Thursday, June 25, 2009

On Single Parent Surgery

After a year of being followed by a local specialist, last week we were referred to a more specialized, but far less local doctor. After a thorough examination, he looked at me and stated that the problem was not apt to correct itself and inquired as to when I would prefer to schedule the initial surgery. We then met with his handler of all things related to surgical procedures and set a date and location, with the time to be determined only a day prior to the procedure itself. We next went to the outpatient surgery center and pre-registered. At neither location was I forced to reveal my status as a widower, nor did I readily supply them with that information.

Throughout these half-day proceedings in a familiar-for-all-the-wrong-reasons city, it became increasingly important for me to reassure my young daughter that this was a routine procedure of sorts and that things were going to be fine. It was understandable that she should be nervous given that this was the first time we’ve had to undergo surgery since it has been just the two of us. And increasingly important as this surgery was not for me.

It was for her.

As like as my daughter is to me, I cannot deny that she is equally, and possibly more so, like her mother. Sometimes even in ways that cannot be seen without medical instrumentation. While I had a relatively healthy childhood, consisting mainly of scrapes, bruises, stitches, and breaks that are not all that uncommon for a growing, if not somewhat clumsy, boy, I typically only found myself at the doctor or hospital for “normal” childhood ailments.

It was not so with my wife.

She was at the forefront of medical trends that are much more commonplace now. She had drainage tubes placed in her ears more than once, yet still had to undergo a right tympanoplasty at age seven when her twice-healed eardrum ruptured anyway. She also began wearing heavy prescription lenses around that time and it was often joked during her short adulthood that once she could see and hear she did much better in the classroom. As she grew older, her medical anomalies increased, but we’ll save that for another post.

Probably one entitled “Ways I Fear History Will Repeat Itself for My Daughter”.

Two days and a thousand fearful questions later, we received a call that my daughter’s surgery could be moved up a week as there had been a cancellation and we had already pre-registered. Once that call was made and I explained the situation, my daughter was much calmer about the whole idea.

So last Friday morning we headed to that city for the second time in a week so that she could undergo a right tympanoplasty. Yes, you read that correctly. A right tympanoplasty.

Just like her mother.

Only, not to be outdone, my daughter will also have to undergo a left tympanoplasty at some time in the (hopefully near) future. So not only is history repeating itself. It’s being taken a step further into somewhat new, but simultaneously familiar, territory.

My daughter, though, who had been understandably fearful about the prospect of this surgery when it was a week away had somehow, during the day on Thursday, found her brave face and attached it securely to her head. So much so, in fact, that I had to remind her on the drive to the surgery center that it was okay to be scared, during which time she admitted that she was, but remained my little trooper, nonetheless. This continued throughout the entire process that lead up to our separation at the actual time of surgery.

I had started the whole process with my brave face on in front of my daughter, but inside I was admittedly very nervous about the whole procedure. I have commented on other blogs that the one area of parenting that truly seems to frighten me is that of when my little one is sick. It’s not that I can’t handle her ailment(s) or that I have flashbacks to the medical nightmare I endured with her mother, but rather the fact that it seems to be the one area that I cannot control as readily as I’d like to. And though I don’t believe too many people would label me a control-freak, I do find that this single parent gig goes much better when I can plan, organize, execute, and adapt as needed. Illness seems to force the adaptation piece to the front of the line, with little to no room for the other elements, thereby thrusting me completely outside of my “comfort zone”.

I kept the brave act up for my daughter, because that’s what parents do. But in a rare moment of self-preservation, I attempted to pull a widow/er card. I actually called a friend to see if he would come sit with me while she was in surgery, but the voice mail message I left just said that I needed a somewhat important favor. I was surprised when I did not hear back from him, but it turns out he was out of town and did not get the message in time (and to his credit, when I called the surgery was still presumed to be a week and a half away. Had the schedule remained the same he would have been able to oblige my request).

But somewhere along the line my brave face stopped being an act and started being the real deal, so that by the time we were separated I felt as calm as we were both acting. I returned to the waiting room. But I did not have to wait alone.

A couple of things transpired during the seemingly infinite number of calls I ended up making and taking the night before the surgery. I phoned all three of my siblings, who I had planned to tell over the weekend during our somewhat regular conversations (both sets of my daughter’s grandparents having been duly informed after the initial appointment). I also received a call from a woman at church regarding some information I needed, during the course of which I mentioned my daughter’s surgery the following morning. Within an hour the senior pastor and the associate pastor’s wife had both called to see if we needed anything. And by the time I went to bed, a mass e-mail had been sent by yet another woman in my age-group asking for prayer for my little one.

In the meantime I had called to tell some other friends, who also happen to attend our church. They had been on my planned call list, whereas the entire church population had not. This was an oversight on my part. It was not that I didn’t want the church to know or that I did not want them to pray for my daughter. It just never crossed my mind to call anyone and tell them.

I guess that’s where being introverted and oblivious does not make for a good mix.

The wife of the friend couple I had called was off the following day and offered that she and her daughters could come sit with me (and, of course, see my daughter pre-surgery). I had decided I was not going to ask them to do that, so it was nice that they offered. It’s an hour and a half drive to this city, and they were there for close to four hours with us. On top of that, she offered to pick up my daughter’s pain medicine, as our pharmacy does not have a drive-thru and the doctor would not call it in ahead of time, when they returned to our town. When you live 800 miles away from your nearest family member, it’s good to know there are people you can count on when you need them most. Even when you don’t ask for their help.

I have decided that all single parents in this situation should have an unrelated friend come sit with them during their child’s surgery. When my daughter had her two sets of drainage tubes placed, at ten and twenty months respectively, my wife and I sat through both relatively short surgeries and unintentionally fed off of one another’s fear and anxiety. This time around, though it was a much longer surgery, the time seemed to pass rather quickly as my friend and her daughters seemed bent on making sure we talked about the same kinds of things we would discuss over lunch together. That’s not to say that I didn’t worry about my daughter during that time. But I definitely did not worry as much as I would have had I been alone with my novel, and I spent much less time imagining the horrors they were putting my baby through on the operating table as a result.

Still, the anxiety returned when I was called back to hear the results of the surgery. The doctor said everything went as planned and then proceeded to pummel me with a laundry-list of things she could and could not do over the next six weeks. He assured me that it would all be written in a concise handout that I would be provided with upon our departure, but in truth only about half of the information seems to have been presented there. Still, I think we have followed protocol accordingly, but we will find out for certain in about fourteen hours.

Though the surgery had gone well and we had both been braver than expected about it, I knew that I was not out of the woods entirely at this point. About fifteen minutes after I returned to the waiting room following my conference with the doctor, I was called back to my daughter’s bedside to see her for the first time post-surgery.

The room had a very hospital-like quality, much unlike the rest of the surgery center. No emotional upheaval so far. Once I found her bed number, I pulled back the curtain and saw the hospital bed and medical equipment. Still nothing. Even the sight of my little baby in her tiny gown seemingly consumed by that huge white hospital bed did nothing to send my flight response into overdrive. I just took her out of the bed, followed the nurse’s instructions while she took her medicine, and helped her fall back into a comfortable sleep. She was not a happy camper and kept repeating the three phrases “I’m tired. My ear hurts. I want this off of me” while tugging at her gown, but that didn’t last long before sleep resumed.

While I sat there holding her, my emotions completely in-check, the nurse started a conversation.

Are you all by yourself? (Here it comes).

Yes. (Maybe she’ll leave it alone).

There’s no one else with you?

Nope. (Not anymore. They’d gone after I went back to sit with her).

She gave a thoughtful pause while she attempted to formulate another way of asking the question that might elicit more information. In an attempt to ward off further questioning, I offered up this:

I’m a single parent. (Maybe that will do it).

Another thoughtful pause.

So does she stay with you most of the time? (Great. Now I’m going to have to spell it out for her. Just what I wanted not to do.)

Her mom died two years ago.

The next question threw me for a loop.

Are you a school teacher?

It seemed a strange segue way, especially when no condolences had been offered, but she asked further questions about where I lived and worked, none of which rang a bell for her. She said she felt like she knew me though and the fact that she knew my occupation (generally speaking) when it would not have been listed that way on the paperwork was enough to give me pause.

I wondered if she might just be a reader of this blog.

But since I don’t make it a habit to put a face with this blog, I did not offer this option, but instead left her to her own curiosity (So if you’re out there reading this, kind nurse, please know that no harm was done and I mean no ill-will by writing about our conversation).

She left and I placed my daughter back on the bed as she was not having an easy time finding comfort in my arms. When that happens, it is usually a sign that she wants to stretch out, and sure enough, she fell into a deep sleep upon her return to the bed. I sat in the darkened area thinking that things had gone much better than I had thought they would, given that this was my first time in a hospital-like setting since my wife passed away in one. I was going to escape almost completely unscathed.


But not quite.

Within a few minutes someone was wheeled into the bay next to my daughter’s. The curtain was only pulled partway and, judging by the hands and body size, it appeared to be an adult male of advanced age. I do not presume to know the details of his situation, but given what I could hear both from him and the nurses, it appeared that things had not gone as well as planned and that he needed additional care during the initial stages of his recovery. There were medical terms flying, medication names being rattled off, physical ailments soaring. There were hospital machine noises and each one seemed to be sounding right inside my ear. It was almost too much to handle. My flight response, which had been so completely dormant throughout the morning, suddenly found overdrive, and it was all I could do not to bolt out of the room, searching for the nearest exit from the building as I ran.

But you can’t do that when you have sole responsibility for your child.

So instead, I pulled my fast-paced FBI thriller, something with which I have no prior experience, out of my bag and tried my best to lose myself in the elements of the story while keeping a close, watchful eye on my still-snoozing daughter. I wish I could say that my emotional response immediately subsided upon drawing out my book, but it was a much more gradual fade than that. After about ten minutes the nurse came in with discharge instructions and by the time she was finished I was as close to being back to normal as possible. I took my still sleeping daughter to the van, buckled her safely into her car seat, and listened to the sounds of her breathing as I pulled out of the parking lot and started toward home.

While I was mentally preparing myself for this surgery, I went over every aspect I could possibly think of that might be an emotional trigger for me. I thought about the hospital-like setting. I pondered the effects of seeing my daughter in a hospital gown. I worried about the repercussions of her head-encompassing bandages following surgery. I even thought about the primal noises she might make when coming out of the anesthesia. But it never once occurred to me that the trigger might come from an outside source. And it never once occurred to me that my flight response would be as strong as it was.

But at the same time, I also never doubted that I wouldn’t give in to it.

My daughter woke up when we arrived home that afternoon and stayed awake until about 9:30 that night. She took a second dose of pain medicine, which I insisted upon, after dinner. She was asleep before her bedtime dosage and never asked for any more. We spent a relatively quiet weekend together at home, and she returned to her normal schedule Monday, just with limited activities until her next appointment in fourteen hours.

Actually, make that twelve hours.


  1. you have my most heart-felt respect. i sensed your unrest throughout the reading of your blog and i empathize greatly. know that, without going into it, i understand exactly what you went through. not a great help to say that over this venue but every once in a while, someone will connect with me on something and to simply read their words and feel their compassion for me does touch me. it does help

    i wish someone had been there with you. i never called anyone but there was a priest i had caddied for on the golf course who came to sit with me in the ICU waiting room - showed up at 1:30 AM with these wonderful smelling hamburgers to share. he stayed until dawn - woke me in my chair for the every two hour interval of 5 min. visits - and would talk to me afterwards until i fell asleep again.

    as for being the control freak. ignore them. you are an only parent, and most definitely not by choice. you have to be the everything for your daughter. it's not control, it's just staying on top of life so that you can ward off as many unpleasant surprises as possible.

    you did a great job, dad. you deserve and have my respect.

  2. 3SF --

    I'm so sorry you had to handle this, but it sounds like you did as great a job as anyone could, even with a partner. I always hear your competence under the doubts, I'm sure your daughter felt your steadiness throughout what must have been very stressful for her.

    Congratulations on passing another milestone. Perhaps they are more like kidney stones or gall stones?

    Your daughter (and you) can expect a special prayer from my UU congregation this coming Sunday. Should be around 11 a.m. and you might recognize it by a chaotic look, Babel of sound, pop music - maybe Natasha Bedingfield or Peter Gabriel, and a bunch of rainbows streaming along behind.



  3. Glad to hear that all turned out well. It's always amazing to me the depths of strength from which the widowed draw...we all rock, even when we simply don't want to!

  4. WomanNShadows - You kind words continue to touch my heart. And the respect is very much mutual.

    Supa - Thanks for the prayers and support, both of which are always welcome.

    SJW - There are many things in the widowed life about which we are given no choice. Strength is our greatest, and sometimes only gift in those times.

  5. You are a GREAT inspiration for those with "little ones" (and I don't even have children).
    You and your beautiful daughter are always in my prayers.

    Thank you for sharing-