What is the recipe for a happy family? What are the ingredients? Perhaps you pictured faces: a mother, a father, a son, a daughter, grandparents. But loving families have many faces, do they not? Some are bound by blood, some by tradition, others by love and loyalty.
There is a man sitting in a movie theater. He is watching a movie alone, as he has a thousand times before. He does not own a TV, he never has as an adult. It’s just another evening.
The movie ends and he stands to leave. Pain shrieks through his head; weakness envelopes his body. He believes he is dying. “I’ll walk home through the forest,” he decides, “I don’t want to die walking on the street.”
He returns home and sleeps. He awakens refreshed. “Must have been one of those 24-hour bugs,” he thinks.
Our phone rang early the morning after Easter. On the caller ID I saw the name Suzanna and my heart sank. My sister would text me on a Monday morning, not call. I knew she had news that I did not want to hear. I steadied my mind, paused to enjoy the last moment of not knowing, and lifted the receiver.
On the other end of the line, her voice, her words, “Dad had a stroke last night.”
“He actually had a stroke on Thursday,” she continued, “but he felt better on Friday and Saturday. Then it happened again on Sunday. He’s lost the use of his left side and because the first stroke happened 3 days ago, he may not get it back.”
An electric storm raged outside.
I walked into the bathroom and saw that the left half of my face sagged. It was the second time in a week that I would believe I was dying. I looked at my mouth in the mirror and could not will it to smile.
“This is real,” I thought. “It’s happening to me.”
I left the bathroom and lay on my bed to evaluate this revelation.
A window rattling thunderclap arrested my attention – “this is happening, I cannot ignore it.”
I took a shower, wanting to be clean when I arrived at the hospital. I called my housemate, Dori, who is also my friend and the mother of my youngest daughter, Suzanna. She was an hour away, but called Suzanna who arrived at my house in minutes to drive me to the hospital.
The ER was quiet, no one waited. There were questions, a quick exam: name? insurance? photo id? Please remove your shirt.
Then over the speaker, “Stroke 941”.
More questions, first to me. “When did your symptoms first occur?” “Thursday,” I answered. It was now Sunday. What was that look, disapproval or pity? I didn’t care. I felt disoriented, glad to have people taking care of me.
Then one doctor to another, “Do we still have time for a ‘clot buster’?”
The answer, “No.”
I looked out the window and watched the sun descend. The phone at the nurse’s station rang. There had been a terrible accident, teenagers in an overturned van. One young girl had drowned in 6 inches of water. Again the phone rang, an attempted suicide.
The ER was no longer quiet.
I would spend the first night in the ER common area on a gurney. The rooms, the beds, were taken.
Throughout the night, faces of strangers passed above me: doctors, nurses, fellow patients and their family members, people lingering in various states of sadness. A once-still clock whirled through hours in seconds; a disembodied arm reached out from the wall delivering mysterious items to waiting hands; an apologetic robot awoke, addressed me, and then left the room.
But I will not grant the night to terror and turmoil alone, for there was wonder. That Dori sped to the hospital and sat all night at my bedside, holding my hand in hers, refusing even water as I was allowed none. That Marion, the elegant and beautiful nurse from Kenya would show me such kindness.
And when the morning came, more wonder. That my granddaughter and grandson, in speechless recognition, would weep with me: the night’s anguish, the diagnosis still unknown, the threat of separation. And my sanity, it was still intact. For that too, I was grateful: the apologetic robot, a new method for distant specialists to speak with their patients face to digital face; the whirling clock not a clock at all, but a timer; the disembodied hand, a technician reaching from the lab to deliver and collect through a hole in the wall.
Still, more matters pressed on my mind: I could not strike the keys on my piano; I could not strum the strings of my guitar; I could not tie my shoes.
The scene at the hospital would be easy to misinterpret. If you saw a man in a bed, a woman at his side, holding his hand, and if you knew that these two share a daughter, two grandchildren and a roof, you would certainly think they were husband and wife. You wouldn’t guess that the woman’s long time companion was under said roof cleaning floors and changing sheets in preparation for the hospitalized man’s return.
It seems like a good time to introduce you to this unusual family, to my family.
Boyd, that’s my dad.
Doris, Dori we call her, she’s had a rich relationship over many years with my dad. It’s not a relationship that avails itself to a label. She’s lived with my dad for years because they’re friends, share a daughter and grandchildren, cohabitate well together, and my dad makes lunch for she and her co-workers. I know, it’s unusual. But it works.
Then there is David, Dori’s boyfriend for well over a decade. Remember, he’s the guy back cleaning floors and sheets while my dad is in the hospital with Dori at his side. How to say thanks for such a thing? I could only think to kiss his cheek.
Then there’s my sister – half sister, technically, but not in my heart.
And Summer and Everest, Suzanna’s extraordinary children, my cherished niece and nephew.
So let’s talk about my dad. He is a painter, a classical guitarist, a pianist, a chess master. He plays the ukulele, and the recorder. He’s an avid reader, a movie buff, and ruthless with a crossword puzzle. All very impressive, but it’s his character that I like.
You know those people who say something encouraging and you know they mean it? Or who are straight without being cruel? Or who not only pay attention to what you’re interested in, but study it to better connect with you? Or who are ever thoughtful with letters and gifts? Or who are ready with hot meals and ice cold beers when you come to visit? These are facets of my dad’s character, every one.
And Doris, let’s talk about her. The energy of this woman, oh my. She invited Keith and I to stay a night at The Sonoma Mission Inn. She bartends there, as she has for more than 30 years. Watching her work is incredible; she’s talking with you, complete with eye contact, while her 8 arms shake drinks, fill and empty the dishwasher, and manage the woman whining about why she has to have a plastic wine glass by the pool. She’s something to behold and it’s no accident that she was the Fairmont Hotel’s employee of the year a couple of years ago - a corporate nod that secured her two tickets to an all expense paid vacation anywhere in the world.
Beyond her professional prowess, when I think of Doris, several images come to mind. One is of her taking Suzanna and I shopping for school clothes. Then much later, when Keith and I hadn’t been married long, we visited Sebastopol and ended up at a backyard BBQ with Dori and David. At the time, Dori had wildly full and twisting hair. She laughed and smoked and said that she could never quit because it made her hair stand on end. She doesn’t smoke anymore and her hair looks nice – I’ll have to ask her about that.
Suzanna, my sister, she’s comfortable in her own skin. Is there a more enviable state? She has an impetuous streak that fills her life with adventure and, at times, heartache. She married a man whom she literally brought home from Portugal. He is the father of both of her children. He’s also a foolish man who walked away from his life’s prize, these three, in a manner that none of us will ever understand.
I’m in awe of Suzanna, mostly because of how incredible her children are, but also for her personal accomplishments: managing a Michelin star restaurant since high school, achieving a bachelor’s degree while being the single mother of two and working full time, having a budding career as a voiceover artist. It’s still more though that draws me to her. She’s difficult to know, kind and accommodating yet rarely speaks of herself. My dad says that her daughter Summer plays her cards close. It’s true, and I think she gets that from her mom.
I’ve mentioned Summer and Everest, my niece and nephew. Of course I can’t speak of them objectively, but, I pinky promise that they’re extraordinary. Because Suzanna, my dad, and Dori walk a fine line between authority and friend with them, they are generally unsheltered, unhindered, and mostly undisciplined. Okay, wait, I know what you’re thinking. A scene came to mind I bet, a parent, a child, an idle threat, “If you don’t stop that right now, I’ll...” And if you’re being honest, if I’M being honest, I’d say that children without discipline are often difficult to be around.
With Summer and Everest this isn’t so. The adults that have shaped them – my sister, my dad, and Dori (and certainly more) – are kind, respectful, and generous. Summer and Everest are kind, respectful, and generous. They seem to have learned by example or maybe they were just born that way. I don’t really know.
Summer and Everest are able and have the confidence to converse with adults. They bring a fresh perspective and often startle me with wisdom and insight beyond their years.
My second day at the hospital was spent in the ICU while my blood pressure still swung wildly. For 36 hours, I believed that I would not recover the use of my left side.
An MRI was ordered. A 6’2” man with a cherub’s face came to deliver the results. He dared to be chipper.
But then he spoke, and he was beautiful. His words like breath to a drowning man.
“There is no clot. You’ll have a full recovery.”
“...a full recovery.”
I wish there were a less brutal shortcut to closeness than the threat of separation. But that threat makes us vulnerable. It bypasses posture and protection. It opens our eyes to what we could miss.
Keith and I arrived in Sebastopol the day after the hospital released my dad. We spent a week with him and these others so dear, all of us bound together by love and loyalty.
Happy Father’s day, Dad. I love you. I’m glad you’re healthy. I’m so grateful you’re here.