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.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

On Father's Day and My Two Dads

Unlike Mother’s Day, Father’s Day is not a day that causes me to miss my wife any more than any other Sunday might. That’s not to downplay the fact that I would not even be a father had she not carried our daughter for 35 weeks and assisted in her safe arrival into this world, a fact for which I am eternally grateful. But for the past three summers, it just hasn’t been a day when I’ve dwelt on the fact that she is not here to celebrate with us. For me, Mother’s Day is a kick in the pants. But Father’s Day? Well, it’s a time to celebrate me.

Due to circumstances which I will write about in an upcoming post, we were confined to the house for most of this Father’s Day. As a result it was relatively low-key. We weren’t able to attend church, but my daughter still woke me at 8:00 with wishes of “Happy Father’s Day!” I find it really sweet that she remembers these things on her own and, at five, tries her best to make it a day about me. There were a couple of cards from her (compliments of my parents and some friends at church), one of which had a gift card to my favorite local home improvement store (and garden center). She had already given me some flowers for the yard when my parents were here for her preschool graduation, so the gift card came as a total surprise. But who doesn’t love to get gifts before they even set foot out of bed in the morning?

After the cards and gifts, my five-year-old informed me that we were having eggs for breakfast with toast and bacon. She enjoys helping out when I cook and knew that this was a breakfast she could do the majority of the prep-work for unaided. So I fried turkey bacon and brewed coffee while she cracked brown eggs and loaded whole wheat bread into the toaster. Then we celebrated by promptly consuming all of our hard work.

I spent a lot of time reading during the morning and afternoon and ultimately finished the book I started just the other day. Reading is a luxury for me and finishing a 500 page book just a few days after I began reading it is a rare treasure indeed. But my daughter was intent on making this day what I wanted, so a relaxing day of reading seemed to be the perfect fit.

While I was reading, she was busy creating art work at the kitchen table and watching tv. And when I was not reading, we managed to get in a good deal of play time. It is a balance I rarely get to enjoy as a single dad, and having it on Father’s Day was wonderful.

I also had an interesting experience when we drove through one of my daughter’s favorite fast-food restaurants to grab lunch. It was another of the myriad slow drive-thru’s in which I regularly seem to find myself, and we had waited a good twenty minutes by the time we arrived at the window. There was a familiar face there as we tend to frequent this place many Sundays after church. While they were getting our order straightened out (people had left the line after ordering, further slowing down the process), we had this conversation:

Oh, and by the way, Happy Father’s Day.


You’re a single dad, right?


I commend you. That’s a hard job.

That was it. Our food was ready and we drove off. But these kind words from a (mostly) stranger put a smile on my face. I tend to try my best not to draw attention to my “situation”, but we all enjoy a kind word or deed every now and again, and I truly appreciated her giving one to me at that moment.

The rest of our low-key day was just that. Dinner was pizza delivered to our door followed by ice cream from a nearby chain. They were out of vanilla, so I had my concoction made with chocolate instead. I liked it well enough that I may request they do it that way next time.

All in all, it was a nice day. I got to spend the entire day with my current best girl, and I managed not to grieve any more than normal for my former one.

And now, I’d like to take a moment to wax philosophical about dads.

I’ve written a bit about my dad in previous posts. I have also mentioned my stepdad in several posts. But I wanted to take this moment on Father’s Day to talk briefly about them both.

My dad died when I was nine. It seemed strange as a child, but is all the more so now that I am raising a daughter without a mom. I have three siblings and while my dad was not hands-on, I think he did the best he could. I do have some good memories with him and my mom has been great about sharing things throughout my lifetime that I would not have otherwise known about him. When I refer to my dad, that’s who I have in mind.

Much to my displeasure, my mom remarried when I was twelve. I will be the first to (now sheepishly) admit that I was not my stepdad’s number one fan. Even though my dad and I were not close, I think I felt like I would betray him if I let my stepdad in. (Keep this in mind if/when you begin dating again fellow widow/ers). Plus, we had personality conflicts that got in the way of building a good relationship. So for six years we lived in discord.

It wasn’t until I started college that I began to see things differently. It turns out that the only conflict in our personalities was that we were too much alike. I had matured quite a bit as well, and we had both done a great deal of healing - me from the death of my dad at a young age and him from the break-up of his first marriage and all that it entailed. But mostly, we were able to relate to each other as men more than as a strained stepfather/stepson.

Which is odd, because that’s when his best dad qualities surfaced.

Over the last thirteen or so years, we have forged a relationship similar to that of most adult fathers and sons. We enjoy spending time together, both in working on projects and relaxing during leisure activities when we visit one another. We don’t talk on the phone much, but I always know he is just a call away when one of my mechanical devices isn’t cooperating (which is often). Plus he takes good care of my mom (and what son doesn’t want that?)

Even so, I have never called him “dad”. At first it was out of a sense of loyalty to my dad. But as time marched on, it simply seemed trite to make the switch. But at this point, the “step” is merely a formality; a weak syllable preceding the truly important part of this compound word.

Because regardless of titles, in this rare instance blood and water have achieved equal viscosity.

Monday, June 15, 2009

On Milestones Marked Alone

On Friday, June 5, 2009, my daughter marked a milestone. That was the night of the first of (presumably) three graduations in her lifetime should we continue to live in the area in which we now reside. Where we live neither the close of kindergarten or middle school is marked with a ceremony, so this is the last time she will participate in a graduation ceremony of any kind until she completes high school. In thirteen years.

Many people here seem to think that the idea of a preschool graduation is overrated, an unnecessary waste of their temporal and financial resources. It is a burden to be borne and a nuisance with which to comply. I, however, have looked forward to this day for the last two years, albeit with mixed emotions.

Just a few months after my wife passed away, we were invited to the preschool graduation of the daughter of some very close friends, who also attended the same daycare/preschool as my daughter. Though I was still very much in no mood to celebrate, I put on the happiest face I possessed at the time and we (my then three-year-old and I) attended the ceremony. Had I not attended that night, I don’t believe I would have realized what a big deal is made over the ceremonies at this particular school and would therefore probably not have insisted that my daughter’s grandparents travel here when it was her turn to graduate. Suffice it so say, it is a very well-done program, especially when one considers that these children have not yet set foot inside an official public school building.

Thus, by the evening of June 4th, I had not only completed my final day of work for the school year, but had readied the entire house for enough company to fill all three of the bedrooms in my modest little abode. My parents arrived on Wednesday night, just about the time my daughter usually heads off to bed. I, of course, allowed her to stay up late that evening as they had traveled all day to see her. They took up residence in the official spare bedroom (which my daughter usually refers to as “Grandma and Grandpa’s room” even when they are not visiting) as they would be staying longer than the others. The following evening, my wife’s parents arrived and took up residence in my room as I thought that would be more comfortable for them than sleeping in my daughter’s room.

(A side note here: When I bought my daughter’s “big girl bed” last summer, I purchased a trundle bed with the specific thought that it would be ideal should both sets of grandparents have occasion to visit at the same time. The only trouble with this idea is that, even though the trundle pops up to meet her regular bed, I bought mattresses of two different thicknesses and thus there is a gap of an inch or two between the two beds. Not the end of the world, but not exactly comfortable for people nearing sixty, either. So I slept on the trundle at floor level and gave them my bed instead.)

I took the day off Friday, but had to send my daughter to school for the morning as it was the dress rehearsal for graduation and even a houseful of grandparents was not reason enough to justify missing it. So we arose as if it were a normal work day, with me dropping her off shortly before breakfast was served. I then spent more than twenty minutes in the drive-thru of one of my favorite breakfast chains, while they forgot my order and I eventually had to exit the vehicle and go inside to inquire about it. Breakfast finally in hand, I headed home.

On the way, I had what would be my first and only good cry of the weekend.

I managed to quit before I pulled in the driveway, and if anyone could tell nothing was mentioned and no looks were visibly exchanged. We all enjoyed a nice leisurely breakfast, then went our separate ways – her parents to the mall to find her mom a new dress, my mom and I to town to buy teacher gifts and pick up my daughter’s graduation gift from Daddy. My stepdad stayed home, presumably to make some work-related calls, but I think he really stayed to keep the dog company.

Mom and I picked my daughter up around noon. We managed to pry her out of her sobbing teachers’ arms only after I’d promised to bring her back to visit this summer. Once home, we all shared lunch, Then my daughter attempted to rest while the men checked and charged their camera and video camera batteries and the women ironed their dresses and fixed their hair. (It was very 1950’s except for the electronics).

We arrived at the preschool early, so there was actually a little time to relax before the ceremony started. I spent time talking to some friends and then the lights went down and a parade of children entered singing in very proud voices and waving small streamers. They were all dressed in their Sunday best, but none had donned a gown at this early stage of the ceremony. They looked like little grown-ups in theirs dresses and ties, but for the child-like adulation on their young faces. The group of forty or so children sang several songs that they had obviously practiced well before parading back out the doors through whence they had come.

This was followed by several specials, including two songs by a very talented young girl from across the state. Then more music was played as the children reentered, this time in their tiny pink and blue caps and gowns. If I thought they looked like little grown-ups before, I was definitely not prepared for this. They sang two more songs as a collective group, then each class was called up individually for the presentation of their diplomas. My daughter’s class was second and she was the second to last one called. But each child’s name was called and each was handed a diploma.

As I snapped as many pictures as possible, the gravity of my wife’s absence hit me in a way it hasn’t in quite some time.

I managed to hold myself together and continue smiling like the proud papa I was, but under the pride was an emptiness I had been naïve enough to believe I might not have to endure again. Now I know to expect it again when she starts school in a couple months.

After her class had been presented, she was allowed to come sit with me. So even though she sat mostly on my lap, the seat next to me was no longer completely empty. We waited and clapped as the other classes were presented, but my joy for the evening was complete, the fulfillment of which was perched on my left leg.

After the ceremony ended, we spent some time talking to our friends who had returned my favor of two years prior and come to see my little one walk across the stage. Then we headed to the fellowship hall for the reception. Most early childhood graduation ceremonies do not hold a reception of any kind, but I am certain none hold one quite like the one we enjoyed. Every table and wall in the entire hall was decorated – tablecloths, balloons, confetti - you name it. There was a full buffet line including some hot items and many (intentionally) cold ones and desserts as well. Every teacher my daughter has had in her five years there came and spoke to us, and most gave hugs as well. It was a joy to see the love that my daughter has experienced during her days while I was away at work. There is something comforting in not only knowing that your child is well cared for, but in seeing the manifestation of that love in moments such as this. It was a beautiful evening and one we will not soon forget.

Once we had eaten our fill and said our goodbyes, we piled back into the van and returned to my house. I’m not sure if it is customary to give gifts upon one’s preschool graduation, but I come from a family where giving gifts is one of the many ways we demonstrate our love for one another. So we capped off the evening by bestowing gifts on the new graduate. My parents gave her a beautiful cross necklace, which she has worn to church both Sundays since the graduation. My in-laws gave her some books about kindergarten (which she loves) and a bit of spending money (which didn’t last long!) She also received some gifts from some of her aunts and uncles who could not be here for the ceremony itself.

But everyone was gracious in allowing the biggest gift to be from me. In truth, it was something she was going to get anyway, but this occasion gave me a good excuse to do so.

As I mentioned before, it was a beautiful evening. And even though my wife’s absence was felt by us all in some capacity, I believe we did all that we could to make it the best celebration we possibly could.

And in the end, that is what truly mattered.