“Dad, you’re not sick, you’re hurt. You’re going to get better…”
I repeated those words to my father over and over in the days after his accident as he lay in the hospital bed, heavily medicated and so very far away.
Dad, a man who had never, ever slept in the upstairs bedrooms of his small cottage, who had, in fact, slept alone in the downstairs bedroom since 1964, had been upstairs on that fateful night. Exactly what happened will never be known. He apparently had done as he was told, moved upstairs for the night while his wife, my mother, occupied the downstairs bedroom located near the bathroom.
When I arrived at their home after receiving her call alerting me that “something bad” had happened to my father, I was shocked to find their dining room destroyed.
As she explained it, the previous day she had not been feeling well. Her urgent need of the bathroom throughout the day was a problem exacerbated by her severe mobility issues. As night approached, she told Dad to sleep upstairs so she could be near the bathroom – “just in case.”
The following morning she thought she heard him preparing the coal stove to warm up the house. The sounds went on for some time, but she was not alarmed; she couldn’t hear the magnitude of his struggle – she was hard of hearing, nearly deaf. She hadn’t heard the sound of breaking glass, cabinets being overturned, and his writhing on the floor screaming.
A pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs shocked me as I opened the door. Massive shards of broken glass were scattered across the floor. Crushed and broken bits and pieces of knickknacks, teacups, and glassware presented as gifts by loving children and grandchildren – her treasures – now covered in his blood were evidence that something very bad indeed had happened.
“They’ve taken him to the hospital,” she said. And then, “Could you make me a cup of coffee?” I trembled from head to toe as I approached her trying to figure out if she, too, was hurt. “I’m fine, but that damn fool broke everything.” Her voice was flat and emotionless.
She told me he had slept upstairs so she could be near the bathroom and that he must have fallen during the night as he descended those “wretched” narrow ladder-like stairs on his way to the toilet. One slipper at the top of the landing and one at the bottom near the pool of blood bore witness to the accident. She wasn’t sure how badly he was hurt, saying to me, “You better go see.”
Arriving at the hospital, I found him battling the nursing staff unable to understand a simple request to stay still for X-rays. He had a massive wound on his forehead and a cut above his eye. The soles of his feet were lacerated.
The hours and days that followed are etched in my memory. I spent every moment I could by his bedside overseeing his care and telling him, “You are hurt, Dad. You’ve had an accident. You are going to get better…” over and over again.
As the extent of his head injury became more apparent to the medical staff – a massive bruise to the frontal lobe of his brain similar to his head going through the windshield of a moving vehicle – it was clear we were in for the long haul.
He was never the same after that.
Yet, for most of the fifteen years he lived after that accident, he enjoyed life in ways we could never have imaged.
His personality changed. He was, for the most part, content, unburdened by the need to work, glad to sit and chat, albeit much of it was nonsensical or half thoughts.
Then one day he began to talk about WWII. He talked about the months he spent in the Army, a driver for a high-ranking officer, a grunt who did his duty. He didn’t mention the bronze star he was awarded.
“I was scared, you’d be a fool not to be scared … that water was cold I tell ya’ … the boys were falling and drowning … it was awful … the bullets sounded like ‘ping-ping-ping’ on the side of the boats … the Germans were hiding in the woods … I woke up under the jeep and saw them looking at me … they ran away … we were under the jeep for a few days waiting … we were separated from our unit … them boys they liked those coal fires I built … I took those felt liners from that store and put them in my boots … the people were so glad to see us…”
Dad was a hardworking simple man whose life had not been defined by WWII but by the years he survived the domestic cold war at home. He never lost his nerve, kept pulling forward doing his duty the only way he knew how – keeping your head down.
As dementia consumed his aging brain, he believed he was rich, he believed he had a young wife and small children living in peace and harmony.
At first I was concerned that these delusions were a problem. But in actuality, he had made his escape. Now I am glad that, in the end, he lived happily ever after.
By Marilou Newell