Ups and Downs


I enter the Hampton Roads Tunnel and the rain suddenly stops. Usually I don’t like the tunnel. Going from bright sunshine into darkness illuminated only by artificial lights and knowing I’m underwater frightens me. Today, the tunnel is a relief, it feels like a refuge from the storm. The serenity only lasts a minute or two before I’m spit back out onto the bridge spanning choppy water. My windshield is pelted by rain. I look to the horizon and spot one lonely sailboat, its triangles of white canvas, stark against an all gray waterscape. I think the boat a brave little vessel to be bobbing there.

The tunnel separates my home from the land of my father. He is a retired Navy man. He still wears his USS America Cap with its pins attached when he ventures out for appointments and to run errands. Hampton Roads is home to military families, active and retired. There’s a sense of urgency here that I have not felt in other places.  I only lived here for the first two years of my life, and I don’t remember those. My mother and I moved three hours west in 1963. I’ve only come to visit since then.

Last Thursday and Friday when I was here, I had such hope. My father was better. He was still weak and he tired easily, but he was less pale. His hug felt tighter around my shoulders. He was able to drive us to the commissary for groceries, and to the Mexican Restaurant for dinner. He collected the chicken eggs in the morning and washed a few dishes in the sink. His biting sense of humor seemed to be returning and he had regained ten of the twenty-three pounds he’d lost after the first round of chemo. The suspenders he wore to keep his pants up looked endearing.

Bev called this morning to tell me he was being taken to the Emergency room. We knew this new round of chemo would be difficult, make him weaker, more susceptible to infection, possibly take away his wavy white hair. He took the treatments all day Thursday, half a day Friday and then went for a blood booster shot on Saturday. Bev and I kept in close contact over the phone each day.  We strategized my visit to coincide with our projection of the worst. By our estimation, Sunday would be the day the effects of chemo would begin to hit my father. Our projections were twelve hours off. By Sunday morning, he’d fallen twice from the side of the bed and the pain in his back was so severe he couldn’t move without screaming.

I had spent all day Saturday and early Sunday morning cooking in preparation to leave Sunday afternoon. I wanted to take enough food to carry us through the difficult part of the chemo. No one has the energy to cook after care-giving. I gathered all my things, packed the food in a cooler and picked up the interstate three miles west of our house. I tried to concentrate on the book being read to me on CD as I drove. Twenty minutes into the trip, I gave up, ejected the CD, and listened to my thoughts for the rest of the drive.

The hospital is only four blocks from my father’s house. It’s easy to find. The parking is atrocious though. I circle and circle the emergency lot, hoping for someone to get well enough to leave so I can claim their space. I pull out my cell phone and call Bev.

“We’re still in the emergency room,” she says. “Room thirty-four.”

“As soon as I find a parking space, I’ll be right there,” I say.

I wind my way through the emergency department until I come to the last row of doors on the last hallway. The door is shut, the blinds closed. All I can see is darkness. As I raise my hand to knock, a nurse comes up behind me.

“Can you wait here just a moment?” she asks, not waiting for me to answer. She shuts the door behind her, leaving me to wonder.

Panic sets in. Am I too late? Has he died while I was searching for a place to park? If I had known I would have parked in one of those ‘Employee of the Month’, or ‘Doctor Only’ spaces. I’d have double parked and not worried about the towing bill.  I’d have left the car running with its driver door open, not worrying about it being stolen.

The nurse comes back out and ushers me into the room. My dad is laying flat on a stretcher, his face so pale and drawn, he doesn’t look alive. His eyes are closed. He grimaces; and I let out the breath I’ve been holding.  “We’ve given him morphine,” the nurse says from the door. “It should kick in pretty soon.”

I hug Bev, lean to kiss my dad on his forehead, wheel the rolling stool in the corner of the room closer to his bedside. I take his limp hand in mine, and wait.

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20 Responses to “Ups and Downs”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    I’m crying! Great story Margaret! Please keep in touch and let me know if you need anything. Love you!

  2. OldMack Says:

    Very poignant and the pace, the suspense, the internal monolog are all pitch perfect.

    I hope your dad makes it through this rough stuff. Having daughters who care is like owning a gold mine.

    • train-whistle Says:

      thank you Mack. I appreciate your kind words and your support. When I left today, his platelets were up to ten having been as low as seven. Normal levels are between 140 and 400. He’s a fighter and we keep the faith and hope.

  3. dwg Says:

    goddammit. what can one say at times like this? it all rings pretty hollow. still holding you in my heart and thoughts.

    Also, nit-picky: i think you meant “moved 3 hours west” in 1963, not “moved east” — you’d end up somewhere falling off the continental shelf in the Atlantic I think.

    love you. great writing as always.

    • train-whistle Says:

      I love you Doris Gelbman! Your nit-pick gave me the best laugh of my week. I fixed it though, won’t find me drowning in the Atlantic now! Thank you for everything. See you next week.

  4. Jim Cantwell Says:

    This brought me to tears, literally.
    I really want you to know your Father and you are in my thoughts and prayers, it is a tough time in both our lives right now, but we will get through it 🙂

  5. Southern Sea Muse Says:

    Prayers from here, too…brought me back to my father’s last days. Very moving – thank you for your beautiful writing.

  6. heroldsroses Says:

    I’ve been through these ups and downs with both my parents!! I’ll be praying for the best!

  7. dylanelk Says:

    Train, So sorry to read of your Dad’s battle. He his blessed to have you. -Dan

  8. Curly Says:

    I think the truest and highest of literature is the most difficult to respond to in words, Train. Your dad knows who you’ve become. No greater joy to aid in his healing. Love.

  9. photogjenn Says:

    Wow. Incredibly moving and powerful. As I wipe the tears from my eyes, I am sending lots of warm thoughts and prayers your way.

  10. allthingsboys Says:

    I’m so sorry I missed this! I hope you are holding up! So hard–I feel for you. It’s like being punched in the stomach! Hugs and prayers…

    • train-whistle Says:

      I know you know what I’m going through Arnel, and I appreciate the hugs and you keeping me in your prayers. I’m traveling back and forth to Chesapeake still, but don’t have the joy of seeing and hugging my Dad anymore. His illness seemed to go on forever and then again, took him so fast. I miss him so badly. Thank you again. mdt

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