A Life in Transition: Trying to Find Calm and Structure
Can I cope with moving across the country, getting the house organized, and my aging parents’ health — without losing my temper?
The one-month hiatus I was planning to take from my ADDitude blog while I moved with my family from Hawaii to Georgia stretched into three months when my parents faced a life-changing crisis. And even though the idea of me pitching in to help is enough to send any sane person running for cover, I pitched in as best I could. The confusing tumble of pain and joy during these events and those that followed has turned my views of family, love, and disability upside down.
“We’re all gonna be here forever,
So Mama don’t you make such a stir
Just put down that camera
And come on and join up
The last of the family reserve.”
“Dad’s had an accident, and it’s, um, pretty bad.” It’s my brother Rob calling from Delaware where he lives with his family near our parents’ house.
I’m in Georgia with my 14-year-old daughter, Coco, in the middle of a move. In a matter of days my wife, son, mother-in-law, and huge dog will arrive, loaded down with luggage, exhaustion, and expectations. Maybe I’m projecting. Maybe they don’t expect the new pans, plates, bowls, and flatware stacked and organized; the lawn mower put together; the Clorox toilet tank tablets freshly sunk, with backups under the sink; and services for our phones, electricity, cable, Internet, garbage pickup, and water all signed up and paid for when they get here. They for sure don’t expect or care that I get my Georgia driver’s license — proof of my new existence, laminated with my picture next to our new address — right now, tomorrow at the latest, but I do.
Consequently, Coco and I are busy. She had a tough last few months in Hawaii, but I’ve noticed her self-confidence growing since we’ve taken off together to be the advance team.
Coco and I both have ADHD, so we’re helping each other stay focused on the endless minutiae of setting up our family’s new house, no matter what’s on the to-do list: stores and bureaucracy in the morning, house chores in the afternoon, Gilmore Girls DVDs at night. The two of us seem to share a deeper understanding, and she’s been more open and happier than I’ve seen her in a while. She relishes this father-daughter time and the routines we’ve invented together. This afternoon Coco’s organizing the kitchen and I’m breaking down boxes in the garage when I get my brother’s call and slowly sit down on the floor.
My parents are in their mid-80s, and after raising two sons and finishing their careers, they’ve remained fiercely committed to living out their lives alone together in their own house. And despite some other accidents and medical emergencies, they’ve seemed resilient to the point of indestructibility. But from the sound of Rob’s voice I know this time is different.
“Dad fell,” he says. “He went from standing to landing on his head… fractured his skull. They think he had a stroke first, but anyway, they had to go into his brain to stop the bleeding…”
“Dad!” Coco’s yelling at me from the kitchen.
“Hold on a sec,” I tell Rob, and hold the cell phone to my chest. “I’m on the phone!” I yell to Coco, and then I’m back to Rob, “Go ahead.”
He continues, his normally confident, booming voice subdued and strained, “So, yeah, the docs said the brain surgery went okay, but he’s on a ventilator and they induced a coma, so we can’t see him, not even Mom.”
Rob pauses, strapping his emotions down with the gruff, silent steel bands of manhood that he and my father have used throughout their lives. Growing up, it drove me nuts that I was closer in temperament to my mother (though she’s always had better control of herself), a Chicken Little freaking out while my dad and younger brother stayed calm inside their John Wayne armor.
But Chicken Little can control his hyperventilating long enough to smell when John Wayne has another bomb to drop. Just as Rob takes a breath to tell me whatever bad news he has yet to reveal, Coco bolts into the garage.
“Dad!” she hollers.
“Not now, damn it!”
“But Dad, a cockroach … ”
“Christ, Coco! Shut up!” I’m anxious, raw, and harsh. I can see my daughter’s shock. My words have hurt, but I don’t care. I look away from her, stare at the flattened boxes on the garage floor, and focus on my brother’s phone call.
Rob’s cracked-voiced litany goes on: “Dad will be kept in this coma for days, no telling how damaged his brain is until he wakes, but, all in all, it doesn’t look good. Mom’s okay, went home to sleep, she’ll call you tomorrow. Nothing’s going to change for a few days — no need to come now, we know you’re in the middle of a move.”
I feel a flush of shame. I was just thinking how inconvenient the timing of all this is. Rob read my mind. I don’t even have to speak to play out my role in the family as the self-absorbed older brother. Our voices echoing each other’s sense of loss, we ask after each other’s wives and children, promise to talk tomorrow, and disconnect.
I take a deep breath and look around the garage. My wife, Margaret, will want to know about this, but I don’t want to go through it all again, right this second, even though talking to her always makes me feel better. Maybe after Coco and I have dinner and watch some Gilmore Girls. Coco — I’ll have to tell her something; she’s 14, but sensitive, and has a finely-tuned radar for picking up emotional signals.
I call out but don’t get an answer. She’s not in the kitchen or living room. I find her upstairs, sitting on the middle of the carpet in the master bedroom. She’s holding herself, her arms tight around her knees. Her head is buried, and she’s sobbing quietly.
In a flash, I remember my explosion at her in the garage.
“Coco, I’m sorry I yelled at you. I lost it, and I’m really sorry.”
“I know,” she says.
I put my arms around her, but she can’t stop crying.