When It Was Dark, You Carried the Sun in Your Hand
"When it was dark, you always carried the sun in your hand for me."
- Sean O'Casey, Three More Plays: The Silver Tassie, Purple Dust, Red Roses For Me
My father had heart surgery this week. He had been experiencing shortness of breath, and the doctor he told about it (again) finally listened; finally insisted that they schedule some tests.
The tests suggested additional exploration was needed, so they scheduled a "routine" heart catheterization surgery for Tuesday morning at the Ortenzio Heart Center at Holy Spirit hospital in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, not far from Marysville, where my oldest sister lives.
The catheterization revealed numerous worrisome issues, including an artery that was 95 to 99 percent blocked. Unbeknownst to him and to us, my father, age 82, had apparently been a walking time bomb. They kept him overnight and scheduled what turned out to be a successful double bypass heart surgery the following morning.
My father and mother got married in 1950, and have been happily married for 62 years. They paid all of our bills on a railroad brakeman's salary. The railroads weren't always a thriving business; there were worrisome threats of close-downs and layoffs much of the latter part of my father's professional life. They made due with little extra, but we had everything we needed.
In the very early years of their marriage, with help from his family, my father had built by hand the house my family lived in, in the rolling mountains of central Pennsylvania: in the shadow of Shade Mountain, to be more specific, a stone's throw from Lost Creek. There they raised six children: five girls and one boy. Their relationship - their marriage - has been a yardstick against which I have measured my own.
My mother never got her driver's license, and in the past several years has suffered the ongoing effects of macular degeneration and other eye issues. If she had gotten a driver's license, by now they wouldn't let her drive anyway due to her vision issues. Advanced arthritis has gnarled her hands, made it difficult for her to do simple tasks that require manual dexterity.
So my various siblings and I did our best to make ourselves available to assist in any way possible, including driving my mother from her home, which is about an hour from the hospital, to visit my father.
My husband and I had planned to visit my father on Saturday, a day I didn't have to work. We invited my mother to ride along to and from the hospital with us, and she took us up on the invitation. We would drive to Marysville and from there coordinate rides to and from the hospital with my sister, who was familiar with the local area.
The day dawned with an impressive sunrise: the orange sun playing peekaboo behind the clouds; the sky yellow, then golden, then on fire. The clouds looked painted. The sun appeared and disappeared; reappeared.
We were on the road by 8:30, picked my mom up around 10, and arrived at my sister's around 11. We snagged a few burgers at the local McDonald's (including an illicit quarter pounder with cheese for my dad) and arrived at the hospital by 11:30 or so. The day grew quickly hot and oppressive. The air conditioning at the hospital was welcoming, cool.
My dad was sitting up in a chair, with fewer tubes in him than he'd had earlier in the week. They had just taken out the oxygen tubes; his nose was still irritated from them. He ate just a few bites of the quarter pounder with cheese before pushing it away; said that watching the medical procedures they'd been doing to him had taken away his appetite. (My mother at his elbow, sweetly cajoling: Can't you eat just a few more bites?)
He complained that he couldn't sleep in the hospital because it was too loud there, too much going on. Somebody was always coming in to check on him, take some blood, give him medication, or stick another needle in him. Besides, it wasn't home.
We took turns talking with him; left the room when the nurses needed to do a procedure on him; checked in with him about the latest word from the doctors. He seemed to be doing as well as could be expected, all things considered, but he wanted to go home.
The doctors had told him if all went well, he'd need to spend just another two days in the hospital. However, the day before our visit, someone on the hospital's treatment team had urged my dad to go into in-patient rehabilitation before returning home. They gave him the hard sell on it; tried to get him to sign a paper. He was quite worked up about this.
He told them, "You need to call my wife," and gave them my mother's number. My mother straightened them out pretty expeditiously: if my father wanted to come home, he was coming home, not going to a rehab against his wishes.
As noontime turned into early afternoon, I could see my father was growing tired. He asked to be moved from the chair back into his bed, and my mother stood there by his bed, close by him. I heard them whispering together, saw them exchange kisses.
No, she reassured him, there would be nothing done against his will. No in-patient rehab if he didn't want it. And she filled him in on some basic details: did he know his artery had been 95 to 99 percent blocked?
She had brought his electric razor along. He hadn't shaved since Tuesday; maybe someone could help him shave later in the day. She ran a hand over his new whiskers, and he smiled. She giggled.
Flashback: I am a child living at home. My father works on the railroad. He leaves for work around 2:30 in the afternoon; gets home late at night, long after we kids are in bed, and he arrives smelling of creosote and cold steel. My mother greets him at the door with a kiss; with many kisses. She runs a hand over his new whiskers. He smiles, she giggles.
My sister and my husband and I huddled together, looking out the hospital window: lightning flashes from a coming storm. But behind us there was peace: my mother and father huddled together, talking quietly, leaning on each other. She did for him what she could. Did he want a Life Saver? She pulled two out, tried to open them with her gnarled hands. I took them from her, opened them, set them on a tray in front of my father.
I could see my father visibly growing more peaceful, drawing his strength from my mother; and she from him. Two trees that stand taller, intertwined. I suddenly understood that for him to get better, they must be together.
My mother hates to travel. I heard him whisper to her that she didn't need to come back to visit him again the next day; maybe she could stay home. She placated him, but I knew she'd be back. Wild horses couldn't keep her away from his hospital bed.
My mother whispered a farewell; we would be leaving soon. My father's breathing slowed and he seemed ready to drop off to sleep at last. We took our leave of him, heading out into the growing storms.
I couldn't see the sun anymore behind the clouds, but I knew it was still there in spite of the storm. Love keeps all the lamps lit; carries the sun in its hands when all else is darkness. I know this to be true, for I too have seen its light.