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Losing Dad

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Photo Credit: Kate Gabrielle

I went to bed early, but Hubby couldn’t sleep. All four siblings and their families would be in one place the next day, arriving from other areas and states to celebrate Christmas together. Dad’s nine grandchildren would be in one room for the first time in over two years.

I woke to Hubby’s voice as he grabbed his keys.

“Dad fell; I’m headed to his house.”

When he arrived at my father-in-law’s home, Hubby could tell something wasn’t right. He couldn’t get Dad up, so called an ambulance. He and the two emergency crew members managed to lug Dad’s six-foot-five-inch John Wayne frame into a chair. They talked him into going to the hospital.

Later that morning, doctors determined his hip was broken. As a candidate for surgery, Dad’s prognosis was bright—fall victims unable to have surgery don’t recover well, but those able to have surgery often move back into life just as well as before the fall. When the kids and I arrived at the hospital, Dad was sleeping. I offered to sit with him while Hubby took a nap; our brother-in-law took the kids to the waiting room.

In the peaceful, dark room, I watched dad sleep from the ubiquitous pink vinyl visitors chair. The warm smell of clean, bleached cotton permeated the room, almost overshadowing the sharp odor of disinfectant. A sharp contrast to the calm in the room, nurses bustled past the doorway, half hidden by a curtain.

A few minutes later, the anesthesiologist arrived, flipped on a light and woke Dad to discuss the surgery. I sent a text to notify Hubby, then turned to listen.

You are still a candidate for surgery but as the anesthesiologist, I want you to understand the risk. On a scale of 1 to 5, you’re a 4+. Your heart is not working properly. I need to make sure you are clear about the possible outcomes.

Dad immediately agreed that he understood his risk but wanted to do the surgery anyway. I asked him if he wanted to discuss it with Hubby first.

His eyes locked on mine. Motioning to his hip, he said, “I want to do the surgery. This is no way to live.”

He stared at me for another moment, as though making sure I received his message clearly, then nodded and looked at the anesthesiologist. “I don’t need to talk to anyone. I want the surgery.”

Hubby and my brother-in-law arrived with the kids just as a nurse swept into the room to begin surgery preparation. She allowed us time to give kisses and hugs and pray for Dad. As they wheeled him out, he gave Hubby a thumbs-up.

“I’ll beat this one, too.”

***

Several hours later, the anesthesiologist approached our group, a big smile shining through his droopy mustache.

Your dad came through the surgery just fine. He’ll be in his room in thirty minutes; then you can visit him.

In a collective exhale, our group relaxed.

Hubby chatted with his sister and her husband, their daughters played with phones, our children zoned in to their Kindles.

I tried to decipher a strange feeling, then realized it was mild surprise. I was absolutely happy he’d pulled through. However, I didn’t realize until that moment that I’d thought, during the conversation with the anesthesiologist, that he was telling me he might not make it—that he preferred heaven to living in bed.

And perhaps he was.

We waited.

Thirty minutes came and went.

Finally, the doors opened. The doctor, the nurse and the anesthesiologist appeared together, faces somber. Through the ensuing, one-sided conversation, the young surgeon sat as though in a trance, staring at the floor.

Right after I talked with you, we lost him. 

It was his heart. 

We did everything we could. 

We just couldn’t get him back. 

We did everything we could. 

Everything.

We were stunned. Two families were still traveling in, planning to come to the hospital so the grandkids could see Papa.

Holding each other tight, we sobbed. Several minutes later Hubby and I looked up, realizing together that our children—sitting several feet away—were still absorbed in their Kindle games. Thanks to headphones, they’d missed the tragedy. We experienced it again in their faces as we explained Papa had gone to heaven. Adopted grandchildren grieve just as deeply as biological grandchildren.

***

Take good care of him.

The anesthesiologist’s words have echoed in my mind all week.

I don’t know what caused him to zero in on Hubby. He shadowed us as we walked the empty, sterile hospital halls. He waited as Hubby and I held each other before approaching the bed where Dad’s still form lay. He pulled me aside as our somber group finally trickled away.

Wiping tears from his eyes, he insisted, “we did everything possible. Sometimes ‘everything’ just isn’t enough.” Nodding toward my husband’s retreating back, he said, “Please watch out for him. Take good care of him.” I hugged the good doctor, assuring him I would.

And for the past week, I’ve done my best. I know the toughest months are ahead of us.

We all knew this difficult time would eventually arrive; no one lives on this earth forever.

On the other hand, we didn’t expect it now. 

I’ve been terrified of the day we’d lose Dad because I was afraid it would destroy Hubby. We were all so close, especially since Mom died almost ten years ago. One of my favorite parts of Hubby is his loyalty to family, but I also worried how that loyalty might be torn in death.

Instead of destruction, this death brought something else.

I have never been so proud of my husband as during this week. He worked to create understanding and compromise. Took on tasks others didn’t feel emotionally able to handle. Remained strong support and loving comfort for our kids. Created a fabulous slide show to communicate the incredible story of Dad’s life. Wrote and delivered a heartfelt eulogy at the memorial service. Explained Dad’s faith in Jesus and our certain hope we’ll see him again one day.

 

Hubby is no different than he’s ever been; perhaps I just see him in a different light. Dad, who always reminded me of John Wayne, was larger than life in many ways; his escapades could fill a book and his presence filled the room. I was always focused, as was Hubby, on Dad.

Losing Dad allowed me to see that Hubby is just as much a force to be reckoned with. He generally focused that energy on helping Dad. Now, he’s the one supporting everyone, keeping the family together, guiding us all. He’s the keeper of the family spirit, the source of comfort, the voice of reason and wisdom—and everyone sees it.

I am so proud of him, and I WILL take good care of him.

 

 

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The Doll

Here’s the full first chapter.  I’m submitting the book idea at the end of the month, so if you have editorial commentary, now’s your chance. 🙂  

Summary: Colleen, adopted through foster care with her brother, dreams of finding her birth family and learning they are royalty. She hates chores and feels displaced by her adoptive parents’ pregnancy. She wishes her life were different, the life of a princess. A gift from her grandfather might make her wish reality. 

 

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Photo Credit: Justin Lincoln

I am so tired of that woman. She will not leave me alone.

 

I just want to have peace and quiet, but no. It’s bad enough that Mom puts her nose in my school business, calling my teachers, showing up for lunch without warning, bribing my friends with cookies so they’ll like her. But that’s not enough meddling in my life. Nope. She also makes me do work. Like I’m her slave or something. If I forget, she follows me around and nags.

 

“Chores are your duty as a citizen of this great land we call our household,” she tells me.

 

Chores. Ha. More like doing her job for her. Parents are supposed to take care of the house. Moms do the inside, dads take care of the lawn and the cars and all that. Or they hire someone. None of my friends have “chores.” So much for my childhood.

 

“You’re lucky, Colleen,” mom says. “Not every kid learns life skills. When you graduate, you’ll be able to survive on your own. I know you don’t appreciate it all, but chores are good for your character. Be thankful. Your life, even when you think it’s horrible, is someone else’s fairytale.”

 

“Fairytale, ha. Emily and Madison don’t have to learn life skills,” I complain.

 

She laughs. Laughs. Like it’s no big deal.

 

“Well, when they pull their first all-pink load of laundry out of the dryer in college, they’ll wish they did. In the meantime, you still need to clean the downstairs bathroom. People are coming over in three days, and you’ve left it a mess. And then sort your laundry so we can start a load for you. I’m asking you to clean up after yourself. It’s not like you’re Cinderella.”

 

Pink clothes? What does that even mean? And no, I’m not Cinderella. If only. I’d ride off with that prince and live in style.

 

My thirteenth birthday party is Saturday. I will be a TEENager. Almost eighteen. In just five more summers, I can be outta here. A few weeks ago, I said this out loud. Stupid me. She laughed then, too.  

 

“Wait,” she said, doubled over and gasping for air, “you’re killing me. Do you remember how long it’s been since you were eight years old?”

 

I sniffed. “That’s forever ago.”

 

“Exactly,” she said. By this time she was cackling, that annoying snorty laugh she does when she thinks something is really, really funny. “You are not almost eighteen. Trust me, five years is a long time. By the time you hit eighteen, thirteen will feel like ‘forever ago,’ too.”

I’m counting the days, believe me. One thousand, eight hundred twenty-nine, to be exact. In case you’re checking my math, don’t forget leap year.

 

I head downstairs to my bathroom. It’s actually the guest bathroom, but last year I sort of claimed it. Mom said it was fine as long as I clean it. And I do. Most of the time.

 

My twin brother Kevin and I used to share a bathroom. He’s completely gross. Leaving him in his filth was one of the best hygiene decisions I’ve ever made, right up there with deciding to wear deodorant. So he has to clean the upstairs bathroom himself. Now, if we could just get him to shower. With soap. Mom said he’ll start when he finally discovers girls. Like that will happen. He’s got his head so far inside his science books, he’s lucky he remembers to eat.

 

I wipe the toothpaste dots off the mirror. Mom always checks. She says “no one wants to see that.” I rub the chrome until it sparkles, then flick the rag across the counter. If the chrome is shiny, no one notices the rest. After I pour blue stuff in the toilet bowl, I figure the bathroom is good enough. It’s not like party guests are going to use the tub.

My birthday is horrible.

 

I knew this would be an awful day before I opened my eyes. Drops of rain splatter against my window as thunder crashes above. Kevin, always up “at the cracka,” according to my dad, is already adding his ridiculous noise to the cacophony. Apparently my parents gave him his big present early. Of all things, an electric guitar. My parents were thrilled when he started showing interest in music.


“Finally, we’ll hear something from Kevin other than science facts,” my dad winked at me yesterday from his perch on the edge of his favorite chair. Leaning over the Fender’s slick black and pearl body, he finished tuning the instrument and ran through a few chords. “Beautiful music will be a blessed change.”

 

Maybe, but this is not beautiful. Or music. It’s awful.

 

Wrapping a hypoallergenic, fiber-fill pillow around my head, I blunder out into the hall. The pillow stuffing shifts under my hands, soft and puffy. Still groggy, I try to keep it over my ears, skimming my shoulder along the wall for support. Mom appears, carrying a large gift bag.

 

“Happy Birthday, honey!” She crows. Yes, crows, like a rooster. It is way too early for this. I’m pretty sure it’s not even eight o’clock.

 

I narrowly avoid her kiss; it lands on my pillow.

“Can you do something about Kevin? I’m still trying to sleep!” I grit my teeth.

 

She laughs. Why does she always laugh at me? Like I’m trying to be funny. This is serious.

 

“Really, mom. It’s Saturday. It’s my birthday. I should be allowed to sleep in a little.” I pull the pillow tighter, trying to block the noise.

 

“It’s your birthday, Colleen. Plural. His too, you know. He can play if he wants.”

 

“It’s not playing. It’s noise,” I frown.

 

“Well, you remember what your teacher said after the Christmas program. ‘We’re supposed to make a joyful noise. Nobody said anything about talent.’ As long as he’s happy, and he’s making noise…” she trails off, looking at the hall clock.  “ And, hey, it’s already nine. You should be up anyway. I need your help.” She hefts the bag.

 

“Help? On my birthday?” I grimace. Can’t even catch a break on my birthday.

 

“Yes. If you’d cleaned the bathroom properly the other day, you could sleep longer. As it is, you gave it a lick and a promise instead of a good cleaning. So, now you have to clean a toilet on your special day. Seems unfair, I’m sure, but you did this to yourself.” She grins.

 

“I gave it a what?” I imagine licking the tub faucet.

 

“Never mind. Go.” She staggers down the hall under the weight of the bag and her enormous belly.
Yep, that’s right. She’s pregnant. Preggers. Bun in the oven. Having a baby. Knocked up. Mom, laughing again, asked me where I’d heard that last one. It’s so ridiculous, at their age.  I mean, seriously. She’s like, thirty-eight. And do you know what they had to do in order for her to get that way? So disgusting. I can’t even think about it.

 

 

The day she took me to find a dress for the eighth grade dance, she was all excited because she and dad went to the doctor that morning and they found out the baby is a girl. She couldn’t even concentrate on my dress. She said, “that’s great!” and, “beautiful!” every time I tried on something new, but I could tell she wasn’t even looking. Not really.

 

A little blue dress was already hanging in my changing room, the kind they’d never let me wear, so I tried it on for fun. It made me look older. I liked the way it stayed up without straps and barely skimmed my knee. I knew she wasn’t paying attention when I pranced out in front of the mirrors and she said, “wow, cute!”

 

I almost got away with it, but her eyes focused at the last minute and she said, “when you’re twenty-one, you can come back to get that one.”


Finally, she said, “come, on, just pick one already.”

 

She used to spend more time picking out my dress than I did.

 

Before the baby.

 

We spent the rest of the afternoon in the baby department, looking at frilly baby clothes. Everything was impossibly fluffy and lacy and pink. She gave away all my baby stuff years ago, so we have to buy it all again. And, since baby things are expensive, Kevin and I will have to pick between two weeks of summer camp, instead of getting to attend both. This baby is already irritating. I’m just waiting for her to tell me I have to let it share my room.

 

I toss the pillow back on my bed and pull on my favorite jeans, the ones with colorful cheetah print on the side. By the time I pull a brush through my hair, Kevin has stopped his racket. Thank God. Hopefully this new interest will go the way of his pet hissing cockroach, last year’s birthday present.

 

Mom said it escaped. I’m pretty sure she flushed it.

 

Pulling my hair into a ponytail, I head downstairs to scrub the toilet. Like a slave. On my birthday.

After she made me do everything three times, the bathroom finally met mom’s military inspection. Seriously, no one notices dust in the corners. Ridiculous waste of time. I got all sweaty scrubbing out the tub and had to take a shower, so all that work was for nothing. At least she didn’t make me clean it again.

 

Thirteen. I just can’t stop saying it. Thirteen. ThirTEEN. Finally a teenager.

 

The night before I turned five, I remember thinking I’d be able to reach the kitchen faucet in the morning. When I woke up, I ran to the sink, shocked to find the handle still several inches out of reach.

 

This time, I am a teenager. No question. Height is irrelevant; I am older. More mature. Almost eighteen. Almost out of here.

 

And then.

 

I can find my birth parents.

 

Kevin and I had other parents, but no one knows much about them except our mother was really young. “She loved you so much, she wanted you to have a family with parents who could take care of you.” That’s what they say to our faces. But once, years ago, I heard mom whispering to Aunt Melissa that the social worker said our grandmother forced our first mom to give us up. I think of my birth mother’s mom as a green-faced wicked witch, not a grandma.

 

I bet our mom was from a really rich family and the wicked grandmother just didn’t want to deal with the stigma of teenage pregnancy. We learned about stigma in my psychology elective class. It’s when people get treated differently because of something shameful they did.

 

So they dumped us into foster care for six months, and then Dad and Mom picked us up. A year later, we officially “belonged” to them. Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate what they did for us. But some days, I wish I knew about the family we were born into. And borne out of.
When I turn eighteen, I can see the files. And maybe, by that time, the wicked witch will be gone, and our birth mom will be happy to see us, and we’ll get to live like the modern-day royal family we were born to be.

 

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Photo Credit: Theresa Huse

 

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