Can I survive a family health crisis and cope with my own attention deficit without falling apart?
by Frank South
"God, this is a miserable June," my mother says as we make our way across the muggy, hot parking lot to the entrance of the rehab center where my father, who has just had a stroke, is recovering. "It wasn’t supposed to get like this so early." The rehab center’s automatic doors slide open and we walk into the foyer. The blast of air conditioning is a shock. Mom stops to catch her breath.
"You mean the heat?" I ask.
Mom nods. "Mm-hmm ... that and the rest of it too, I suppose." She gives my arm a squeeze. "I'm so glad you came to help," she says.
I flew in last night. Today will be the first time I’ve seen my dad since he had a stroke, fell, fractured his skull, and had brain surgery. I want to believe that I can be a help to both him and my mom during this health crisis but I really don't know how, and if I figure it out, I'm not at all confident I'll be up to the task. Our history is clear: My father, Frank Sr., is practical, wise, and invincible, and I'm Frank Jr., Trey to the family, the scattered, self-centered, dreamer son.
How can I possibly help him?
In my attempts, I hide all this doubt and confusion behind a calm, grown-up front. If I don't panic, at least there's a chance I won’t make this situation worse.
As a parent with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) who has ADD/ADHD kids, I have learned to face my kids' problems one at a time, tackling each head-on to find solutions. Through their ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, and other comorbid learning disabilities, their physical and emotional emergencies, and even our daughter's open-heart surgery, my wife and I knew that staying steady and available made it possible for the whole family to face these challenges and persevere. As partners, we've found that same steady sticking-it-out has helped us survive some truly scary storms, accept the resulting change, and keep evolving together. In my home with my wife and children, while I’m still sometimes a scattered, stuttering mess, I know my job and I'm competent and useful. I don’t know my job with my parents now. This is new territory, and I don't think they know their roles, or mine, yet either.
In the foyer of the rehab center, a man wearing a cardigan over a T-shirt rolls up in a wheelchair next to us and stares. Mom smiles at him. "Hello," she says. "How are you doing today?"
The man frowns at her, turns around, and wheels away. Mom shrugs, releases my arm, and takes back her purse from my shoulder. "Better to walk using my own steam," she says. "Don't want to be mistaken for an inmate." I follow her down the corridor toward the nurse's station. Cane in one hand, purse in the other, my mother walks with resolve, her brave, look-the-world-in-the-eyes face pushing past (what seems to me) a gauntlet of injured and aged patients resigned to their wheelchairs.
We're headed toward the nurse station when my mother turns away and approaches a shrunken, white-haired patient who's folded into a wheeled recliner, covered with a blanket, and tucked next to the wall. We're here to see my dad, what's Mom doing over there talking to that unconscious, gape-mouthed ancient person? Just as she was with that guy who wheeled up to us in the foyer, Mom, a true Southerner, has always been unfailingly courteous to others, going out of her way to befriend the lonely and lost. Even the inanimate have benefited from her hospitality. When no one else would claim them, the ashes of Mrs. Yancy, an elderly widow my mother had become friends with before her death, sat in a gift-wrapped box on a bookcase in my parents' house for years. Mrs. Yancy was toasted on every holiday she spent with the family until one Fourth of July when my mom felt the time was right to bury her in the backyard.
I admire this quality of kindness in my mother, but right now keeping my own panic and fear tied down has frayed my patience thin to breaking and the selfish son in me is breaking through. I want to see my father now. I leave my mother with her new friend and step up to the counter.
"We're here to see Frank South," I begin. The head nurse tilts her head toward my mother who is brushing aside a wisp of the ancient patient's hair. She kisses his forehead. He smiles out of his drugged haze. Opening his eyes, he looks up at my mother and his smile breaks into a crooked grin -- my father's crooked grin.
As I join them, my mother says, "Frank, darling, look who has come to see you. It's Trey."
My father's eyes find mine. He blinks back tears. "Ah, good," he says. "Good." He raises an arm and I step into my father's embrace.