On Sunday, my family went roller skating, part of a birthday celebration for my brother-in-law. The rink was old-school amazing: rainbow colored lights flashed frantically over the floor, loud pop music saturated every inch of the cool air in the room, walls were lined with arcade games, their noisy jingles muted by the pumping bass of the stereo. A middle-aged couple came in with their own skates in cases and glided effortlessly around and around. Chubby, adolescent girls dressed in tight shirts and reeked of insecurity. Young black men synchronized their moves both to the music and to each other. And, my personal favorite, one employee just could not stop dancing, whether she was taking money or pouring cheese over nachos.
I wondered what it would have been like to grow up a roller rink regular, as many of these kids so obviously were. I surely would've been one of the chubby girls, on the prowl for attention.
My dad was a regular at his small town's rink. I lived with my paternal grandmother for 2 years when I first started college and I used to sometimes skate at the same place as my teenaged father. I liked to picture him, much thinner, wearing fitted sweaters and flared jeans, picking up one wheeled foot after the other, maybe racing with buddies, maybe putting on a show for the ladies. On Sunday afternoon, at 57 years old, my dad hadn't retained the skating moves of his youth. Three-fourths of the way done with his first lap, he fell and broke his ankle.
He was kept in the hospital until Tuesday afternoon. My mom took him home and got him settled before leaving to pick up some medication and sweatpants, to fit around his cast. She was gone 20, maybe 30 minutes. She returned to find my dad sitting up on the couch, with his head drooping down, looking sleepy. When my mom finally roused him, she says he looked at her with "nursing home eyes, " meaning they looked glassy and disoriented. My mom struggled to get him to talk to her, and when he did, his words didn't make any sense.
The ambulance was summoned and my parents went back to the ER. Twenty-four hours, a CAT scan, spinal tap, and MRI later, my dad's confusion was given a name: thalamic stroke.
I've spent the last two days in the Neuroscience Critical Care Unit, where faces are long and eyes are red from exhaustion or sobbing. Everyone seemed to be dealing with devastating news. On day one, we weren't dealing with any news at all. Instead we were waiting for tests to happen, then waiting for the results, not knowing what to think or how to feel. When we finally learned that it was, indeed, a stroke, it was a relief to have an answer, something to tell people who called asking about my dad, something to research on Google. Today was a day of answers and hope. The phrase "full recovery" was uttered by the neurologist. This made my mom ecstatic, so I had to be thankful to the doctor for giving her such a boost, despite being slightly skeptical of his proclamation.
Besides his broken ankle, my dad's body is in good shape. Many stroke victims experience loss of movement on one side of their body, but he did not. With each day that passes, he seems a little more alert, a little more himself. He can identify people he knows and some objects. He knows that George Bush is president and that he works at Caterpillar. Today he named all five of his grandchildren. The one question that always stumps him is, "Where are you, Wayne?" He never knows where he is ("Ag Farm." "Autumn trees." "Out in the barn.") It's amazing and unsettling to see his surprised expression every time he learns he is in the hospital. This haunts me a little. When we get to go home for a respite and he has to stay, what does he think when he wakes up? Is he scared or worried? Can he simply accept being in a mysterious place, or does his mind create some kind of alternate reality? Maybe his location doesn't make it to the forefront of his brain over the pain in his ankle and the discomfort of wires and needles. Another thing he loses track of is the reason for the pain in his ankle. It hurts badly, he isn't receiving any medication for it, and he will tell us about his pain. But he's always surprised and a little embarrassed to learn that he broke his ankle while roller skating.
It's hard to see my dad so completely vulnerable, totally at the mercy of everyone around him. But there is a sweetness to his vulnerability, too. I see myself being annoyed in his situation, but he is so calm, so cooperative and patient. A doctor rouses him from a snoring-deep sleep, a nurse asks him for the 10th time today, "What day is it? What month is it? What year is it? What's your name?", a physical therapist commands him to squeeze his hands, raise his thumbs. But he never questions, he never complains. To be in the room with him is at once exhausting and relaxing. His demeanor is so peaceful; it makes all the waiting easier.
In the course of the next few months, the picture of my dad's future will become clearer. Right now there is nothing to do but look ahead. I'm trying not to worry, trying not be be scared. I'm getting ready to meet my father again for the first time.