Thursday, July 9, 2015

A Letter to My Father (And a P.S. to My Mother)

On Wednesday, February 4th, 2015, I had an obligation in the morning and took a half day off of work - or so I planned. Instead of taking my normal commute via Metra, I caught the blue line at Cumberland (due to the proximity of aforementioned obligation) and had every intention of getting to work well before noon. The blue line got held up because a body was found on the tracks at Division, so everyone either had to evacuate or ride the L back west. Putting life into perspective, I refrained from getting pissed and annoyed and tried to catch the bus to the Loop. Of course everyone else had the same idea, and after waiting 25 minutes in the snowfall and losing feeling in my feet and hands, I was unable to secure a trip when the bus finally arrived. I decided to call the day a wash and requested time off for the entire day.

Remembering that you would make your daily lunch visit to take Arya out to do her business, I texted you to let you know that you didn't need to stop by the house. You suggested I bring her by your office one day to visit, and I told you I would come over after I got home and had something to eat. I think I had a sandwich that day, or something else that didn't require a lot of effort to make. Being the amateur chef you are, you would probably have some comments regarding the effort I'm willing to make for sustenance going into my body, but that's another matter. After getting Arya ready for our little field trip, we headed to your office. What I didn't realize was that was the last time I would see you in your "normal" state for quite some time.

Dad, we both know all families are different. Some families are super close and talk everyday about anything and everything. Some families catch up every once in a while or attend the obligatory parties such as holidays, graduations, weddings, funerals, etc. You, mom, Sam, Christine and the kids, and me fall in the latter category - the love and support is there, but I wouldn't say we're heavily involved in each other's lives. Expressing emotions never came easy, and we aren't necessarily the most chatty group of people (at least not with each other) and that's okay. It's just how we are. What I'm trying to get at is, seeing you that day was pure coincidence. What if I went into work at normal time via my normal transportation? What if I decided to kick back at home and not bring your grandpuppy to your office at all?

Then It Happened

The very next day I went into work as usual, and was spending my lunch break with a coworker in the Loop when I got the phone call from mom. She said it was an emergency and you had an accident, but there was no need for me to leave work at that moment or call in a favor from a cousin or two. She said that you were at the hospital getting ready for a CAT scan, but that you were still answering the doctor's questions.

What I learned later was that you were alone when you fell that morning, and I realized that if your coworker never called you wondering why you didn't show up to work, what would have mom and Sam come home to later that evening? What would have happened if Uncle Claudio didn't call an ambulance to the house from his hotel in Las Vegas?

Your skull endured some serious damage. We didn't know what to expect. They found blood in your brain and took about four hours to drain it during surgery, but you were still following the doctor's finger with your eyes before going under. I didn't know what I would see once they let us come see you after surgery. When I finally did see you, you looked like you had gotten into a car accident. I would never know if it looked worse than it felt, because today you still don't quite remember the series of events that would take place over the next several weeks.

Later I learned the reality of the scary condition you were in while the paramedics guided you to the ambulance - but you were still awake. What I eventually saw was reality of the mess left by your accident on your bathroom floor and bed, which we cleaned up when we got back from the hospital after your surgery and debriefing with the surgeon. All I could think was, "He was by himself. He was alone. What if..."

Watching Your Brain Recover

Over the next couple of days, one of the doctors at Good Samaritan told mom that you might be in the hospital for a couple of months, that you might have to undergo months of therapy and relearn basic functions, and you might not return to work for a year. We were expecting the worst but hoping for the best. What else could we do? We would be there for you no matter what. We were prepared to handle all of those things.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help but tear up as the nurse asked you to open your eyes, wiggle your toes, and squeeze their fingers, and watching you respond to all of those commands. It gave me hope. It helped me maintain a positive outlook on your condition. They said that it was too early to tell and everyone recovers differently, but watching that short moment helped me believe that you really would be okay.

I'd be lying if I said you didn't make me chuckle a few times while visiting you in the hospital. Your mind wasn't quite right, and no one could blame you. I am still curious as to what your brain was doing to repair itself while spending those weeks in the Critical Care Unit. Either way, I was there at least five times a week - we all were.

Despite the advice from medical professionals working with you, mom was at the hospital for hours at a time, taking days off of work to stay by your side. Even though she took the brunt of your vocal frustration, she stayed. She spent hours crying in the hospital, but she stayed. I don't know if I am as strong as her. I don't know if I would be strong enough to abide by marriage vows and stay by my husband's side as he became one of the most unpleasant people to be around, without being able to fairly blame him for it.

I'd be lying if I said you never disappointed me. Aside from being rude to mom, you wouldn't listen to anyone who just did their job in trying to care for you. They restrained your hands and wrists, yet you found a way to reach and pull out the tubes that were providing you with nutrition and antibiotics. You were calling the nurses bitchy. You told me and Tony we weren't doing shit because we weren't preventing the nurse from putting the tube back in your nose. I still looked up to you though. I still had respect for you not only as my dad, but as someone who wouldn't give up trying to get back to normal and self-sufficient again.

I considered it a miracle if you remembered to wish me a happy birthday that very next week on February 14th. Unfortunately you didn't, but that's okay too. There was an empty seat at brunch, but I managed to keep it together while Chef Mychael treated me for my birthday. He was very concerned about what had happened to you and intends to reach out to see how you are and wish you well.

Next Steps

A couple weeks later you were transferred to Marionjoy Rehab Center. The case manager didn't notify mom; in fact, no one did. Claudio just happened to be at the hospital when it was happening. They messed up, but what could we do other than guilt-trip those responsible? The most important thing was that you were being transferred to the rehab center just three weeks after your accident, when we were led to believe it would be closer to three months. You really are old school, pops.

Again, I'm not sure what you remember while your brain was recovering. All I completely understand at the moment is that your filter became almost nonexistent while at Marionjoy. You insisted that the doctor didn't want to see you because he didn't want to say whether or not you could leave the facility, because "they just want to make money." You told me I was shit, and when I asked if anyone else was shit, you said, "No, I'm perfect." You called Sam an asshole because he wouldn't open the door to let you leave the Brain Injury Unit, and when the nurse suggested that you be nicer to your son, you informed her, "We tried that for 20 years. It didn't work."

I didn't always see you at your worst. I continued to visit you as often as I could, which was eventually about three times a week, for about an hour or so at a time. Whenever I got ready to leave, you always said goodbye and asked for a kiss. I can't remember that last time you asked me for a kiss goodbye/goodnight, if at all.

Coming Home

After about three weeks of this stage in your recovery process, you were given the green light to return home. Mom was prepared to take her 13 days of vacation - her allowance for the entire year - all at once to stay home and take care of you. I didn't want her to exhaust herself or her resources on her own. I felt a strong sense of duty to be there for her, and for you. I approached my boss and asked him if working from home a couple days a week was an option, as a temporary situation. After working it out with HR and his boss, they agreed to the arrangement.

So for about eight weeks I split up the work week along with two of your sisters and your wife, making sure that you received your medication twice a day, got your protein and proper meals, and communicated with the nurse and various therapists assigned to get you back to normal. I know you hated having people take care of you. I know you hated not being able to do things on your own. I know you just wanted to get back to work. I know you were pissed at yourself for the situation you were in. I would feel the same way if I were in your shoes. Rest assured that despite what you may think or have thought, no one ever thought less of you. You were no less a man. If anything, you became more of one. You made recovery look so damn easy. But I know it was one of the toughest times in your life.

Fast forward to 19 weeks after your accident, and you were discharged from the last of three types of therapy. One week later, you passed your driving evaluation. Another week later, you returned to work. And over this past 4th of July holiday weekend, you were at my house watching fireworks on my driveway - no wheelchair, no walker, no cane. In less than six months after your accident you were back to normal (just maybe with 45 lbs less of you), enjoying life as you had always been able to.

Just look at it this way: no one knew how long it would take for you to get back to normal. No one knew what you would relearn on your own. Six months ago we were staring at a bruised up, scarred bald head with a body attached to it strapped to a hospital bed. Today you're done with therapy, cleared to operate a motor vehicle, back at work, and continuing to be the same Ken McCarthy - or at least a more patient, yet more confident one.

You even apologized to me for missing my birthday. I know how hard that might have been for you - coming to terms with the fact that your accident prevented you from being with your daughter on her birthday, at a restaurant we frequently enjoy as a family. It's okay, Dad. I'm glad that you're still here to celebrate my next birthday, as well as your own.

Your skull took a beating, and at 55 years old you were able to recover most of your mind and body in less than three months. You've taught me more about patience, persistence, resilience, and old school badassery in the first half of 2015 than you have in the past ten years. Father's Day now has a different meaning for me.

You're Still Here

Every little girl is supposed to think that her father is a true hero and one of the few men she can always rely on; you proved to me once again that I can rely on you, that you deserve to be called a man/hardass, and you demonstrate all of the qualities I should strive to see in myself and in my current partner. February 5th was a scary day, but it could have been much scarier and much worse. Life may have slowed you down a bit, but you're still here. I only hope that should an accident such as this happen to me, that I bounce back just as swiftly as you did - or at least make it look just as easy.

You really are "McCarthy strong" - a true Irishman. Everyone knew you would be fine, but your stubbornness proved it. It's hard to really understand what recovering from a brain injury is like, or even being around someone going through such a process, unless you are living with or caring for someone recovering. My biggest concern was that you wouldn't have enough patience for yourself, or for mom. I'm already 28 years old, with two advanced degrees, a mortgage, a husband, and a fur baby - yet you both still manage to impress me. You proved to me you can have as much patience as the situation necessitates.

You brought us together as a family. You taught me to never give up, no matter the odds. While the very unpleasant parts of your recovery were rough, they were short-lived. The most significant takeaway from this situation is that life is short, and the power to bounce back is within you. More than ever, I know that I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to.

Father's Day 2015 - 19 weeks after the accident


Mom, I know this whole situation was scary, stressful, frustrating, exhausting, and any other seemingly negative emotion that would be involved. I think to myself - if Tony had an accident such as this one, would I spend hours by his side? Most likely, yes. If Tony had an accident such as this one, and was calling me stupid for no reason, yelling at me to take him home everyday, would I continue to spend hours by his side? My Irish-Mexican temper/pride leads me to believe I would not. I would probably say to myself, "Fine, eff you, I'll see you tomorrow," while crying on my way to my car. You might be a better woman than me in that regard - or perhaps a better wife, anyway. 

Not only were you dealing with your recovering husband, but you were dealing with his sisters, his friends, your kids, and your other relatives, all contacting you for information, updates, and permission to visit him and send him gifts. If that were me, I would probably snap at some point and tell everyone to leave me the eff alone. The one person you should be able to rely on for venting, comfort, and support is your partner for life, your spouse. Who or what do you turn to when that person is unreachable, let alone the source of your frustration and stress? I know you don't like taking "drugs," but to me the doctor-prescribed Xanax would seem like a God-send. I hope it helped.

Mom, what I'm trying to say is, you did a fine job. You had to comprehend all of the medical mumbo-jumbo, listen to the scary things the doctors are saying, keep track of medications, therapy appointments, and learn new ways to patiently communicate with someone whose cognitive functions were still re-establishing themselves. And you still worked a full-time job. 

I am glad and grateful that I was able to help you the way I did and still am. I may have felt obligated to provide Easter dinner, Mother's Day dinner, and Father's Day lunch, but I also wanted to do that for you and for us. I know that you don't really cook, and that dad couldn't really cook, but I wanted to be there for you. I didn't want you to miss out on such significant holidays just because of a slight bump in the road. I wanted to help get things back to normal for the both of you. 

I know I'm out of the house and developing my own family unit and living my own self-sufficient life. But I'm just a 15-minute drive away. Plus, if this experience has taught me anything, it is that we have a huge support system full of family and friends, near and far, who would come running to be by our side should we need anything. I know you've been through so much in your life before I was even born, and this situation taught us that life just won't give up, no matter what age you are. But I hope you learned that neither should you. Hold your chin up high knowing that you will continue to handle whatever life throws at you, and that you will never have to do it alone. 

Thank You

Both of you know to some extent that I'm still dealing with - let's call them "waves" - of depression. Sometimes it gets really, really bad. When a wave comes through, whether mild or severe, I wouldn't be able to come up with a good reason as to why I don't feel like meeting up with friends on the weekend, why I don't care to enjoy the sunny weather with my puppy, why I'm not motivated to train for my upcoming races, why I can't make it to work and don't even care if I lose my job, or why I won't mind if I'm taken away from this life.

Yes, that sounds horribly morbid, but it's the reality of my condition. I've been dealing with it for at least 15 years, since you first noticed something was off and sent me to therapy around the age of 12 or so. Every time it goes into affect, it takes everything in me to just show up. The only reason I don't attempt anything drastic is because of you, mom and dad. I could never do that to either of you.

Plus, to be honest, how could I do anything drastic, after witnessing and being involved in your situation? The way I see it - dad, if you can go from a comatose-like state strapped to a hospital bed to back at work in less than six months, then I can get out of bed and hop on the train to work. Mom, if you can deal with the verbal abuse and stress of caring for a husband recovering from a brain injury for those six months, then I can make it through another day.

Thank you for changing my perspective. Thank you for inadvertently inspiring me to carry on and push through when I'm at my worst. Thank you for being you. I love you both. 

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