Friday, October 24, 2008

Better Days

Better Days

The cold, clinical air sucked me into the hospital as the doors swooshed open. The sterile air nipped at my tanned skin as I passed the nurses' station and headed for the elevators. This whole atmosphere made me shiver. It was an odd juxtaposition to the humid, oppressive heat outside. The middle of June was baking northern Minnesota and North Dakota.

These conditions even felt purified compared to the air conditioning and cleanliness of our 1988 Buick Skylark. Mom made me use it to pick up Dad. I could count on both hands the times we had taken it out of the garage for something other than church or to go to the fair.

I pushed the arrow for the elevator. I noticed how everything was so clean and ordered. This too was an odd contrast to the outside world. Grand Forks seemed such a clotted mess of traffic and pedestrians, especially since I was used to either hauling our sheep around the pasture in an old Ford truck or driving on minimum maintenance roads with our rusty 1983 Silverado to and from the hay fields.

I didn't belong in this sterile environment. Neither did Dad. As I thought this, it felt like someone was churning my guts with a stick.

There was a fountain next to the elevator. I let the water wash down my throat and cool my stomach. Even the water tasted

I returned to the elevator and pressed the button again.

I pushed the button a third time. Then I felt my face heat up as I noticed the up and down arrows on the buttons.

This time I pushed the button with the arrow pointing up.

Another nurse, this one older and sturdier, passed by with a tray full of cups. I noticed my sock was partially sticking out of the toe of one of my high tops. The heat continued to boil my face. Then I noticed a thistle thorn embedded in my right palm.

I began to dig at it with my index nail.

I was relieved when the doors finally opened and the elevator was empty.

The cage took me slowly to Dad's room on the fourth floor.

* * *

I shuffled to the fourth floor nurses' station, relieved to see a plump, middle age nurse sitting there.

"Excuse me. I'm here to pick up Dad, er, Mr. Olson," I said stupidly.

"Oh. Kenny is in room 404," she said with a smile that revealed her fillings.

I was surprised by her use of Dad's first name; I was reminded for the first time
in a long time that he had one.

"He won't be ready for awhile yet, though. The nurse will have to prep him. Why don't you have a seat in the waiting room? It's just down the hall from Kenny's room."

On my way to the waiting room, I poked my head into Dad's room. It was the first time I had seen him since he was rushed to the hospital a week ago. Once I glimpsed him, I knew it was a mistake.

I hurried to the waiting room. It was empty. I found a chair and began studying the thistle thorn rooted in my right palm again. If I were my dad, I thought, I wouldn't hesitate to pull out my pocketknife and dig at it. That damn knife of his. Its purposes were ubiquitous: trim his nails, cut bail twine, trim a ewe's hooves, pry open the top on his great bull piggy bank, slice an apple. I grimaced every time he used it. Did he ever clean the thing? I was amazed he never got sick . . .

I gouged at the thistle some more. I tried to forget what I had seen when I looked in his room.

Dad had spent the past week recovering from a triple bypass. The last time I had spoken with him was on the eve of the operation. However, today I arrived at St. John's in Grand Forks an hour early to pick him up. My mom's incessant monologue of "don’ts" hounded me: don't be late, your father will be released at two, don't keep him waiting, don't get him all worked up, don't let him try to carry any of his bags, don't let him forget anything in his room . . .

While the rest of my family had gone to the hospital for the surgery, I had stayed behind. I had no desire to see Dad reduced to life support. Instead, I stayed behind to look after our 500 head of sheep and the farm. Plus, I had to finish bailing the first cutting of alfalfa. It was a job Dad and I had begun together just two weeks ago. . .

I looked around the room. My gaze fell on a large picture on the wall across from me. It was the image of Christ gently cradling a lamb.

Unable to return His gaze, I further inspected the sliver. It looked like I was actually pushing it deeper into my flesh.
Sighing I walked over to a table littered with magazines. I didn't look, but I knew Our Savior's eyes followed my every step. I reached for an issue of Rolling Stone with Heather Locklear posing half nude on the cover. But the scrupulous gaze fell across my shoulders and I grabbed a copy of Sport instead. Christ's suspicious eyes ushered me back to my chair again.

That watchful gaze made it feel like things were normal again. Whether I was mowing the alfalfa, raking it, or standing on the rickety, lurching hayrack, I could feel Dad's gaze. He could be off in the next field disking with the "R" and I would be bored out of my mind on the "A," mowing the alfalfa, and I would just sense Dad's eyes checking on me, even though I was 17. Or he could be driving the 730 while we bailed, and I would be back on the hay wagon. I would still feel him silently supervising me as I strained to stack the bails impossibly high. Sometimes I would lash my head around, only to find him scrutinizing the swath as the bailer gobbled it.

Resigned to leave the sliver and unable to find anything on football in the magazine, I pulled Dad's cap from the back pocket of my Levi's. I began to aimlessly look over its worn features while I waited for the nurse to prep him, whatever that meant.
Looking at his cap, with its faded green material, frayed John Deere logo, and its patented 'teepee' folded brim, I knew how I would always remember him. It was the same image I watched when I was younger, around ten, when I was too small to lift and stack bails by myself. So I had to drive the 730 and watch Dad. In my mind he would always be a tall, sturdy man entrenched on the teetering and lurching hayrack. Pale blue eyes inspecting the field. Forehead etched with deep wrinkles. Eyes shaded by the peeked brim of his cap. Baldhead protected from the scorching rays by the cap. The skin at the base of his skull baked to a perpetual scorch mark, where the cap was buttoned and exposed skin. The corner of his mouth gripped a glowing, filterless Pall Mall. His breast pocket of his light cotton shirt housed the rest of the pack. Hair on his broad chest and chiseled arms cluttered with alfalfa leaves. Huge hands protected by scuffed leather gloves. His right hand clenched a red bail hook. His lower waist tried to cling to tattered and patched Levi's. Nonexistent rear and white Hanes briefs exposed by his sagging jeans.

That image of Dad stood in stark contrast to the man I glimpsed when I peeked into his room earlier. The shades were drawn, casting a yellow hue over the room. He sat resting in his bed. His eyes were closed. His face looked so sullen, but somehow serene. A tube was slipped into his mouth so he could sip water. A paper-like hospital gown covered his slowly rising and falling chest. His hands were folded peacefully on his lab. Blankets covered the rest.

This was the latest I had ever seen him in bed, even when he was sick. He looked like a corpse . . .

The pain in my palm brought my focus back to the waiting room. I was vacantly staring at Christ's picture. I could only maintain eye contact for a second. As I looked at my palm, I noticed that just a stub of the thorn was now protruding.

I got up without looking at the opposite wall and left the room. I walked the three rooms back down to Dad's room.

I took a step back and gently rapped a knuckle on the door. That person with the stick was back at it, churning my guts.

Dad's eyes fluttered open. Once they were open, they were as pale blue as ever.

"Boy, you're early!" he rasped in a voice that robbed his tone of its usual resonance and good-natured enthusiasm. He removed the tube from his mouth and asked, "how'd first cutting go?" He squirmed to sit up straight. As he did so, I noticed a look on his face that I had never seen before: pain.

I reached to help him. He gazed at me and whispered through clenched teeth, "how did it go?"

"Not bad. It went well. Really well," I said.

"Tell me about it," he said as the pain receded.

"Well . . . " Then I proceeded to lie. I explained the week. Our work styles differed greatly. He liked to take his time and do things right the first time, deriving satisfaction from a job done and done well. I, though, liked to rush through everything, taking my satisfaction from a job done and over. There were so many other important things for me to do, cruise to town and find my friends, go to the pool, tube, lift weights, or play Nintendo. Thus, I had to revise the events as I saw fit.

He grilled me on everything, the cutting, raking, baling, and stacking of the hay, even though we had done it together for the past eight summers when we first moved to the farm.

"The baler sheer any pins?" he asked.

"A couple. Nothing big," I continued to lie. In actuality, I had lost count of the number of pins sheered. I also neglected to tell him that I had stopped at the New Holland dealership in town to pick up a new box of sheer pins before I came to the hospital.

I did not possess his patience either to periodically stop everything each couple of rounds to carefully inspect the bails and swaths to see if they were too green and to adjust the bailer accordingly so it would not clog from green or large swaths and, thus, sheer pins.

"Remember to grease everything?" he asked, raising a questioning eyebrow.

"Of course. Even the mower," I lied more. I again neglected to reveal that I had also purchased a new grease gun at the same New Holland dealership. I had become so enraged at the bailer sheering pins every other round, I had finally grabbed the grease gun from the tractor and lashed the damned bailer with it and, in the process, broke the grease gun.

I likewise did not possess his patience to routinely grease the mower, rake, and bailer before each use. He especially would grease the mower every other round. I had greased it before and after I mowed an entire field. Maybe.

Our conversation was the usual. It was almost as if the heart attack and surgery had never occurred, until he swung his legs out from beneath the blanket. Initially I was shocked to see him without his tattered and patched Levis, or even his old brown dress paints pulled out of storage for class reunions, church, and the rare evening out with mom.

Along the inside of his left thigh ran an ugly, crimson line, which contrasted with his ghostly pale legs. I shivered. The scar was the remnant of when the doctors had removed a vein from his leg in order to reconstruct his arteries.

I could also see down the front of his gown some too. I again shivered as I glimpsed the massive scar on his shaved chest.

White tape ran across it like frail wooden bridges across some deep gorge. The doctors had to split his breastplate to operate and staple it back together after.

"I need to use the bathroom before we go," he said.

I grabbed hold of his arm and helped him to his feet. I almost gasped when I touched his arm. It was like grabbing a piece of fruit that had been left in the back of the fridge too long. I instantly thought of my grandmother, who had passed away two summers ago. Her flesh was so soft and seemed to hang from her bones.

My gaze fell on my Reeboks again. I didn't look up until he was hobbling to the bathroom and the ridiculous paper robe exposed his bare ass.

I gouged at the sliver until the warmth in my face went away.

The nurse arrived in time to help him into bed. If I were my dad, I would rush to help like the time he held me while the doctor removed my shoe when I was seven and had broken my ankle. That was Dad, always going out of his way to help others. The nurse was young, maybe 25, and had long blond hair. I looked away at the walls as my dad had to lean on the nurse, who couldn't have weighed more than 125 pounds, and have her help him into bed. For the first time I noticed the picture above the dresser. It was Christ walking among a flock of sheep.

I felt their gazes on my back as I silently left and returned to the waiting room.

* * *

I sat unconsciously mining the thorn with a fingernail waiting still for the nurse. Then I realized for the first time just how different things were going to be these days. Maybe forever. As I thought about what the rest of the summer would be like, my mom's persistent lecture began to reverberate in my mind, how Dad will be tired easily, irritable from quitting smoking, unable to drive for the rest of summer, resigned to eating low fat and low cholesterol food, unable to lift anything over fifteen pounds . . .

I vainly tried to envision Dad like this, winded by walking from the barn to the house, using the nicotine patch, unable to even drive the riding lawn mower, sitting down to a dinner of non-fat yogurt and rice cakes, pouring himself a tall glass of skim milk. How much does a gallon of skin milk weigh anyway?

Under Our Savior's surveillance, I focused on excavating the thistle from my palm.

I nearly jumped from my chair when the nurse said, "Kenny is ready, Grant." I didn't even have time to wonder how she knew my name. Later, of course, I would understand that Dad had familiarized himself with all of the nurses and doctors like they were one of the family.

* * *

The nurse wheeled Dad to the door. I walked behind him and grabbed the wheelchair's handles. As I squeezed hard and popped a wheelie with his chair, causing a smile to flicker across his face, I realized I felt no sting from the splinter in my palm. I quickly peeked at it as we moved down the hallway. The thorn was gone. It must have worked itself free.
We joked some as we continued down the hallway. I knew he was relieved to be getting out of here.

"Oh, yeah, I thought you might need this," I said, pulling his ragged cap out of my back pocket and placing it on his head.

"Thanks," he said, instantly reaching up and cocking it back. It aligned perfectly with the eternal tan mark on the back of his head.

He added, "I think we better stop off at the New Holland dealership in town and pick up a new grease gun. That old one has seen better days."

I was unable to contain my smile.

As we passed the waiting room, I didn't look back. I let my gaze fall on my father.

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