I saw my phone light up without a ring while I sat waiting at the bus stop after my therapy appointment. Those sessions always drained me and I didn’t really want to answer the phone. But looking at the caller-id I didn’t have anything else I was doing and I’d been avoiding the phone for far too long.
“Hello,” I said, pressing the little black rectangle against the side of my head.
“Hey there, girl,” he responded. I could hear the slur in his words and I knew he had been drinking again. “Did I catch you at a good time?”
“I’m just waiting on a bus,” I told him over the sound of the busy street.
“Oh, good,” he said with the rising and falling inflection I’d become very familiar with. “I just wanted to update you on how things are going here.”
I felt my chest clench. By my calculations it was 9pm on the East coast and a drunken phone call at that time with the phrase “update you on how things are going” generally meant I was in for some more bad news. “What’s going on, Dad?” I asked. “Is everything ok?”
My sister had made her way to the ER in Austin. There was a suspicion of appendicitis but it turned out to be a ruptured cyst on an ovary. By all accounts, the amount of pain she was in was agonizing. My dad made a comment about the male friend that came to my sister’s aid to get her home from the ER and also communicate things to him.
“I don’t understand their relationship, do you?” he asked me. “She doesn’t tell me anything about it. I just know that when she was in high school and we were in North Carolina she had all these nice guys that wanted to do nice things for her and she just strung them along. I got on her case about it.”
I bit my tongue, since by the time she was high school I had made my own escape to Ohio. I couldn’t judge how she might have decided to make her own escapes from the way that we grew up and the mantle of family history that we were carrying on our shoulders. He continued to talk about how opaque she made her relationships to him and when he wasn’t getting the responses he wanted out of me he stopped to ask, “Am I being mean?”
I was ready with an answer because I didn’t want to think about the things he thought of me behind my back. “I don’t know much about their relationship either, dad. What I do know from what little interaction I’ve had is that he loves her and cares about her wellbeing. The actual status of their relationship and what that means in the long term is up to them. He’s been there for her more than anyone else I know when we haven’t.”
My dad stop trying to drunkenly dwell on the relationship status of his favorite daughter and told me that Susan (his wife) was in the ICU again. He explained that things weren’t looking good and the pulmonologist said she was having heart failure due to an auto-immune reaction. He said that he’s been watching her decline since before the accident in February and that set her back even more.
“Well what’s the diagnosis?” I asked him.
Congestive heart failure was the response. He even used the words “she’s dying.”
My chest clenched even more. “What do you mean ‘dying’?” I asked trying to remain rational around the pile of people that were also relying on public transit that day.
He said that I needed to be careful who I said that to; that the reason I had seen him so “down” in February during my visit was because he’d been watching her waste away. I felt frustrated and explained that if congestive heart failure was a symptom of an auto-immune problem that wasn’t the actual diagnosis. What was the auto-immune disease and how were they treating it? I received a non-answer.
“Three rheumatologists have already taken a look at her. One of them was from Atlanta! I’ve been taking care of her and feeding her and sitting with her,” he told me as if he’d already tried everything. I explained that maybe it was time to look for yet another opinion if there was a chance that there was something treatable.
“Sitting at her bedside is being supportive,” I acknowledged, “but it’s not a diagnosis and you need to find someone that can provide one so that you can give her a fighting chance.”
“Well you just need to talk to Melissa,” he responded referring to Susan’s daughter. “I know that between the two of you, you’ll be bull dogs and take care of things.”
Maybe it was the fact that I was just freshly out of a therapy session with my counselor discussing how to curb my co-dependent nature, or due to my boarding a crowded bus surrounded by strangers but I felt rage and frustration that I focused very quietly.
“Dad,” I paused looking for the right words. “Dad, I’m not sure what you’re asking me to do but I’m in Seattle and you’re in Atlanta. I cannot be your bulldog. Susan is sick enough that can’t fight for what she needs and I’m not in a position to be her advocate. You need to step up and be her advocate. You need to be her husband.”
He didn’t respond. I think we were both shocked because I had never once spoken to my dad that directly even if I’d wanted to. I felt like I was finally admitting to wearing the adult shoes he had insisted on trying to put me in since his divorce with my mother. But instead of my father’s battered, brown, dirty hand-me-down shoes that were three sizes too big, I had decided to pick up a polished pair of red power heels that rang with authority in every stride. I was telling him, “It’s time to wear your own shoes, or get a new pair.” Be an adult.
There was stammering and back pedaling and I could see him trying to insert his head in the sand in the same way he did when faced with anything regarding settling my dead brother’s estate. He tried to downplay his earlier statements by saying, “We’re all dying, really” and “You know I’d never ask you to be a bulldog if you didn’t want to.” I had effectively ended the conversation. He hung up with his “I love you. I’m proud of you. You’re the bestest!”
I hung up the phone, surrounded by silent people and feeling shaken. At that point I didn’t care how much they might have overheard but I was very grateful for every penny I had been spending on therapy because even though I felt helpless and upset about Susan’s situation I felt like I had still said the right things. I took a deep breath and then I picked up the phone to call my sister.