Swallowing and eating. Doing a crossword puzzle. Moving, talking, pissing, writing. These are the little things we now mark as larger achievements, but they lack the shiny feeling of a toddler’s first steps or inaugural word.

Some days he wants to play cribbage, and I ask him to count the score off, out loud, in order to work his mouth and his tongue, and try to get that brain of his squared away for talking. I don’t know cribbage so well, and sometimes the scoring gets a bit touchy–for instance, when he says “eighteen” over and over when he means “eight”. I’m confused, trying to figure out if I’ve scored incorrectly, which is certainly possible. The funny thing is, after repeating the former number, he’ll shake his head and say “I don’t mean ‘eighteen’, I mean ‘eight’,” and then he can say the correct score. So we laugh and continue the game.

This particular Sunday is marked by coughing fits. Fluid getting into his lungs because he’s not swallowing correctly. A setback. Both John and I thought we were through these particular thorny woods, but we aren’t. For some reason he’s getting water, juice, some Ensure into those lungs of his, and he asipirates, and has a hard time breathing. He panics.

Later, when we’ve got him settled down, we panic. He’s coming home soon. What do we do if he aspirates at home? Call 911? Call a nurse? Drive him to the hospital while he’s hacking? What if it’s raining as hard as it is right now, thick sheets of water and lightning that would probably knock Dad right to the ground, tangled in his oxygen tubes?

You wonder these things. And your images grow worse as the sun goes down, and perhaps they’re a bit too dramatic, hysterical, as if taking Dad to the hospital in a thunderstorm would be like something from a D. W. Griffith movie. So I’m hysterical and dramatic. That’s how it goes, I guess.

Today, they brought Dad down to radiology on a stretcher, to X-ray those lungs of his and try to figure out why it is he’s having these latest troubles. They interrupted our game, and he almost literally leapt out of bed and into the stretcher, to the alarm of the nurses in attendance. It’s not that he’s particularly sprighty, but more that he wants like hell to get into the stretcher and not have to stand, which exhausts him down to his toe bones.

Down we went, into the maze of this crazy hospital, down corridors with no windows, decorated now and again with framed art prints of no artist of any worth, stuff bought no doubt in a catalogue. Finally we reached room 10 in Radiology. “You’re lucky,” the nurse chimed in, “this is the children’s room!” So it was.

The linoleum floors were done to look like we were wheeling by on a cobblestone path, perhaps trod by elves and hobbits, and the walls were painted like a friendly forest scene. Rising from the foor, one giant tree wrapped its limbs around the room as if to embrace the young visitors. The sky was perfectly blue. “See if you can find twenty-five birds,” the nurse said as she departed. “There’s more than that–they’re hidden.”

Sure enough, a local John James Audubon had adorned the giant tree with birds, birds, birds–canaries, cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, orioles, and even butterflies fluttering about. It was relaxing. After the long, ugly hallways and impersonal rooms, you wanted to sit in there, imagining the smell of a wet forest floor, a breeze or two, and not the whoosh of air condition or the constant hum of the oxygen machine.

Back in our room, we watched Rio Bravo, fun as always is if not a little long, and then Dad fell asleep and missed the power going out in his room from the storm beating at the windows. Later, he woke, and asked me to stay with him, that he was worried and wanted me there. I wish I could say that I exuded confidence, but really my fear was palpable and probably reflected on my face.

He just repeated, “just stay with me, that will be fine.” He fell asleep, but not before asking me to look up actor John Russell on IMDB, the bad guy from Rio Bravo, which I was glad to do. We talked about Russell, Ward Bond, and Harry Carey Jr. who received screen credit (even in the opening titles) but had his scenes cut.

“Stay ’til eight,” he said, and there was no way I was going to leave. Then he fell asleep. I watched him, and hoped he was feeling peaceful. Outside, the storm rumbled, and I wished right then there were some painted birds to keep me company.


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