Not sure if you remember but I was hospitalized when I was somewhere around the age of eight or so. My memory of this has faded. At best, my memories are minimal. My only memories were the window and the view from the bed. I overlooked a golf course. The air, the sky and the world around me looked clean as ever. But me, I was in a hospital room and in a bed next to a large window with the sun shining through. I can remember the green from the trees and the grass. I remember the sky was so incredibly blue with puffs of white clouds like pillows of cotton that flowed overhead. I remember this feeling inside of me, as if the entire world was living.
Everyone was outside living, enjoying and having a good time. But not me. No, I was in the hospital with needles jabbed into my arm and bandaged with tubes that connected me to an I.V. machine. I was sick to my stomach. I couldn’t hold my food down and no matter how I tried, there was no way to be comfortable. Plus, whenever I did fall asleep, a nurse came in to wake me up and take my vitals or check my I.V. machine. I remember this part very clearly. I also remember a small stuffed animal named Tuffy, which is the only remnant of my youth I still have in my possession. In fact, Tuffy the tiger sits next to my computer screen on my desk. He is always with me as a symbol to remind me that there is nothing as strong as a Mother’s love and that the love from my Mother is always with me.
Prior to the hospital stay were the rough nights at home. Mom was the caregiver. The Old Man was always working. He was the provider, which is what he needed to do at the time.
To be clear, we were a middle-income, working class family. This is something The Old Man was unapologetic about. He was proud to be the person he was. He worked hard and lived hard. He was a hard man who fit the saying, “Hard times make for hard people. Soft minds make for soft people.” My Father was not soft. The Old Man had hands that spun wrenches and dug ditches. He was proud of the work he did. He was proud of the company he built and the house which he owned. The Old Man never bragged or talked about money. He kept this close to his vest, which meant he never revealed his finances to anyone.
To some degree, I recall The Old Man talking about his youth and him seeing himself as less-successful than others. He grew up during a historical time in our country. Born in 29, The Old Man lived through the times of The Great Depression. Money was different to him. The world was different and life was different too.
One thing was for certain, The Old Man could not stand waste of any kind. This meant there was no waste of food, no waste of money, and above all things, there was no waste of time. School was important to my Father. He was adamant that his children go to school, get an education and if you’re not in school then you work. Good grades were not only necessary, they were demanded. However, this is where The Old Man and I came to our biggest struggles. His hardness and lack of understanding was difficult for me.
“Just do it.” is the way he thought.
“If it hurts,” work through it.
“If you don’t like it,” work through it.
“Just do it!”
But sometimes the word “Just” is a word that “Just” doesn’t make sense. I couldn’t “Just” do things. I couldn’t understand the work at school. My anxiety was debilitating. I lived in a constant state of red-alert and stress. Not to mention fear and social discomfort which was enough to cripple me from an emotional standpoint. I didn’t fit in. I was too small and too thin and too weak. I was a target, yet I never asked for this position. I never wanted to be a puny person in the social world. I wanted to be wanted and included. I wanted to fit. I wanted to be the one who scored the winning touchdown or hit home runs at baseball games. I wanted to be big and strong instead of frail and weak.
I wanted people to like me. And as for school, I never asked to struggle in class. I never asked to be laughed at by other kids. I never wanted to have difficulties reading. I certainly never wanted to be labeled with learning disabilities. I mean, literally, to hell with it all!
As it was, I had physical challenges and insecurities to contend with but add the emotional distress of mental challenges; add the secrets of an unwanted interaction with a person who was supposed to be trusted; and add the vulnerability of being bullied and don’t forget to include suicidal ideation; plus, we have to add depression, and now add rejection sensitive disorders; add the chemical reactions in my body to all the stress and fear, and add this all to the sum of a young boy who simply wanted to jump out of his own skin.
I never asked for this. I never wanted to be “Special” or have to ride the “Little bus,” which I did. I never wanted to be stupid, which I believed to the core that stupid was all I could aspire to be. I was too young to be this cynical. I was too young to think that life was worthless and certainly far from worth living.
The Old Man was hard on me. Yes, he was. He was frustrated too because although The Old Man could fix machines, he couldn’t fix me. He couldn’t stop the momentum of my thinking which disheartened him to stages of anger. However, there were times when my Father showed a tender side. There were times when he showed understanding that was unlike any other display of a tender or gentle approach.
Prior to my hospitalization, Mom was on watch at home. She was clearly at her wit’s end. There was no solving the dilemma and there was no way to stop me from crying. There was no helping me. I could not find comfort. I could not hold any food down. Mom was frightened and frustrated because she couldn’t help me. I wanted to die because I felt so terrible. There was no comfortable position in the bed and there was no way for me to sleep.
It was late evening when I heard The Old Man come in through the front door. I heard Mom tell him that she was frustrated. She couldn’t do it anymore. She was almost crying and said, “You have to go up there and do something.”
Our front door was at the bottom of the steps, which led up to the two bedrooms on the second floor. One of those bedrooms was mine, which is how I heard their conversation.
I could hear The Old Man’s footsteps as he climbed the stairs. I heard the sound of his work boots creaking the floorboards on the steps. He reached the top and I could see the shadow of The Old Man’s figure. I had a small lamp in my room. This was a nautical lamp with the bottom section acting like a red and green night light. The Old Man walked through the door and asked, “What’s up there, kid?”
I could hardly answer. I was whimpering and crying.
The Old Man knelt beside me and noticed that my pajama shirt was riding up on my side and exposing my ribcage.
“Look at these ribs,” he said.
Then my Father started to softly poke at my ribs as if they were piano keys. He started to pretend to play a song and I remember what he sang too. “Tea for two and two for tea. Me for you and you for me,” which if I am not mistaken is a Doris Day song from the musical/comedy Tea for Two in 1950.
He sang to me. And do you know what?
At a time when I was sick, I couldn’t find any rest and my Old Man sang me to sleep.
I never forgot that ~
It was after midnight on the morning of December 29. The Old Man’s lungs were filled with fluid. He couldn’t hold on anymore. The heart attacks kept coming. I know he didn’t want to leave. I know he told my Mother what to do. He gave his dying wishes. I know The Old Man wanted to fight. He just wanted to push through. He just wanted to get out of that bed and get back to life. He just didn’t want to die but sometimes, the word “Just” is a word that “Just” doesn’t fit.
He was uncomfortable. I know he didn’t want to go.
No matter how he tried, there was no way for him to find rest.
We gathered as a family around the bed after they intubated The Old Man. I know he was still in there.
He was restless but his eyes were closed.
I knew exactly what to do.
I did what he did for me.
I played a song on his ribs the same way he did for me when I was a child.
Tea for two and two for tea. Me for you and you for me.
A tear formed in the corner of The Old Man’s eye.
And then The Old Man went still.
This was our way of saying goodbye.
Mom finally agreed to go home after spending weeks at the hospital. We both agreed that The Old Man was not a machine and that although a machine was breathing for him, The Old Man was already gone. My cousin Craig stayed behind. He was sleeping in the waiting room when the nurse woke him and handed Craig The Old Man’s wedding band.
Mom wore this until the day she died . . .
I offer this story to you, my most special friend.
I offer you this because I want you to know that you should never be afraid to feel or cry. I want you to know that your emotions are an amazing part of who you are. I know that I used to hold this in. I used to want to be “Tough” until I realized that life is tough enough as it is.
And so what? Maybe I’m not tough.
Maybe I’m still a boy whose just looking for some love from his Father.
I learned that tears are not shameful. And neither are feelings.
This is what makes you beautiful.
I want you to know this because it’s important to me that I leave you with the best of me. And, I leave this here because I want you to know that no matter how pretty someone is on the outside, if they are ugly on the inside, then they can only be average at best.
But not you though. Not us.
We are too beautiful to be average.
Trust me. I know . . .