon met Mom and me in the consultation room. He explained that the surgery was successful, but the rod he installed onto Dad’s femur was five eights of an inch shorter than he would prefer it to be. As he explained it, the shorter rod would cause no complications other than the possibility of small lifts he might have to wear in his shoes.
A few days later, instead of sending him home for self-rehabilitation, they referred him to Miller’s Rehab Center where they put him through daily physical therapy and assigned him exercises to do between sessions. They released him on January 22, after four and a half weeks.
After tending to him for eighteen months and worrying about him in the rehab center, Mom was excited and relieved for him to be home. In the following weeks, she began to sleep more deeply since she no longer had to worry about Dad falling through the night. He slept in a recliner in the living room, just as he had for the previous nine months.
On February 23, around 4:00 a.m., Dad lost his balance and fell when he reached for his walker to get up out of his chair. His new artificial joint dislocated from his hip pocket and he was sitting on his femur. He tried yelling for Mom with no response. After two hours, when she woke up on her own, Mom came out to find him on the floor and called 911. They took him to the V.A. hospital by ambulance where they scheduled the repair for Thursday, February 26. While preparing him for the surgery Thursday morning, the doctors found a blood clot that extended from his right hip to his knee. They accessed his artery from the right side of his neck to install a filter just above the clot to prevent it from traveling to his heart if broken loose and the surgery was delayed until Friday, the twenty-seventh. Dad began to fall into a depression because of the setback. Some of our family members traveled from out of state to support him. After the surgery on the twenty-seventh, the surgeon came out to the waiting room to tell us it appears that his implant had slipped by five eights of an inch and he had to repeat the entire procedure. He returned to Miller’s the following week.
On Saturday, March 7, my wife, Kristina and I went to visit Dad in his room at Miller’s. He was still a feeling quite down, but seemed to have improved. Sunday, my sister, Ann went to visit him and felt as though he was reaching a deeper level of depression and was concerned about his physical and mental health as a result. She called my brother, Ray and his wife, Michele who said that they would drive from Abilene, Kansas to Indianapolis the following day. After hearing from Ann, I was concerned, so I went to visit him again myself. We made small talk for a few minutes before I asked him directly, “How is your mental state, Dad?”
He told me that when he first fell, he was in a bad place mentally. He said he wanted to give up with the thought of starting over after all the rehab he had been through already.
“I’m not in that place anymore, Pete.” He told me. “I have a lot to live for.”
I left Miller’s confident that Dad was okay, so I called Ray to let him know of the conversation. Being a veteran of multiple wars, he said, “I’ve seen this before dude, and after all he’s been through, his will and motivation could change without warning.”
Kris and I were both managers for the same large company with only a conference room separating our offices. She was an operations manager and I was a training manager. At 7:43 a.m. Monday morning, Kris received a call from the husband of one of her employees. He was hysterical, but finally got the words out.
“Kristina, it’s Steve, Jeane’s husband.” There was a sobbing pause before he continued, “She’s gone.”
He told Kristina that he woke up that morning and found his wife dead. She was forty-nine years old, and apparently passed away in her sleep. We attended her funeral on Friday, March 13. The drive home was silent other than infrequently reminiscing about the smile and laughter of our friend who was only a few years older than we were. There was also brief remembrance of the last funeral we attended in March when close friends of ours lost their sixteen-year-old son to depression. When we got home, we stood in our kitchen and embraced each other.
“I’m not sure how much more we can take,” she said. “Let’s just hope all this ugliness is over.”
It wasn’t. Our thoughts, concerns and worries shifted away from Dad quickly. Some say there’s a reason for everything. Others say there’s a good reason for everything. It didn’t take long to realize that the reason for the things we had just been through with Dad was to prepare us for what was to come, but there was nothing that could have ever prepared us for the next one hundred seventy days.
Wednesday, March 18 (Day 1)
I remember very little about that morning. Kris and I had driven to work separately because she had an appointment with her hairdresser that afternoon. There were orange totes all around our office, because our company was preparing to move into a new building in April. The branch manager had recently gotten a promotion that was effective in June and had already mentally checked out of his current role, leaving Kris to manage the move for all eighty-six employees.
There was a lot of business growth that Kris was dealing with at the same time, which included the addition of several new employees. Cubicles had recently filled the branch training room because there were no desks available for them. I had a new employee starting as a trainer the following Monday and was spending some of my time ensuring she was ready to step into her new position in a few days.
At 10:30, I was packing the items in my office into the orange crates when Kris walked in and stood in the doorway of my office with her phone clutched in her left hand. She had a concerned expression on her face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“It’s Uncle Bart. He fell last night and is unresponsive,” she told me.
We walked out the back door to the smoking area to continue our conversation.
“What happened?” I asked her.
“Cooper is there, giving him morphine every hour to keep him comfortable. His hospice nurse is there along with the rest of the family; everybody except me.”
Cooper was a critical care nurse. I couldn’t imagine the amount of pressure that he was feeling, taking care of his own father.
“Mom and Dad told me I don’t need to fly to Ft. Myers,” she continued. “I told them I’m not twelve years old anymore and if I want to go see my uncle while he’s alive, I’m going to do that.”
I thought of the last time I saw Uncle Bart, which was in early December in Fort Myers Beach, Florida. He was thinner than I had ever seen him. He had a small apartment set up for him off of the lanai because he couldn’t go up and down the steps. He watched daytime television, hated politics, always had an opinion, and still laughed with everyone around him.
Kris asked me, “What should I do?”
“About what exactly?”
“About this place; we’re in the middle of moving this entire office and my lovely boss is nowhere to be found, leaving all this shit squarely on my fuckin’ shoulders.”
“If you want to go honey, you go. Forget about this place. This may be the last chance you get to see Barty alive.”
“I know that,” she replied with respect, “but Mom and Dad said I probably wouldn’t make it in time anyway.”
We went back inside and went our separate ways to tend to our individual responsibilities.
I don’t remember what we did for lunch, or even if we went out to eat or brought lunch from home. I don’t remember what meetings I had and I certainly can’t describe the weather that day. I do remember that I hadn’t talked to Mom all day, which was extremely rare. That far into the day, I typically would have heard from her through a phone call or text at least once. In contrast, receiving a phone call from Dad was just as rare as not getting one from Mom.
At 3:30 p.m., my cell phone rang in the case clipped to my belt. I reached for it and, with one hand, released the clip and turned the phone over to see who it was. It was coming from Dad’s cell phone number.
“Well, hey there Dad”, I said excitedly.
He replied in his normal happy tone, “How are ya?”
He continued, “I hate to bother you at work, but Mom wanted me to call you to give you my phone number.”
I had called Miller’s several times in the past and certainly knew his cell phone number. It hadn’t changed since he got his first cell phone at least fifteen years before, so I was instantly concerned. My office door was closed, and I let the entire world disappear around me. I suppressed my vision and as much of the other senses as possible to focus all of my attention on what I was hearing. I didn’t want to miss a word, but also didn’t want to make him worry. I considered that he might have been experiencing some sort of dementia. Could he be asleep? Is this some sort of reaction to a prescription? Those scenarios raced through my mind in the same amount of time it would have taken to breathe deeply and respond exactly how I did. I retrieved a pen from my desk drawer and moved the pad of paper in front of me.
“Great, ready when you are.” I said calmly.
He began, “317-5”
I didn’t hear the rest of the digits, because neither his cell phone number nor the number for Miller’s started with a five. My focus returned and I asked, “Dad, where are you?”
He sighed and asked, “She didn’t tell you?”
It was clear that he was frustrated with Mom’s lack of communication.
“Tell me what?”
“I’m at Community North. They say I’m losing blood and I have a colonoscopy scheduled for 8:30 in the morning.”
“What’s going on with Mom?” I asked.
Still frustrated, he said, “Oh, Jeez, I have no idea. Sorry to have to call you while you’re at work,” and ended the call.
I shook my head and stared at my phone before placing it back on the desk. I turned back to my computer and opened unread email messages absent-mindedly, but didn’t read any one of them. I just stared at my computer screen with my mind entirely focused on the conversation with Dad.
My thoughts shifted to Mom.
Why haven’t I heard from her today? What would cause her to tell Dad to call me to give me the number rather than telling me herself?
Nothing made sense. I turned to look at my cell phone lying flat on my desk several times hoping it might prompt a logical reason for the strange events. At 3:45, I gave in to my thoughts, picked up my phone and called Mom.
She sounded like she had just woken up when she answered the phone.
“Hi Mom, how are you?” I asked. She responded to my question with several more questions.
“Have you talked to Annie?” she asked.
“Have you talked to Dad?” she asked.
Her tone confirmed something wasn’t quite right and I replied with, “No, but I’m talking to you right now. What’s going on?”
“What’s not going on Peter?” she asked. For the next full minute, I couldn’t say a word or make a sound without interrupting her. She began to cry and continued, “I just can’t take it anymore. I can’t do this for another second. We have to get rid of this house. It’s too big for the two of us and it’s a mess. So much needs to be fixed. Dad says we can sell it and get enough to pay it off, but you know as well as I do that it’s a pipe dream. I can’t take care of your Dad the way I want to. I’ve tried, honey. I’ve done the best I can, but I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t take care of him like he needs to be taken care of. I think he needs to be in a nursing home.”
I listened to my Mom crying for a few seconds.
“Hell, maybe I need a nursing home myself,” she said.
I had never heard Mom talk so fast or rant like she did during that phone call. It was extremely rare to hear her cry.
My mind raced again. I thought of the day of Dad’s surgery at the V.A. hospital when Mom told Kris and me that she wasn’t feeling well. She said she had a boil of some sort on her backside and it was painful to sit down. After his surgery, she asked if she could stay with us for the night. I thought of how she sat on our couch with her leg pulled up so she didn’t sit flat on her bottom. I thought of the way she climbed the stairs taking one at a time and wincing with each step. I thought of the way she bent over slightly at the waist when she walked recently. Then I wondered why I didn’t notice those signs before.
“How’s your health, Mom?” I asked. I had asked her questions about her health before and she always blew it off with “I’m fine” and explained to me that the whole medical field was nothing but an insurance racket. Nevertheless, she didn’t blow it off this time. She stopped crying and exhaled deeply. I waited for her response and it finally came.
“Um,” she paused again before saying, “It’s not good.”
“Why, what’s going on?” I inquired.
She began to cry again, “I’m weak, Pete. I’m really weak. For the last three days, I’ve done nothing but slept, gotten up just long enough to get a glass of orange juice and gone back to bed. I think I need to go to the doctor, but I don’t know who accepts Medicare.”
I told her I would do some research for her and call her back that afternoon.
I called my sister, Ann, just before 4:00 to see what time she got off work and explained that I really needed to talk to her about the events of the afternoon.
“I can talk whenever you call,” she said. “Just call me when you have a chance and I’ll be sure to take the time. We need to regroup.”
I thought about what she said several times. What did she mean by, “We need to regroup?” Did she have more information? Was there more going on that she knew about, but hadn’t told me? As the youngest of four, it wouldn’t have been the first time I was protected from bad news.
I sat in my office with my hands on the computer keyboard without typing. I looked at my phone, then back at the computer, then my phone again. I looked at the back of my closed door, the computer monitor, the phone, and my coat that was hanging on the back of a chair across from my desk. None of which were giving me the answers I needed. Worse than that, I didn’t even know the question. Kris was at her appointment for her hair and called me around 4:20 to tell me that she forgot to get cash out of the bank for a tip and asked if I would swing by the shop with some cash.
When I hung up, I stared at my phone. Voices in my head began to repeat the events of the day.
It’s Uncle Bart, he fell last night - Mom wanted me to call you to give you my number - Where are you, Dad? – I’m losing blood – Colonoscopy – I’m so weak – I can’t take care of your Dad anymore – We need to regroup – Can you swing by the shop with some cash, honey?
I turned off my computer, grabbed my coat and left the office. I had received enough signs that I felt I should have been taking some sort of active part in that day, but had no idea what that part might have been.
I got in the car, pushed the button on the hands-free headset wrapped around my ear and waited for the beep.
She picked up right away in her usual way, “Hey there little brother.”
“Have you talked to Mom or Dad today?”
“Mom called earlier, but I haven’t talked to Dad.”
“How did Mom sound?” I asked.
“Not really good. I don’t know what’s going on, but she sounded really weak. She asked me about Powers of Attorney and asked me if I would be Power of Attorney for her. I think she’s giving up, Pete. I think she wants to turn everything over to us to make all of her decisions for her. She told me she couldn’t manage her life anymore.”
I did the best I could to explain the conversation that I had with Mom. I told her about how frantic and confused she sounded, and the things she said. I told her that she said that she needed to go to the doctor.
“Holy shit, Pete. She said specifically that she needs to go to the doctor?”
“I don’t think Mom has been to the doctor since you were born in 1972. What the hell is that, forty-two years? She really doesn’t feel good.”
I was pulling up to the salon and told Ann I was going to call Mom back and that I would call her again later to let her know about the conversation. I walked into the salon, handed Kris the cash, and said “Hi” to her hairdresser. I looked at Kris and said, “I need you to call me as soon as you’re done here.”
“What’s going on?” she said.
I chuckled slightly, shook my head and said, “I don’t even know where to start, but Dad’s in the hospital and Mom doesn’t feel good.”
“What’s wrong with them?” she asked.
I was brief in my explanation, told her I would have more information soon and that I was going to be calling Mom right away. She told me to let her know as soon as I had any information.
I was back in the car around 4:30 and the voices in my head began again.
I’m so weak – she hasn’t been to the doctor since you were born – I just can’t take it anymore – I’m losing blood.
“Call Mom.” I said aloud when my hands-free device beeped. She answered the phone the same as before.
“What did you find out?” she asked.
I told her that I knew that my doctor accepted Medicare and suggested that she call them soon.
“Oh, good,” she started. “But how do I get there? Are they closed? I just can’t do this anymore. I’ve tried to take care of your Dad, but I can’t take care of him like he needs.”
She tried to continue, but I interrupted with, “I know momma, I know. I’m a little worried about you. I think the sooner you call the better. Hell, if you don’t like my doctor, most doctors’ offices accept Medicare.”
“Do they?” she asked. “When I talked to Dad earlier, he said I could go to the emergency room because they definitely accept Medicare.”
I hesitated before responding, knowing that she had just presented me with an opportunity. An opportunity that could define the part I would play.
“Is that what you want to do?” I asked.
She was silent for a moment, and then asked, “Can I think about it?”
“No, Mom. This seems pretty important.” I said. “I have never heard you willingly mention going to a doctor in my life, which tells me that you feel really bad.”
She began to cry again and said, “I do, but I don’t think I can drive myself. I can’t even sit down.”
“I will take you if you want to go, Mom. I need to go home first and let the dogs out so I can spend time with you properly. All you have to do is say ‘Yes’ and I’ll take you.”
The phone fell silent for, what seemed like, an eternity until the silence was as broken as her voice when she responded.
“Okay, I’ll be there within an hour.”
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