It’s the second night of my husband’s bi-weekly business trip. The second night is infinitely harder than the first. By then, my enthusiasm for solo parenting is long gone, my reserves for my children’s endless schemes to prolong bedtime have vanished, and my vow to not yell at them is shattered before the dinner plates are cleared.
My 5-year-old daughter mercifully has fallen sleep in her brother’s room, so I only have to outlast my 3-year-old son to make it to the promised land: a few minutes of free time before collapsing, spread eagle, in the center of my bed. I pretend to sleep, hoping that setting a good example will encourage him to surrender. Each time I raise my eyelids, though, he’s wild-eyed, tossing his Spider-Man action figure against the wall, trying—but failing—to catch it on the way down. He’s as wired as a chimp on a Red Bull drip but still jolly, laughing gamely every time Spider-Man lands on his face.
I sigh and put my hand on his tummy. “Let’s try to sleep, buddy.”
“Okay, Mama,” he says, squeezing his eyes shut with earnest effort. It touches my exhausted heart to know that he wants to please me.
When the thumping starts again, I don’t have to open my eyes to know that he’s playing catch with Spider-Man again.
More sighs. It’s not his fault—his preschool enforces a rest time, and he falls asleep every day. It’s the bane of many parents’ existence: When your kid who no longer needs a nap still gets one, and then can’t fall asleep until 10 at night.
I pull out my phone. I’m going to text my husband something along the lines of, “Help me! Still working on bedtime. Aarrrrggghhh!!!!!” My husband could collect all the texts I’ve sent him on the second nights of his business trips and they would roughly follow this format: Help me. I’m dying. You’re doing bedtime for the next seven nights.
As I’m typing out “help” in all caps, a text pops up. The buzz startles me. When I see it’s from my dad, the startle morphs into low-grade panic. My dad has only texted me out of the blue on three occasions, and each one concerned the extreme Chicago winter weather. A fifth-generation Texan, my dad follows the weather like a science fiction soap opera. “Looks pretty frigid up there. It’s well-digger cold here in Dallas. 32 degrees/the wind is blowing 20 mph. I don’t know how you do it,” he’ll say.
But it’s May—there’s nothing meteorologically interesting happening in Chicago or Texas. My panic surges when I read his message: “Call me when you can.”
Someone’s died. They must have. My mind scrolls through all of our elderly relatives, trying to recall the health status of my Uncle Gerry, my dad’s second cousin “Junior” (who’s 86) and all of my Uncle Buggs’s kids.
“Mommy will be right back.” I leave my son with a quizzical look on his face—I’ve never up and left him hastily like this. He can’t decide if something exciting or scary is happening.
I dial my parents’ number while climbing the stairs to my bedroom. By the time my dad answers, I’m gasping for breath. Cardio plus panic equals seriously labored breathing.
“Dad, I got your message. What’s up?” Subtext: You’re freaking me out, so tell me what’s going on before my son starts wailing for me and I have to go back downstairs to him.
“Everything’s going to be OK. My liver…biopsy…hepatitis…we wanted you to know.”
I ask what I think are the right questions: “How are you feeling? What do you need? How can I help?” When Mom gets on the phone, I am braver. “Is this related to alcoholism?” I have to ask, even though my dad’s been sober for over 38 years. Everyone knows that alcohol ruins livers.
“I think Dad asked that and they said no. Didn’t you, Paul?”
“Yes, I asked about that and whether or not it was related to Agent Orange in Vietnam. They said it wasn’t related.”
We’ve never been more aligned, the three of us. We are huddled up, wondering the same things, asking the same questions, looking to blame the same things. Who did this thing to Dad? Who spoiled his liver? There are no answers, but there is modern medicine and a regime of steroids that will control the symptoms.
“He’ll take them for the rest of his life,” Mom says.
The rest of his life? My God, the burden. It’s like diabetes, but without the needles. It’s tragic, because in my mind’s eye, my dad is still 40 years old. He’s got more than half his life left to live, and I feel grief-stricken that he’ll have to carry around a pillbox wherever he goes—when he visits me, when my brother takes him to Spain this summer, when he travels to College Station to see his beloved Aggies play. What if he forgets? What if he runs out while he’s abroad?
“Mama! Maaaaaaaamaaaaaaa!” My son’s cries bellow up the stairs so loudly my mother hears them.
“Are your kids still awake?” she asks.
“You should go to him. We’re fine here. Call us over the weekend.”
I want to cry, but I don’t think that will be soothing for my son. It’s 9:45 p.m. If I can just get him to sleep, then I can get on the Mayo Clinic website and start Googling my dad’s ailment. Knowledge is power, but it has to wait until I my 3-year old succumbs for the night.
I lie down next to my son, whose body is warm and vital.
“Can I scratch your back?” I ask, knowing that if he’s on his stomach he won’t be able to throw anything at the wall. I feel his galloping heartbeat through the back of his Spider-Man pajamas.
He nods and flips over.
I think about my dad’s liver and all it’s been through: hauled through Vietnam, pickled by alcoholism, rehabilitated by decades of sobriety, normal wear and tear. I try to remember everything I know about the liver from freshman year biology when we dissected frogs. There were lobes, right? You can’t live without a liver. Mickey Mantle, baseball great, had a liver transplant and people in Dallas were outraged that his athletic celebrity afforded him a top spot on the transplant list. He died a few years later.
I think about the lifetime of pills my dad is facing. Then I have a revelation: My dad isn’t 40. I am. My dad’s actually 70, so “the rest of his life” isn’t a 40- or 50-year proposition.
Now, I’m sad that the rest of his life isn’t nearly as long as I routinely assume it will be.
My son shudders, and his eyelids flutter. He’s almost asleep. I keep my hand on his back so he knows I’m there. With my other hand, I scroll through the entries of my Google search. I click on the Mayo Clinic site and hold my breath as I read the entry. “Not fatal. Controllable with medication.”
My breathing steadies. So does my son’s. We surrender to sleep.