Every fall since the age of 2, I would get a cold, which would progress to an upper respiratory infection. The infection could progress to bronchitis, then eventually pneumonia. I was asthmatic, so the combination was catastrophic. The drill was always the same. I’d have an asthma attack from the coughing, and my mom would give me a breathing treatment. It would help temporarily, only for my chest to tighten and the coughing to begin again shortly after.
We would load up and head to the hospital, knowing the dance that was about to begin. My blood oxygen level was always low. They would rush around to begin a breathing treatment, and my mom would tell them I had just had one an hour before. Nevertheless, they would give me another treatment and then observe. If I sounded better, they would send me home. If I didn’t, then they would proceed to use IVs, X-rays and testing.
We both had learned the outcome of this routine, but nevertheless, they would follow their protocol. I wouldn’t have minded really, except for the fact that I already was a difficult draw for blood. The breathing treatments were known for making my veins constrict and roll around, which then made starting an IV an ordeal. No kid wants to be poked multiple times to start an IV.
One year in particular, I lost count after eight or nine attempts with blown veins and bruises lining my arms. I remember a nurse encouraging me to be quieter as I cried and begged them to stop, telling me that I would scare the other children who could hear me. They ended up calling in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) team who had to begin the IV in my foot.
Once settled in my hospital room, the predictable routine began. My mom called every person known to man. My ears would tune in for the call to my dad. A twisted piece of me looked forward to his worry. My mom would always hand the phone to me, and my dad and I would do our usual conversation:
“How you doing, hon?”
“Not very good.”
“That’s what I hear.”
“Are you going to come see me?”
“I will try to make it over tonight.”
But this try was always more reliable. The hospitalizations were enough for him to show up. He would sneak in a homemade milkshake (when I was being force-fed an all liquid diet), games to play and activities to keep me busy. If it was a longer stay at the hospital, I knew I would likely see him multiple times over my stay.
We’d talk through my oxygen tent, and he would make me laugh at the situation. We would watch TV or play the video edition of “Hi-Ho! Cherry-O” since he wasn’t allowed to reach beneath the tent. He was both uncomfortable and interested as staff shuffled in and out of my room, giving me breathing treatments, making me do breathing exercises and tilting me upside down to beat on my back with cupped hands.
I remember a respiratory therapist teaching him how to do the cupped hands and the pattern for the “back beating” meant to help loosen up my lungs for more productive coughing. Oddly, that simple act was the moment I felt most loved by my dad in my lifetime.
Don’t get me wrong. I know my dad loves me, and he has shown it in many ways over the years. But this simple, selfless act—not involving buying something, any grand gesture, nor event—of him showing up when I needed him was way better. He took on the caregiver role that I didn’t get to typically experience from him.
Unfortunately, my constant need to have my father’s love often made me forget about my mother, who was there for me more often. Whenever my mom began to feel more like herself, she would fill my time with activities again. I’m not sure if I was the one driving the desire or her. Either way, I joined a children’s choir (by audition only) and a softball team around these years. I returned to the Boys & Girls Club, which provided countless achievements and activities. I even asked to sing at one of their events. The distractions were a welcome change from my constant worry and thinking.
Regardless of how my mom was feeling, she would show up to my practices and events. She would cheer me on from the audience. At every game, show or award ceremony, I would call my dad and invite him to attend. I’d always get the predictable “I’ll try to make it,” which was almost as cruel as just telling me no. I would scan the crowd, looking for my dad’s face to appear. I was so consumed with his absence that I failed to recognize my mom’s participation.
That made my annual hospital visit bittersweet. On one end of the spectrum, I was at a complete loss of control of my time, space and body. I was poked and prodded, attached to needles and hand ties, and confined to an oxygen bubble. I was unable to get out of bed, sometimes all alone with strangers and didn’t know when I would get to go home—be it days or weeks. On the other end, I had a guaranteed phone call and likely multiple visits with my dad. And if I was lucky, he might just take care of me too.