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.
At the office, he spent hours on the phone, brokering deals, arranging client meetings and talking politics. When I appeared with files or message slips, he’d motion for me to set them down and then go on with what he was doing. I don’t think he said more than 10 words to me that summer at work. But, at home, he was the first to ask me to stay for dinner and invite me to join in on weekend plans. We’d be sitting around the dining room table or out by the pool, and he’d recount stories from his alma mater, where I was enrolled. He also shared stories from Brad’s childhood. On one occasion, he pulled out reels of family movies. But when he couldn’t get the Super 8 projector to work, I mentioned that my dad had one just like it.
“Run home and get it,” he said. “And, bring us your home movies so we can see how cute you were when you were little.”
By next summer, I felt like part of the family. One evening, Brad had a work dinner in New York and asked me to meet up with him afterward. When Mr. S. heard I was planning to take the train alone, he insisted on driving me. We made small talk, and then he broached the subject of Brad and me and our recent rocky period.
“I just want you to know that when Brad was acting like a jerk and taking you for granted, it was because he was scared,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“He told me you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to him, and he doesn’t want to lose you. Sometimes, we push the one we love away to keep from getting hurt,” he explained.
“Oh,” I said.
“He loves you.”
Then I got quiet. It felt strange to have this conversation with an adult male. The one time my own father had approached me with advice on relationships, he squirmed and avoided eye contact, and I was uncomfortable too. Without history or baggage, it was easy to talk to Mr. S.
When Dad died that November, I asked my husband and my mother-in-law if I could speak at his funeral. “Of course,” they said. Brad would speak, then me, followed by his brother and sister. Hours before the service, I asked Brad if he thought his brother and sister were upset that I was giving a eulogy.
“Why would you think that?” he asked.
“I’m just an in-law,” I said. “Besides, when the three of you tease each other about being Dad’s favorite, inevitably, one of you adds, ‘actually, it’s Melissa.’”
“Don’t be ridiculous," I said. "He loved you.”
I know I wasn’t Dad’s favorite. But, I was his Melissa.