Friday, February 05, 2010

Little Big Foot: At the Hospital

The hospital was little changed from what Dee Anna remembered. The entryway was flanked by a cactus garden. It also boasted a three foot high stone carving of the state of Texas which held an engraved likeness of the long-ago doctor who had established the hospital.

Inside, a small Christmas tree stood in the entry. The smell was the same as hospitals everywhere, that amorphous blend of Betadyne, floor wax, lunch, and illness. The walls were a minty grey color and the floors were beige linoleum with grey flecked squares. When she was a child she had thought the flecks were interesting. Once, when a cousin was having surgery, Dee Anna had waited in the family waiting room with her mother and her Uncle Chuck. She had tried to count the number of flecks in each square. She had lost track, she recalled, at 67. How could the floor be the same after all this time?

"What nonsense our brains retain," Dee Anna thought impatiently to herself. "I can remember a useless snippet of information from 25 years ago but I can't remember what Michael's voice sounded like." She sighed, feeling the stress of the last few days and the lack of sleep. She unconsciously ran her hand over the top of her head , making her red hair stand up with electricity.

Phil was at the nurse's station talking softly with a petite Hispanic nurse who was wearing a smock featuring Sponge Bob Squarepants. She looked familiar. Was the nurse Lupita, who she had graduated high school with?

"C'mon Danna," called Phil softly, beckoning her. "Dad's down this way." He strode ahead, his back stiff and his steps determined, the heels of his cowboy boots making sharp taps on the polished floor. Reaching the closed door of a room at the end of the hall, he stopped and waited for her, and when she stood beside him he reached out for her hand, surprising her. He grinned. "Good Lord, sis, what did you do to your hair?" The smile faded and he took a deep breath, squeezing her hand before he dropped it. "Okay, ready?" He tapped softly on the door and then pushed it open.

The room was dim, the shades drawn against the afternoon sun. Even in December it could be bright on the Texas plains. After a moment, they could see the thermal blanket across the hospital bed. There was an oil painting of a farmhouse with a windmill on the wall behind a vinyl-covered reclining chair. The chair was empty. The soft but insistent "thup whoosh" of a respirator was the only sound. "They still have beds with crank handles!" Dee Anna thought incredulously, avoiding looking at the occupant of the bed for a long moment.

Slowly she moved forward. Her father looked older, greyer, face more wrinkled. He was thinner than she remembered. His hands were folded across his chest. Was he dead?

Dee Anna's heart lurched for a moment before she realized that if he had died the respirator would not still be whooshing away. She touched one of his hands gently. "Dad, it's me, Dee Anna." She turned to her brother, who still stood by the door. It was Dee Anna's turn to beckon. "Phil is here too." Phil moved slowly to the other side of the bed, eyes blank. Dee Anna felt a quick rush of tears, wondering what her father would think if he could look at the man standing there. Phil said nothing.

The little nurse stepped softly into the room. "The doctor is just down the hall so should be here soon to talk with you. Your mother is in the cafeteria but won't be long." Her voice dropped, "She's been here for three days, sleeping in that chair."

Dee Anna glanced at her name tag. "Hello, Lupita," she said. "I don't know if you remember me. You were in my senior class." Lupita smiled warmly as she reached out to touch Dee Anna's shoulder. "I remember you. I remember both of you." Her slight Spanish accent made her words soft. "You were the prettiest little thing, but so quiet." She paused, "And you," she said to Phil, "played basketball. I remember." She glanced shyly at Dee Anna. "Is it true what I heard? Are you really a preacher?"

A soft tap on the door and then Doctor Martin came into the room, a heavier, more florid version of the doctor Dee Anna remembered. He seemed mildly surprised. "Well, hello. Nice to see you both after so long." He ignored Dee Anna but extended a hand to Phil and shook it briefly before moving to the bed and spending a few moments checking on his patient. "Let's go down the hall to the waiting room and I'll give you an update on your father's condition" he said briefly.

The two of them obediently followed him out of the room. Dee Anna remembered him giving her a shot of penicillin when she had been about eight and ill with bronchitis. She had been embarrassed that he had given her the injection in her behind, and she had fought back tears. More useless recollections, she thought, feeling suddenly powerless and wanting to disappear back into the room.

"Get with it, Dee Anna," she chided herself. "You are a grownup with a child of your own, you are educated and you are independent." She took a deep breath. "I am woman, hear me roar!" she thought ruefully, feeling anything but. She squared her shoulders and marched after Dr. Martin and Phil.

The little waiting room held coffee and a bowl of fruit next to a small sink. Dee Anna wished she could wash her face. She and Phil sat down side by side on a vinyl sofa and Dr. Martin pulled up a straight-backed chair. High on the wall behind him, a television with too-bright color was on and Oprah was interviewing some man in a Hawaiian shirt. The sound was off, and Dee Anna found herself trying to read Oprah's lips, feeling distant and far away from the doctor and the little room. Her shoulder's ached with fatigue and her eyes felt grainy.

Dr Martin cleared his throat and began, "I suppose you two have heard that your father had a heart attack and a stroke. His condition is uncertain at the moment, though scans reveal minimal brain damage. Frankly, I'm not sure why he is not breathing on his own, nor why he has not regained consciousness. I expected he would have done so..."

Her mother's tall figure filled the doorway. "Well, look who's here. Hello, children."

She sat down heavily in an armchair across from them. "How are you, Bernice?" asked the doctor, looking concerned. "You really should get some sleep." After a moment, he went on, "Bud seems unchanged. That may be bad news, but it may be good news. I want to do a few other tests." He looked at Phil. "Take your mother home and make her go to bed."

Dee Anna felt like someone should ask him a question, but she couldn't think clearly. He stood, moving to the door. Turning, he nodded to their mother, and added, "I'll call you as soon as I have something to tell you. It's been three days, so something should change soon, one way or the other. We'll take care of Bud. Go home and get some sleep. And eat some real food. I expect your daughter knows how to cook something."

The doctor's departure left the three of them sitting in silence for long moments. Dee Anna looked at Phil who was gazing intently at the coffee pot. She remembered the day he had left home after a bitter argument. She had sobbed for hours and spent the next day in bed. For once, her mother said nothing and didn't even make her go to school.

He'd been gone when she left for college and she had only seen him twice since. The last time had been just after Madeline was born, and then he had left for a job on some farm out in South Dakota. His letters, always infrequent, had eventually stopped altogether.

When he showed up at the airport his appearance had surprised her. Always lanky, he was now thin and his shoulders were bony. His face looked weathered, but not just from the sun. He looked like a man who had seen too much, and his eyes were sad. She knew he'd come home to Texas a couple of months before and she had heard that he had said little to anyone except that he was looking for work. He'd found a job at the Ford dealership. He'd made it known to their mother that he had been in a drug rehabilitation unit in Houston, that he was now clean and sober, and that he would go to church when he was good and ready. Her mother hadn't told her any of this, but she'd had heard it from a cousin who occasionally sent emails. She had sent Phil a letter telling him of her new congregation in Little Big Foot.

She glanced at her mother, who sat with her head back and her eyes closed, face drawn with fatigue. Her hair was still thick and as red as ever, Dee Anna noted, wondering if it was dyed. She realized that, even now, her mother was still a lovely woman. She could look so pretty, Dee Anna remembered, with that stately figure and her bun of burnished hair. And then she could look so angry.

Her mother's eyes opened and Dee Anna realized that they were full of tears. She could not recall ever seeing her mother cry, even when Grandpa died. Now tears shone in her eyes and then slowly ran down her cheeks. At first Dee Anna was too surprised to speak, but after a moment she rose and went to her mother's side. "It'll be okay, Mom." She patted her mother's shoulder a little stiffly. "He will pull through. He's always been healthy, even though he was heavy..." Her voice trailed off as her mother looked up at her. Dee Ann was shocked to see the stark misery in her mother's face.

Had she loved him then, after all?

"Oh God. What will I do if he dies? What will I do?" Her mother's face twisted in anguish. For the first time since she had hear her mother's voice on the phone, crisply talking about her father being in the hospital, Dee Anna felt genuine compassion. She knelt by the chair, putting her arms around her mother's waist and praying deeply, without words. Phil stood staring at the two of them, their red hair touching as their heads came together, one with a bun that was coming undone and the other tousled. That hair was about the only way they were alike, he thought. Their mother was not the sort to want comforting.

"I never thought this would happen. He's too happy-go-lucky to be sick," she wailed. Dee Anna said nothing, but she stayed where she was. After a moment Phil came behind his mother and patted her back, clearing his throat and feeling miserable. For long moments he stared at the speckled pattern of the floor, fighting his own tears and wondering what he was crying about.

He cleared his throat again. "Maybe we should pray," he said.

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