Ford column: I offered Dad my hand

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 25, 2008

For a significant portion of my childhood, I thought my dad could do just about anything.
Not fly, of course, but pretty close.
He could speak eloquently. Play the trombone beautifully. Dance my mom around the living room while she pretended to protest.
He told stories. Trained our dog. Quit work and went to law school, graduating at the top of his class when he was nearly 40 years old.
He cleaned, cooked and helped with homework. He encouraged me, challenged me, forgave me.
He made delicious snow ice cream.
He loved to tell my sisters and me, “Girls, your ol’ dad can fix anything.”
It wasn’t until I started college that I realized his favorite line had been a slight exaggeration.
I was home for a visit when my car, a Ford Escort, started acting up. I asked Dad about it.
“Honey, I don’t know a thing about cars,” he said with a shrug, and went inside to call a mechanic.
For just a moment, I felt stunned. Certainly, I was old enough to have figured this out. Dad was treating me as an adult and stating the obvious.
Although he was smart, funny, kind and talented in many ways, my dad could not fix a car.
I grew up a little bit that day.
When I walked into the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., a few weeks ago and saw my dad lying in a hospital bed, his brave smile and steady voice not quite hiding the fear, I felt stunned.
For just a moment.
Then I grew up a little bit.
Seeing your dad that sick “rocks your foundation,” a friend told me after I returned to Salisbury.
She was right.
My dad is not old. He’s still a few years away from retirement.
My dad is not sick, typically. Other than contracting spinal meningitis in his early 30s, an illness that almost killed him and prompted his career change, my dad rarely even catches a cold.
My dad exercises religiously, a lifelong habit that has benefited him greatly as he recovers from surgery for diverticulitis.
Dad hates to see his family sad. As the nurse wheeled him down the hall to the operating room at Mayo, he told us one of his beloved musician jokes.
“How many trumpet players does it take to change a light bulb?
“Ten. One to stand on the ladder and nine to say, ‘I can get higher than that.’ ”
We laughed. Then we cried.
As we watched the elevator doors close, we knew we had left Dad not just in great hands, but gifted hands. His doctor is probably the best colorectal surgeon at arguably the best hospital in the world for colorectal surgery.
Heads of state, royalty and movie stars come to Mayo to have their colons fixed.
That didn’t make waiting any easier.
The surgery went extremely well, better than we’d dared hope. Overwhelmed with relief, we quietly took the positions we’d hold for the next few days in the tiny room, Mom at Dad’s shoulder and me seated near the foot of his bed, typing e-mails to friends and family.
Then, pain.
It’s not easy for a father to let his daughter see him in pain. And it’s not easy for a daughter to watch.
I thought of the many times Dad comforted me when I’d been in pain, whether a scraped knee or a broken heart, and I wished I could’ve offered the same comfort.
Instead, I offered him my hand.
The day after surgery, Dad was like a new person. Even his surgeons seemed surprised by the progress.
That night, when my sister arrived, a strange thing happened. We started to have a little bit of fun. It felt good to laugh in the hospital.
Over the next few days as we talked, Dad sometimes surprised us with a comment when we thought he’d been asleep. Stories about dogs and grandkids had him smiling and even chuckling.
My sister provided inspiration for Dad when he hit the first inevitable bumps in his road to recovery.
She’s an expert. A decade ago, colon surgery at Mayo saved her life, too.
I left Rochester profoundly thankful for the surgeons and nurses who cared for my dad. But I also had a deep sense of gratitude that my father had allowed me the honor of helping him after so many years of being helped by him.
Coincidentally, my parents’ friend was at Mayo while we were there, fighting to keep a donated kidney that his body was rejecting.
We visited with each other every day. He nodded when I told him it felt odd to come to a hospital for a terrifying surgery, and then end up having fun.
Hospital times can be special times, he said. I’m looking forward to many more special times with my dad. But preferably, not in a hospital.
Emily Ford covers the N.C. Research Campus.