After twelve long days, some of them more scary than I would like, my dad left the hospital. (Insert celebratory emoji of choice!) He’s now in a rehab facility where he can spend a few weeks working his way back to physical strength, unencumbered by IV drip tubes and midnight pulse ox checks, free to sleep through the night without beeping and booping and the pained moans of poor unseen souls in the next bed over.
My stepmother has been his primary caregiver for the past 8 years, ever since he was run over in a crosswalk by a crazed taxi driver, and I have never appreciated her more.
While my dad is strong and remarkably self-sufficient, Amye knows everything: how he sounds when he’s sleeping normally, the random arm movement at night since the accident (it looks like he’s conducting an orchestra), every medication dosage, every doctor’s name, his normal range for every organ function, the kind of milk he will and won’t drink…it’s a lot.
(If you weren’t yet aware, your calendar in your 80s is apt to look like one long string of doctors visits, lab tests, follow-up visits and prescription refills, occasionally interrupted by life. And Netflix.)
There’s one thing though:
On day two of the hospital visit, Amye started to feel rotten.
By day three she had a positive Covid test.
By day four, my brother had come down with something too and went back home to DC.
At that moment, I became whatever inedible foodstuff is obscured between two fat slices of bread in the metaphor of The Sandwich Generation. I became the sole person by his bedside asking for help, running for ice, tracking down nurses, jotting down numbers, learning to pronounce creatinine, troubleshooting hearing aid malfunctions, finding fresh flowers for the overbed table, holding my breath during every blood pressure check, asking difficult questions—and answering “I don’t know” far more than I would have liked, texting Amye all day for some of the answers.
When he was ready to sleep, I raced home to be Mom again and not just Exhausted Mom Who Just Has Nothing Left In Me Right Now, Sorry Kids, and not doing a particularly great job of it.
Fortunately, teens never say no to the third pizza night in a row.
Fortunately, Jon takes on dinner management when enough with the pizza.
Jon’s first go at making the matzoh ball soup for Hanukkah, and no one could have done better.
By day ten or so, Dad was definitely Dad again — lucid and funny, sharing outrageous stories about the MadMen days of advertising, laughing at photos of the kids, shaking his head at all the horrors in the news, and griping about the soup.
I remarked that I couldn’t think of the last time we had spent ten straight days together.
Maybe it was the summer that I fled the suburbs to live at his apartment, answering phones at his ad agency for free after all the local ice cream shops turned down my job applications.
I was 16.
This week, as we downed two Shake Shack burgers together in the rehab center, toasting to the return of his appetite after a full 45-minute PT workout, he looked at me and said, “I really appreciate how much attention you’ve been able to give me.”
He didn’t say “thanks for being here,” which is what I would have expected; or “thanks for all your time,” which would be the corporate version.
Thanks for giving me attention.
A trigger word I didn’t realize I had until just then.
I admit that I can be terrible at paying full attention when I probably should. I am a juggler and a multitasker, a doodler and a fidgeter, regardless of how much research I’ve read about how crappy our brains are at doing multiple things at once.
I carry so much guilt about this.
How many wonderful moments have I missed because I was just busy or too tired or simply not paying attention?
I try not to live life with too many regrets, but I often think about times when Sage was a preschooler, and I would work on my laptop next to her on the couch, the filthy one with red wine stains and errant crayon marks, and a massive tear in the fabric from our bulldog’s long nails.
She would turn to me, putting her tiny palm against my cheek and pull my face away from the laptop screen and toward her, to get her attention.
I worked from home. Sometimes I worked next to her while she played. I was the sole earner in our household, working full-time during the day in addition to running my website at night, and it’s what had to be done.
Still, a three-year old physically turned her mom’s head to face her own.
That one still hurts.
As much as I’ve written about ditching the working mom guilt, I’m still working on that. But thinking of my time with my dad, I never realized how much “working child guilt” I have been holding too — how many times I have cancelled plans, skipped out on a family dinner, hung up the phone too fast, or went weeks without seeing my parents because, life.
I don’t think I’m in a place to go much deeper about that right now.
Soon, but not now.
I generally hate the expression everything happens for a reason. Like, no, my dad did not get incredibly sick so that we could have this time together. So that I could learn a lesson. So that I could shift my priorities.
When bad things happen, something good may come of it—but bad things happen because that’s life, and in life, bad things happen. That’s it.
Instead, maybe we can start saying that when bad things happen, they give us opportunities to grow.
(I know that’s not quite as pithy for a shareable Instagram quote or a t-shirt.)
My next path for growth: Trying to pay attention more to what — and who— I pay attention to.
A few years back, I heard a brilliant line from Amy Krause Rosenthal, quoted by Hank Green in an interview for Adam Grant ‘s TED Podcast (transcript here), and while I’ve thought about it ever since, it really clicked for me this week in a new way.
She wrote: “pay attention to what you pay attention to if you want to know what to do with your life.”
Then Hank added, “what you pay attention to matters, but maybe what matters most is the kind of attention you pay. And if you pay that kind of careful sustained attention, almost everything becomes a potential site of real intellectual and emotional reward.”
So today, I’m heading out for more emotionally rewarding time with my dad.
There are flowers that need replacing, a festive Gumby on his windowsill that might need a new accessory, a Diet Coke stash that needs refreshing, a few more burgers that need eating, and a truly amazing guy who smiles easily when he’s around his family.
Liz Gumbinner is a Brooklyn-based writer, award-winning ad agency creative director, and OG mom blogger who was called “funny some of the time” by an enthusiastic anonymous commenter. This was originally posted on her Substack “I’m Walking Here!,” where she covers culture, media, politics, and parenting.