The Diet Coke Moment

When my father first got sick last summer and ended up in the hospital, I debated even going to New Jersey to see him.  Part of this was driven by the naive belief that his condition wasn’t actually that serious — more on this later — and part of it from the memory of conversations  past that went something like this:

Me: “If you moved to Boston, it would be a lot easier for me if something went wrong.  In New Jersey there’s not much I can do since I live here.”
My father: “I know — but don’t worry, I’m doing fine right now.”
Me (considering): “That’s true until it won’t be, and then we have real problems.”

I found out he had fallen ill when we couldn’t locate him for 2 days.  We had called him on his birthday and he sounded discombobulated, distant, not all there.  Now I know that C Diff has dementia as a side effect.  That was on a Sunday.  By Tuesday, my brother was worried.  He had called an ambulance that Sunday night, it turns out, and was admitted to the hospital.  From his room’s old-school phone (Side note: why do even brand-new hospitals have terrible telecommununications?  Makes no sense.), he couldn’t figure out how to call long distance, couldn’t get help to call my brother or me, and hadn’t grabbed his cellphone on the way out of the house.

Finally he had called a neighbor, who got in touch with us.

I talked it through with my business partner, who had recently lost his father.  He kindly reminded me that although it was probably nothing, I should go see my father.  So I skipped out of work and called to let him know I was coming.  Two trains and a car ride later, I made it to Princeton Medical Center.

So I arrived to his room.  The first thing he said to me in a dry-throated hospital whisper was “what took you so long?”  I had almost forgotten how angry he could make at moments where I wanted to feel empathy, love, respect, admiration for my father, anything but anger.  And then before I could respond, he croaked out 2 more words: “Diet Coke”.

The doctors wouldn’t give him Diet Coke.  That’s odd, I thought.  Later that day when I was talking to one of the doctors, I understood why they were being so cautious.  This is when I discovered that C Diff is a deadly bacterial infection with a 50% survival rate in people that age.  My father’s intestines were so inflamed that his stomach had begun to swell.  The Vancomycin and Flagyl pumped intravenously into his system had slowed the spread of the infection, but couldn’t stop it.  It seemed, she told me, that surgery would likely be required to repair them.

There are a few moments in your life where you realize that some moments ago, everything changed, and you just didn’t know it yet.  When you find yourself unexpectedly in love with the woman who will become your wife and you flash back to the time you first met her and were oblivious to the enormity of what had just happened.  When your child repeats something about themselves you once said in anger and didn’t mean, and you don’t remember it, but they do and maybe always will.  The instant when a doctor tells you that your father is probably going to die, and even if he lives, you understand that he is now your responsibility.

That happened when he had gotten sick on Sunday.  Now it was Wednesday.

I did two things.  First, I called my brother and told him that he had to drop what he was doing and get on a plane, right now.  I didn’t know how much longer my father would be himself, and I didn’t want my brother to miss it.  And I convinced the doctor to let him have a Diet Coke.

I don’t know why I zeroed in on this, my first real act of being a caregiver.  My father is a creature of habits and Diet Coke was one that made things seem a little more normal.  I thought that could help him.  Maybe I wanted to see if I could convince the doctor as some sort of way of using my competitive nature to re-inject some normalcy into a situation that blindsided me.

It had one unintended effect, which was to convince my father that I could and would take care of him.  As signals went, I probably couldn’t have picked a more powerful one.

Since this blog is about being part of the Sandwich Generation and this happened 18 months ago, obviously he survived.  By now, Death should know better than to come for my father uninvited; he’ll probably decide when he’s ready and give Death the nod.  Within 60 days of this episode, we moved him to Massachusetts so that if something like this happened again, one of us would be nearby.

It worked.  9 months later he was back in the hospital.

I wrote an entry a few months ago called “Irony Alert”, so named because I had set up a Sandwich Generation support group only to miss the first meeting because I was with my father in the hospital.  He had awakened to find himself unable to move from bed and needed to be lifted out of the bed, wheeled in a gurney from the building, and taken by ambulance to Metrowest Medical Center.

I knew exactly what to do.  I grabbed his cellphone, his iPad, his headphones, an extra pair of pajamas.  And 3 Diet Cokes with plenty of straws.

I’ve since learned that I can’t control most of what happens with his health.  But what he drinks while he’s being poked and prodded by doctors?  There I am the master.  And he knows that.  Our relationship has never been the same since.  It was the moment, I know, that everything changed.

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