One year ago

I got a phone call at work, around 4:30 in the afternoon. My mom. I put her on hold so I could go to a conference room and talk in private. My dad was in the hospital in Ft. Wayne, in critical condition. My mom’s voice was strangely flat, exhausted-sounding. It was serious. I promised to get on the first plane out in the morning.

I finished up a couple of things at work and sent an email to my boss, who was at a conference in Miami, to say that I had a family situation and I might be out of the office for a few days.

I talked to my boyfriend, who said he’d do whatever I wanted or needed. I told him I wanted him to fly out with me. I sat on the couch and bought us plane tickets for the next morning. It was a round-trip flight for a week’s stay in Indiana. That should be enough time for him to recover, get home, and we could help my mom through it. I tried to think about all the things that needed to be done: call friends to see if they would please mind feeding our cat. Get cash. Get cat food, as the Petsmart shipment was due any day but we were nearly out of Science Diet.

It was a cold, windy October evening. I remember wearing sweatpants and sneakers and my long corduroy coat over everything, feeling strange about going out in public in such disarray, my face red and puffya.

I might have done a load of laundry. We packed suitcases. I was scared and upset but kept running through to-do lists in my mind. I checked my work email and wrote my boss that I would be out for a week or so, apologizing for the disruption and sudden departure. We went to bed and my boyfriend held me. I set the alarm for 3:00 a.m. and tried to fall asleep. I didn’t sleep much.

The alarm at first seemed like an intrusive person lecturing me in my dream. I showered and dressed and put not-yet-fully-disinfected contacts back into my stinging eyes. I wore a long comfy black skirt, a white t-shirt, and my most comfortable sweater: a soft V-necked cashmere, with small cables, which I’d bought on deep discount at Filene’s Basement and felt like I was still splurging. Called a cab, petted the cat, topped off his food and water, went to the airport, got on a plane.

When I tensed up and started speculating about what was really happening, what would happen, my boyfriend held my hand and said we were going to think positive thoughts. That my dad was ill, but he would pull through. That this was hard, but we were strong.

When we landed in Ft. Wayne, my mom wasn’t there. It’s a small airport, and we walked up and down its length looking for her. There was an exhibit featuring decorated mastodons in the style of the cows, donkeys, elephants, and other beasts that have been arted up and displayed for charity in larger cities. I called her new cell phone repeatedly, but it kept going to a voice mailbox that hadn’t been set up to receive messages. She was supposed to pick us up, and we weren’t sure what to do. We waited, paced, walked up and down the airport concourse, phoned and phoned again. I was getting more and more worried and frustrated, and we decided to rent a car and drive to the hospital. The rental car agent helpfully drew the route to Lutheran Hospital on a map for us. I was tense and sort of put out by the inability to reach my mom or get a ride or know what the hell we were supposed to be doing.

We got to the hospital and parked. I finally reached my mom’s phone, and she told us which lot to park in and that we should meet her near the garage. When we got there, though, we didn’t see anyplace to meet up. We parked in the lot, walked around the garage, tried calling again. It was bitter cold, gray and windy. My coat wasn’t nearly warm enough, and my boyfriend didn’t have one at all. We’d spent the last hour mired in logistical misfires and fear and frustration. Finally, finally, I was able to reach her, and she told us which entrance to meet her at.

We entered the sliding doors, and my mom took us aside to a table and chairs off the main lobby, looking out the tall glass windows to the parking lot where valets took care of visitors’ cars. I hugged my mom, she sat us down, and she explained what had happened: that my dad was on life support and there was no hope of his recovery. It was bewildering: hadn’t we thought positively? How could he not get better? What had happened? I wept, and my mom said we could go up and see him, and I resisted for a few minutes, then followed her upstairs to the ICU, where I had to be sure my cell phone was turned off and where I sat on a chair in the corner of his room and listened to the respirator, stared glassily at what was once him, and said no thank you to the soft-spoken nurse who offered me snacks from a basket of crackers and granola bars and string cheese and fruit and bottled water, who asked if she could get me a cold drink or some ice, who checked some numbers on a machine and said to let her know if I needed anything and went out.

I would spend the next 13 hours — save for a short break to return the rental car (the agent gave us a small discount when we told him we’d had a family emergency, and he told us he hoped things would be OK), drive to a nearby motel to book rooms for my mom, my boyfriend and me, and my brother — crying, head throbbing, waiting for my exhausted brother to arrive from Arizona, waiting to tell him what I’d been told earlier that day, waiting to let my mom and brother have some more time with Dad, waiting to call the medical staff and chaplain and say, finally, It’s time.

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