Reading time: 10-15 minutes
Recommended accompaniment(s): a strong mug of Yorkshire Tea and a digestive biscuit, for dunking
Looking after one’s father during and after hospitalisation is not something that one expects to do before the age – of said father – of perhaps seventy-five or eighty. One hopes, really, never to have to do such a thing, not least because one never wants to see someone they love go through any sort of hardship or suffering. But when, last month, I volunteered to care for my father (sixty years of age) for one week pre- and post-operation, I didn’t know how entertaining the whole charade would be. For my father, the publisher, sailor and windmill-dweller, is really rather amusing. (Especially when strapped to a hospital bed with tubes and wires and electronic leg warmers.)
The operation in question was not emergency surgery or a life-lengthening procedure. In fact it needn’t have been a lights-out operation whatsoever. It could have been an in-and-out twenty-minute jobby. But Daddy Dearest, as squeamish as he is strange, could not face the thought of seeing someone cut into his eyes, remove his actual eyeball lenses, and replace them with shiny, full-sighted, new ones. I have to say I can’t blame him. So for his surgery – cataract removal with a hope to improve his dilapidated minus-twenty-two vision – he opted for general anaesthetic, the medically-practised knock-you-out-of-consciousness drug, which truly worked a treat.
I arrived at The Windmill, father’s modest six-story abode, the evening before the operation was scheduled. We went to the pub for his last supper (the last one in which he didn’t have a clue what he was eating). On doctor’s orders he was forbidden to consume alcohol the night preceding, as well as three nights after, the dreaded operation, which, as you can imagine, made his temperament a little…well…frosty. I left my handbag at home intentionally before we headed to the pub. Not only to ensure that this one was definitely on him, it also gave me some leverage if I had to talk him out of having a pint with dinner. You see, the last time we frequented this pub I was refused even a look at the wine list because I didn’t have my ID. (I am twenty-seven though the years have been too kind, and as you can imagine this did not go down swimmingly.) So I figured that if he tried to order a drink, but then I was refused service, he would think again and stick to sparkling water. Luckily this back up plan was surplus to requirements and the embarrassing intervention not needed. I mean, I should have known. As much as my dad is a fan of the strong stuff (though, if you’re buying him a Christmas gift, for heavens sake, under 4.5% ABV, please!), he is even more so a sucker for following rules, to the T, and so wouldn’t have dreamt of disobeying doctor’s orders.
(To give an example, also medically-concerned: I was once looking after him after a severe case of man flu. He was in his bed for about four days straight, which was more time than he’d spent there in the whole year leading up to that point. It got to the stage where I needed to call the doctor, and was put through to a very helpful out-of-hours assistant. She told me just how much paracetamol and ibuprofen he could be taking, and, well, it was about twenty times more than what he had been taking up until that point. There were timing implications, of course, to ensure that he didn’t overdose, but, generally speaking, it was basically do one then the other equally spaced throughout the day, no more than four rounds and have a biscuit when you take the ibuprofen. He was so concerned with timing the gaps at exactly four hours between doses that he actually set his alarm for six in the morning, to not be late for the next set. I explained to him that sleep was a very beneficial healer too, and took over charge of his pain killer intake from that point on. Needless to say he made a speedy recovery.)
Anyway, back to the eyes. We arrived at the hospital promptly at seven a.m. and were shown to his private room. We were then visited by a seemingly never ending number of medical professionals of different standings, all coming to ask the very same questions and perform the very same checks. They were particularly interested in whether he had crowns or dentures – God knows why – but this was the one fact that he simply could not remember. He had to explain, each time, that he just didn’t know, but that the person before them had had a look and didn’t seem to think so.
The best moment is when they ask what procedure you’re having done, almost like a lawyer in a courtroom questioning the alibi of the defence. “And which eye, or eyes, are you having done?” they would ask, making a subtle but noticeable smirk at him as they said the word ‘eyes’. This was giving the game away, I would say, but did mean that we managed to get through the three rounds of that question without a hitch. Phew.
Last to visit was the anaesthetist, a friendly-looking rather rotund man who appeared through the window in his surgical-scrubs-and-hat situation. I missed the part when he said he was the anaesthetist so was very confused indeed why he was so interested in my father’s medical history, and his choice of general anaesthetic. I thought maybe he was looking for a life partner, but I didn’t think that he was my dad’s type. And anyway, they could never be together because my father, it turns out, cannot say the word ‘anaesthetic’. With a dry mouth already from a total ban on fluids, this enunciation problem was only magnified. Listening to him attempt to say it was even more cringe worthy than him explaining how he couldn’t remember his dental history, but I was there to support him and so wouldn’t dare to ridicule him for it (until now).
The anaesthetist asked the million-dollar question too, while staring down at the answer on the bundle of notes slowly accumulating on the table. “Both,” my father replied, now confidently, to which the man looked up, smiled and agreed, “Yes, indeed, that you are!” And then he came towards my dad with a marker pen and started scribbling on his face.
I felt a sense of intrusion, almost attack, vicariously from this stranger graffitiing my father’s forehead. Until I realised that he was just marking the eyes on which they were to operate. Which in this case, as we all at this point were certain of, was both. As he retreated with his pen, and my dad looked at me, I saw that he had drawn a letter ‘R’ on his temple to my left, and a letter ‘L’ on the other side. Ah, I thought. They’re just making absolute sure.
When he left the room and we ascertained who the hell he was, I couldn’t resist the opportunity for a photo-sesh. For my dad was now dressed in his hospital robe, naked underneath except for a pair of threadbare rusty red socks, and his rather fetching new facial art. I photographed him from a number of angles and distances, and I do believe that the results make very comical iPhone screensavers.
After three hours of waiting, questions and mouth excavations Dad got walked down to theatre where he would be put to sleep, lenses replaced, and back up on the ward in time for lunch. I took this opportunity to hot foot it to Coffee Architects to enjoy a humongous plate of the most beautifully presented banana bread, fruit, coconut yoghurt and edible flowers. I really should have taken a photo. It would have rivalled that of my dad’s mug shot as my next background image.
I got back to his hospital room with plenty of time to spare, although I was now rather desperate for the toilet, given the magnificent proportion I had just consumed. And here lay the conundrum. Do I stay or do I go? I tried to stay for as long as I could, crossing my legs in a whole manner of contortions but eventually giving in to the need. I rushed to the hospital toilet – the disinfectant-smelling cube of sanitation and ill health prevention posters, and did my business as quickly as I could. But, you know, you can’t really rush these things. As I walked the fifty metres back to his room I could tell immediately that I had missed his return, as the door was open and the light back on. God damn it. He was being manoeuvred atop a typical wheelie bed into position, now not only dressed in ghastly hospital gown and rather distasteful temporary facial tattoos, but also a Spiderman-esque clear plastic mask shielding his brand new lenses from the germs and interference of the outside world.
He was awake already, having been let to resurface in the basement before being brought up for air. His first words were not, “Hello,” “How do I look?” or “I think it went well.” No. They were: “I need the loo.”
Given the lack of beer he’d drank the previous evening, and the nil-by-mouth orders he’d been following since six a.m., I was finding it hard to comprehend where any liquid could have come from. Then I feared the worst. Did he really need a number two?
Proceeding to try to get up from his cot-like bed, he was firmly restrained by one of the nurses and told, “you can’t get up yet, Jeremy.”
“He needs the loo.” I interjected, feeling like a translator between newborn baby and rushed but capable midwife.
“You need the toilet?” she asked Dad directly, adding to the adult-child atmosphere quickly settling over the room.
“Yes. I need to pee.” He stated, much to my relief.
“You can’t use the toilet,” she told him, “so I’ll go get you a bottle,” and off she went.
Oh. My. Lord. This couldn’t be happening. She was going to get him a bottle. And then he was going to wee. And I was sitting there in the room!!!!! I didn’t know where to look. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know whether to stay silent or make awkward small talk. It went on for an awfully long time. And then it was over. I breathed a sigh of relief. And pretended it had all been a horrible, horrible dream.
Thing was, he needed a pee, as he so delicately put it, another three times in the next two hours. Each time causing me to have to sheepishly go to the nurses’ office, knock on the door, and ask for a toilet device thingy watchamacallit for my dad, in Room 17. He then did his business into it, with me waiting at his side, and I had to take the vessel, like an angular cardboard milk bottle in form, pour the contents into the toilet in the en suite, wash my hands and erase my memory. Dad – I love you, but I’m never bloody doing that again.
When he was a little more with it (a little), he asked me if I’d been there when he’d “had a fight with the nurses.”
“No, Dad,” I replied lightly, “you didn’t have a fight, she just wouldn’t let you walk to the bathroom.”
“No!” he retorted. “I did have a fight! I did! I was trying to get up and we got into some fisty cuffs!”
“Ok…” I concluded, not wanting to make this into a(nother) battle. And just prayed that this belief was as a result of the strong, overwhelming anaesthetic, not an incident I had missed in the recovery room.
Dad was supposed to be fit for discharge two to three hours post-op. So roughly two-thirty in the afternoon. At eight p.m., however, I was still sitting at his side in the outpatient ward, in an increasingly uncomfortable chair having scrolled through the whole of Instagram at least three times over. Just when I thought I couldn’t cope any more with the boredom some alarms started ringing from the blood pressure monitor. Ooh this was an unexpected turn in events!
At first I didn’t know if I should call someone or if the bleeping enough would alert them sufficiently. Alas the bleeping doesn’t alert anyone at all, merely giving the drowsy patient and their companion the starts of a headache. So I went to the nurses’ office once more, slightly concerned about the situation but relieved not to be asking for yet another blinking urine bottle. The nurses seemed pretty chilled about the situation and said someone would be along shortly. Someone was along shortly – Karen, if I remember correctly – who proceeded to engage the blood pressure monitor once more. She then became a little less chilled. Dad’s blood pressure was very, very low. Even to my untrained eye, hitting figures of about forty or fifty less than on admission did not seem good. But, to me, Dad seemed his usual, bumbling self. He was even cracking a few jokes! As far as I was concerned, he was absolutely fine. It was just his body’s way of telling him to get some bloody rest, man! (As I don’t believe he has done since the summer of ’72.) He seemed to agree with this analysis and told Karen of our suspicions. She did not seem so convinced and made him lie down more horizontally to ensure enough oxygen was reaching his brain. I took this opportunity of his total lack of autonomy to book him in overnight, order him a Full English for the morning, and make my way back to The Windmill for a well-earned glass of red.
The next morning I was back in at eight o’clock. A condition of his overnight stay was that he be out by nine, as the room was booked for another day guest, soon to arrive; and that he ‘didn’t make any trouble in the small hours’. Having no control over his late-night behaviour, I made sure I would take care of the former request. As I entered his room he was up and out of bed, eating his breakfast in an armchair while sporting the fetching Spiderman eye shields. It looked bloody delicious (and that’s coming from a vegetarian), and I was a little regretful that I hadn’t stayed overnight myself. But I don’t think that they served wine there in the evenings, and I definitely needed that after the exhausting day I’d had.
Halfway through his feast we were interrupted by another nurse, a new one who had not been there the day before, who announced that the eye surgeon would like to see Jeremy. Now. Downstairs in his clinic. I looked at my Dad, I looked at his food, I turned to the nurse and asked, “well, can’t he come to us?”
He could not.
As I led Dad down to the ground floor by the sleeve of his pyjama, I wondered what the eye surgeon was going to say. Dad for one said that his sight didn’t seem any better, so I waited with baited breath as the expert studied the newly inserted lenses. “All looks good!” he beamed confidently, “Now let’s have a look at the vision.”
He re-angled the mirror in front of Dad so that it reflected the back-to-front letters displayed digitally in the back corner of the room. Dad began to read – no spectacles present – and got every single letter on the top row correct. He moved onto the next and then the next, and then jumped straight to the very bottom, very tiniest, line. Near perfect recital. He mistook an A for an H but I think we can skip over that. I stood behind him to see what he could see, and removed my minus-four-grade glasses. I couldn’t make out any letterforms. All I could see was a blurry white screen.
I think – technically speaking – that, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call a bloody great success.
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