One might suppose that Dad, as a rule, feels good about his life, for whenever anyone asks him How are you? he responds, “I’m marvelously well, thank you.” Living so close to him as I have, I know this response to be a well-studied lie. How can he truthfully lie helpless in his hospital bed and truthfully represent himself as being marvelously well? Not for several decades did I realize that Dad is not necessarily doing well all the time, and at times might be feeling great distress, and that his rote response manifests an intentional positivity in the face of serious adversity. Mike, the physical therapist, brisked into the room with a How are you today, Nelson? And Dad whispered hoarsely, I’m marvelously well, thank you. “Excellent! In that case, let’s get to work.” The time of day had come for therapy: scooting to launch position on the bed; standing up tall—“Butt in! Chest out! Head up!”—moving the walker toward the bathroom—“Stay inside that walker! No leaning over it!”—transitioning to the toilet or shower stool, and repeating the steps properly on his way back to bed. “Excellent! Again!” Before her Friday visit with Dad, Mom endured her annual mammogram (which she delays every year to month 13, so that over the course of 12 years she will have one less annual instance of mashing her breasts between photographic plates. She told a young Jeanette once, “Getting a mammogram is like lying down in the road and having a truck tire run over your breast!” But Mom has no memory of uttering the simile. At the rehabilitation center after the radiology center, we sat around Dad’s hospital bed, fatigued after therapy, to pass the time with Trivial Pursuit questions, like How thick is a hockey puck? and What nation’s land did Vicente Yanez discover in 1500 and claim for Portugal? Brazil, of course—we all knew that one. We followed Dad in his power wheelchair down the hall and out the facility to a patio with stuffed lawn furniture, and Dad told us of his dream the night before, in which he had seen himself strong enough to climb the stairs in his own house to sleep in his own bed. Sarah and I shivered at the thought. “That’s great, Dad,” I tread lightly. “Keep working hard here so you can be as strong as possible when you get home.” What I really felt was panic at Dad thinking he could go right back to the way things were before the ambulance ride, panic at needing to lift him out of his chair, transition him to his walker, pull him up the stairs with the belt, and lift his legs into bed, panic at the possibility of resuming that unbearable mental strain. Dad had mentioned his dream to Mike, the physical therapist, who responded, “I’ll tell you about my dream last night. As you know, I have seven children, and I dreamed that my wife gave birth to twenty babies, all at once, and I awoke sweating and wondering how I could possibly raise 27 children.” Dad telling Mike’s dream calmed me somewhat, for I understood Dad to subtly imply that he suspected his dream may not be prophetic, just as Mike’s certainly was not. Still, I suspect my new home duties will include drilling Dad with “Butt in! Chest out! Head up!” The sun had set. I offered a family prayer in Dad’s room, giving thanks for strength and progress, for hope, and soliciting future blessings, and on the way out the door, I called, “Alexa, play Quiet City by Aaron Copland,” and closed the door on eleven minutes of gentle sounds conjuring a past century’s early-morning misty city skyscape, tinged with pink and red.
(Pictured above: a sign Sarah hung in Dad’s room to help find humor and hope in the unexpected.)
Jeanette designed and printed these t-shirts for the family, radiating Dad’s mantra: “I’m marvelously well, thank you.” We wore the shirts in these family photos the day before Dad’s hospitalization. He wears it daily in the rehab center.