On the day that I visited my father-in-law in the ICU at New York Hospital, I discovered he had been moved from a windowless room to one across the hall with a view of the East River. The cityscape would be a welcome distraction from his frail, ashen body, IV lines, and beeping machines. My father-in-law, an obese man, was now at his lowest weight.
It was October and Dad, 67, was going into his third month in the hospital, receiving treatment for an antibiotic-resistant infection he had acquired back in June, most likely during a hospitalization for cellulitis. It had been several weeks since I had seen him so I made the trip up from Pennsylvania. When I arrived, a nurse was hooking him up to a dialysis machine. “How’s my Melissa?” he asked. He smiled, but his voice lacked the spark I was used to hearing when he addressed me this way.
“I’m good,” I said, leaning over to kiss him. I offered the fresh-squeezed orange juice and blueberry muffin I had bought for him, but he waved it away. He introduced me to his nurse, telling her that I was his son Brad’s wife and the mother of his two oldest grandchildren. I sat down in the metal chair across from his bed and brought him up to speed on the girls. He asked about Brad’s work, wanting to know why he was taking on more administrative duties in his medical practice. I told him that he enjoyed the business side of medicine and was planning to go back to school for an MBA. I didn’t share that he had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, preventing him from operating and forcing him to spend more time in the office.
Unlike times when I had visited Dad with my husband and my mother-in-law, who are comfortable discussing health issues and providing hands-on care, now there were awkward pauses. At one point, I went to the window and commented on the view. I doodled on the dry erase board, where the nurse had written her name and the date. I returned to my chair and knocked over the orange juice I had set on the floor. As I jumped up to look for paper towels, Dad shouted, “Leave it! She’ll clean it up!” motioning to the nurse on the other side of the glass wall. I wondered if the pain caused him to react so harshly.
While the nurse’s aid mopped up the juice, I rummaged through my purse, trying to hide my uneasiness.
“Really, you don’t have to stay,” he said. “I’m sure there’re things you need to do before you head back.”
“I can stay a little longer,” I said.
“It’s fine, I’m tired.”
“I guess I’ll get going then.”
I gathered my things and kissed him goodbye. I put my hand on his shoulder, but couldn’t bring myself to lean in for a hug.
As I walked from the hospital, I felt bad about leaving. I’d been considered the kind and patient one. My husband, his brother and sister had admitted to screening Dad’s daily calls, while I was quick to answer them. I’d listen while he’d talk about some supermarket bargain or give a movie review. Then, he inquired about my family, asking about my grandparents’ health and how my mother was faring under the stress of caregiving.
Before he was “Dad,” he was Mr. S. The summer before college, Mr. S. hired me as a temp at his law firm. Brad and I had been dating for two months, but were classmates since elementary school. Mr. S. was the man who saved the day when one of the school buses broke down during our fifth-grade trip to Philadelphia. He chartered a coach bus to take us back to northern New Jersey, paying the driver in cash.