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My mom called me a couple of weeks ago frantic and nearly hysterical. My 78-year-old father, who had been in the hospital because of a blood clot, had become dehydrated and malnourished. He was delirious, reliving days in Vietnam, yelling orders to troops, lashing out in terror at unseen enemies. I told my mother to do whatever was possible to get him out of there and take him to another hospital where he would get better care.
She hired a private ambulance service and had him transported to a hospital two hours away. I got in my car and traveled four hours from Charlotte to the coast, hoping that by the time I got there, my dad would be stabilized.
I wasn’t prepared for what I found. My Marine father, once vibrant, in command, and full of life, wasn’t himself. Lying in the bed was a man I didn’t recognize. His cheeks were sunken, his eyes swollen, his hair tangled, his skin a pale gray; he seemed unable to catch his breath, and he kept pulling oxygen tubes away from his nose. Worse was the wild look in his eyes as they darted from one point to another, seeing things only he could see.
I hurried to his bedside. He turned as I touched his shoulder.
“Denise,” he said slowly, as if he were trying to remember something from long ago.
I took his hand and held it.
“Hi, Dad,” I managed. He lifted his head to give me a kiss. His lips were cracked with drool crusted in the corners. I didn’t hesitate for a second and kissed him.
“How are you?” I asked.
“The reports need to be filed, and then we need to get out of here,” he said with a strained voice as he pointed to something in the far corner of the room. “There’s the patrol … we need to find it and take care of business.” He squeezed my hand, his eyes wide. He motioned for me to come closer. “Not many make it out of the foxhole,” he whispered.
“We’ll get out, Dad; don’t worry,” I whispered back. He nodded and started pulling at his IV.
My mom told him to stop, but he didn’t listen. He kept trying to grab the tube. I moved his hand away, and he started fumbling with the blanket that was draped over him. He seemed to be looking for something.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“My jacket …. the button,” he said. He was getting agitated.
I lifted the blanket and pretended to find the button on his imaginary jacket. “Here it is,” I said.
He smiled and reached to take it. “Thank you.” He looked at the invisible button between his fingers, let out a slow breath, and turned away, talking to someone about getting men off the flight deck.
“He’s at least calmer now,” my mom said as she sank into a chair. She glanced at our hands and smiled. “It’s because you’re here.”
I tried to talk to him, but he didn’t seem to know I was there any longer even though he was still holding my hand—so tightly my fingers were turning purple.
I remembered a time when I was young, when my dad taught me to swim. He didn’t do it like most dads. There were no water wings, no shallow end of the swimming pool. My dad took me to the beach on the Marine Corps base, put me on a boogie board, pulled me out just beyond the waves, and told me to get off. “Sink or swim,” he said.
I was terrified, but I obeyed. I gasped for air as I flailed in the water, desperately trying to feel the sand beneath my toes as the tide fell. From a few feet away, my dad yelled at me to kick my legs. But I couldn’t. I was too weak. Too afraid. I was going to drown. The tide lifted, filling my mouth and nose with water. I tried to kick, but the tide rolled over me. Just as I went under, I felt my dad grab hold of my hand.
“You can do it,” he said. He held me at arm’s length so I could kick. The tide rose, and salt stung my eyes, but I wasn’t afraid any longer. My dad was there. He wouldn’t let me drown. He wouldn’t let me go.
As I stood beside my dad’s hospital bed, the scent of salt in the ocean air and the crash of the waves faded, replaced by the bitter smell of ammonia and the woosh and beeps of hospital machines. I held on to his hand, leaned over, and kissed his cheek. “You can do it,” I whispered.
Two days later, I had to leave to go back home. For the next couple of weeks, doctors worked on my dad, evaluating him and making a plan for recovery. My mom stayed with him, going back home only when she needed supplies. She was tired, and the stress was taking its toll.
Saturday, I left Charlotte to go see him again. As I made my way across the bleakness of Eastern North Carolina, passing cotton fields, rows of pine trees, and camouflage trucks with dead bucks strapped to the front bumper, I tried to distract myself from the worry. I shuffled through my IPod. I talked to friends on the phone. I listened to the news. But my heart was heavy. Would my dad recognize me? Would he ever be strong enough to go home? Would we ever walk along the beach again and watch sunlight dance on the waves?
Around lunchtime, I stopped at a Taco Bell in Scotland County. I ordered a large Diet Coke and a crunchy taco and pulled around to the first window. I took too wide of a turn and had to back up. An older African-American woman was at the window; she smiled warmly as she watched me. When I tried to right the car, I ran up against the curb.
“Sorry,” I said awkwardly through the open window.
She laughed kindly, “Don’t worry about it, baby girl. You just take your time.”
I finally maneuvered my car up to the window and shook my head. “I’m really sorry about that. I’ve been traveling awhile. Guess I’m distracted.”
“Where’re you coming from?” she asked.
“Charlotte,” I said. “I’m going to visit my dad in the hospital in Wilmington.”
She leaned against the ledge, her brow knitted with concern. “Why is he in the hospital?”
I briefly told her, my voice cracking at times.
“What’s his name so I can pray for him?” she asked.
“Don,” I managed.
She nodded. “And what’s yours?”
“Denise,” I said, sniffing back the tears.
She looked down at me from the Taco Bell window, the smell of spicy ground beef wafting into my car, her face glowing with reassurance and conviction.
“Dry those pretty eyes, baby girl,” she said. “It’s going to be all right.”
Instinctively, I reached up and took her hand. It was chapped and warm and strong. She closed her other hand on top of mine and held it tight.
I looked up at her, the dark circles under her shining eyes, the gray strands in her curly hair, the wrinkles around her mouth from years of smiles. I was stunned by her beauty, by her love, and as I drove away, the tension in my chest unclenched, the fear released.
When I walked into the hospital, I found my father sitting up, his eyes bright, his skin full of color.
“Denise!” he said, his smile big. He held open his arms for me to come to him.
I hurried over and gave him a hug and a kiss. He pulled me close, his white beard tickling my cheek. “It’s good to see you, darling,” he said.
Tears streamed down my face, the taste of saltwater on my lips. “It’s always good to see you, Dad.” Always.