When I finally made it to his room in the hospital’s orthopedic rehab wing, my father resignedly said, by way of greeting, that “the Indian doctor” had told him his sodium was still low. They might not discharge him tomorrow, after all.
Actually, when I first stepped into the room, he was asleep, mouth agape. But consciousness is more of a fluid state in a hospital room.
He nodded off again.
He came to and spotted me on the couch by the bed, doing the crossword.
“I might just walk out of here,” he announced, a continuation of the story.
“I’d like to see you try.”
“Oh you don’t think I can?!” he snapped, switch flipped.
“I just think there’s a lot of staff out there,” I tried.
“What are they going to do, arrest me?”
His new hip was fine, it seemed, but the bloodwork was always tripping him up, ever since the first fall had shattered his kneecap more than two years prior. Surgeries and surgeries, infections and infections. Endless physical therapists.
“You had lots of therapy today?”
“Yes, yes. Very exhausting,” he said. And then, with an eye-roll, “And I saw the speech therapist, too.”
Dad had worked for more than 40 years as a professional actor in regional theater. In grad school, a professor sent him to speech class to address a slight lisp and “Southern regionalisms.” During his first professional gig, a director had told him his Alabama accent was unintelligible.
In my lifetime, my father has always spoken in precise, elevated American, Frasier Crane-style, to the extent my school friends would ask if he were British.
These days, speech therapy involved word games and memorization exercises and tips for proper swallowing. He bemoaned the affront to his intelligence, but maybe the implied attack on his diction stung, too.
At 5:15, “dinner time,” the CNA came to put him in his wheelchair and take him to the cafeteria. I trailed them down the hall, stealing precious soothing moments to stare at my phone, to see what was happening elsewhere. I’d planned on leaving for the day when Dad joined the dozen or so fellow patients at the communal table, but instead he asked to be steered off to a corner by himself.
He didn’t mind eating alone—preferred it, I’m sure—but I worried at the optics, that the staff would think I was abandoning him. So I sat with my backpack on and tried to look engaged, without staring, as Dad tackled chicken masala with a plastic knife and fork. Three times I declined the mini chocolate eclairs on his tray.
“I’m not going to eat them,” he’d say.
“Neither am I and I don’t want to have to carry them around with me.”
They did, in fact, discharge him the following day. Mom asked that I come and be with him at the house while she ran errands. Someone had to be there, she said, in case he wanted to get up.
He was sound asleep in front of the television when I came in. I set up my laptop on the dining table, one headphone in, half listening from the other room.
He’d been watching a PBS special on the Civil Rights Movement, but at 3 p.m. it ticked over to some animated kids’ program with a bevy of cartoony voices, all roller-coaster pitch and nasal mania. I tried to envision the actors in booths—real people reading from iPad scripts and speaking these strange voices into microphones—but I couldn’t summon them. Even from the other room, I only saw the line-drawn movement of colorful monsters, leaping out from the television and onto the cool white tile, trumpeting onward, in tune with the occasional snore.