just breathe

Her voice was weighted by anguish, broken by grief as it came across the line, its tone as pleading as the words that hurried me across the room to reach her, reassure her, rescue her right through the phone.

Until that day, I actually believed I had grown up, matured, become an adult. But that was before the telephone rang, a jangling intrusion into an otherwise peaceful Sunday morning.

It was not unlike the call every parent dreads about a child. Accident . . . ambulance . . . a lot of blood. But this time the roles were reversed. It was my mother’s voice describing a crisis, and my father who lay sprawled across the stone path where he had fallen, his head broken against unforgiving rock.

I still thought of my dad as the fair-haired young man with the sky-blue eyes and boyish grin who taught us to play hard, play fair, and play for keeps. He told us the world would never be too big as long as we could find one another in it, and that the more family we could gather the better the party. He taught us the security, responsibility, and honor inherent in our name. And he never let us leave the house without a scrubbed face, a lingering hug, and the charge to “Remember who you are and what you represent.

”But in this moment, the 80-year-old man who kept himself agile and lean, who still helmed the household, and who continued to make daily rounds through the trials and tribulations of his adult children, lay crumpled on the path, his head cradled in my mother’s arms as she waited for the ambulance and prayed for the man she has loved for 55 years.

I had to get dressed, find my keys, get to the hospital. I had to calm down.

Somehow, I arrived first. I lingered outside the Emergency department, waiting and watching for the ambulance to arrive, forcing myself to pray without negotiation, choosing to replace pleading with appreciation, and thanking God for already saving my father.

I saw my mother first; this strong, sophisticated woman who had raised me on confidence and character suddenly reduced to a frightened face in the window of the ambulance, waiting to be helped out of the vehicle and shouldered into the hospital.

We witnessed my father, encased in a tangle of triage as paramedics unloaded him from the back of the ambulance and into the hospital in a flurry of efficiency, his head and neck bound by sturdy blocks, an IV bag held high.

As best I can remember, this was the moment I morphed into an adult; the instant, after all those growing-up years, when I actually grew up just in time to become the caregiver, the advocate, the person who needed to take charge of my parents’ healing.

I secured my mother a chair and a cool drink, and kept my hand on her shoulder as I spoke with doctors, asked hard questions, and inquired about a CT scan to assess my father’s head injury.

I consulted with the Emergency department doctor and explained my father’s general health. I listed his current medications. I made decisions my parents couldn’t. The doctor told me he couldn’t stop the bleeding and a reconstructive surgeon was needed. The surgeon arrived within minutes.

As the day disappeared into night, I arranged for my father’s extended stay in the hospital. I called my own siblings and my father’s. I drove my mother home and made plans to stay with her, abandoning my life as I knew it and suddenly unable to remember anything about it that might have been more important. I took my mom to dinner and made sure she ate, while listening to her stories from another time, perhaps a little more intently than usual and keenly aware of her beauty, her voice, her presence in my life.

Each day we returned to the hospital, and each day my father got better. One evening, as I brought my mother in from a restaurant, we found a phone message my father had left for her.

just breathe “My new favorite nurse is Yasmin,” he said, “but they are all so kind. And can you believe it, the doctor stopped by after his rounds to check on me, and we talked about our children. And all the while, I’ve been thinking of my sweetheart and loving you so much, and knowing I will be better once I see you  again tomorrow. It has truly  been a wonderful day.”

As the days went by, my father talked medicine with the doctors, made friends with the nurses, and thought about the painting he’d like to donate to the expansive white walls that surrounded him. One week after the accident, the day dawned bright and clear, the sun put a sparkle on the sea and lit a hundred shades of green among the trees, and my father got out of bed. He swung his feet to the floor, rose to his full height, and folded me into his arms. And in that moment, I became a child again.