Today I returned to my home town to visit a sick cousin. Very Sick. I don’t want to write anything more permanent. Old habits die hard, only hardly forgotten. I parked the car in the space where I would have parked if I was living back at the family home. This choice being made, I willing opened up the red scar that is my memory of leaving. I’m not sure it was a good idea.
The hospital was a block up the road; a permanent part of the landscape, almost as old as my family home. Before my time, my great grandmother had been sent there after a serious fall. In her ninety-plus years, she decided her family had sent her there to die- and promptly did. The hospital became the site for me -of this story- when I was younger; A grey-limestone building that held a sacred memory of loved ones who had disappeared from the family- save their photos and their stories. For my great –gran, even her poetry remained.
Just before I became a teenager, my gran was sent there for a week or two of tests. She was old, in my estimation; possibly eighty-eight and suffering from Alzheimer’s since I was old enough to remember her. Mom and I had taken care of her for a couple of years. The day before my birthday, as mom and I sat laughing in one of our light-hearted moments, the phone rang. My mother’s face told it all. Gran was gone. I remember walking to school the next day and seeing my best friend. This was before the days of Internet and text messaging, so I waited until the next day to tell her. I remember her asking me what was wrong, and being enfolded into her large, warm, dark trench coat and she held me- sobbing. That is when we moved to the family home permanently.
The second year of university, dad told me that he had pancreatic cancer. It was quite soon after that he was admitted into the same hospital. My parents had parted when I was three, I went to live with mom, but dad always was involved. We shared a secret bond: unconditional love; as much as I assume I will ever know it. I asked the university to suspend my courses. It was agreed as long as my professors signed off on it. They all did, with the same compassionate nod- all save one. She saw potential in my abilities and wasn’t going to teach this course again at this university. She wanted an explanation,” I can take another course, I will never be able to replace my father.” Done. No more explanation.
I became familiar with the hospital: the people. I spent most of my life there as much as I could. One day I was late- I was still working at a local store. I needed the money- my family had very little, and I had to do what I could. He was sitting in the family room in his wheel chair: a plaid quilt over his knees. He was on the phone. He looked up, “Where were you?” he asked. I apologized, saying something at work came up. Then he did something my father only did once before in my life: he cried. He sobbed into my coat. My heart breaking, for my own child’s grief, and wanting to cry too. How dare you take my father! Then something shifted in my mind. “No,” it said, “he has been there for you all of your life, you should be there for him.” So I stood firm, unflinching, and let him cry and then told him a joke- something he would appreciate, being a joker himself. Roles had shifted, I would be his rock -and I really tried. There is more to say, but I will turn away from his memory for now.
I was fearful about returning to the hospital; fearful about seeing my cousin on the same ward that my father had been on. Sights, sounds, touch: memories mirrored in the present bringing back raw emotions.
Every time my cousin and I had got together we would get into trouble. We would run screaming through the old family house, sometimes throwing horse chestnuts at the ground: dropping pencils through the pine holes of the family home on the elderly and young alike. We had fun together. As we grew, we grew apart. He went off to explore the world, and for a long time I stayed at the family home. He would always return though; like a wild animal that returned to a place mark. Now, I will witness his decline: too frail to talk, a ghost of his former self.
Walking into the hospital, I felt like a young colt shying at an unknown object: same smell, same space. I had the same friend at my side that had supported me the day after my grandmother had died. My cousin was on the same floor as my father.
I stayed for many hours. I could have stayed longer. I want to go again. I saw faces of patients that had been in the hospital since my father was there. When I hit the button for the nurse, the woman who appeared was a wonderful person who worked with my father when he been sick. I saw my cousin’s mother: a strong woman, struggling to cope in a situation that nothing can prepare you for. What I realized was that as much as I was feeling, as much as I have shared here; to support my cousin and his family was more important than my sadness of the past. I had a wonderful friend waiting in the family room, and a beautiful cousin that could benefit from my support- the NOW needs me. Like the promise I made so many years ago to my father: to do, not because it is easy, but because it is the right thing: for love.