Our Lives

Our Lives: Who we’ve been and who we’ve become

December 7, 2013 


Elizabeth Dreesen.

JULI LEONARD — jleonard@newsobserver.com

My Dad survived his knee replacement. Almost a month ago, his orthopedist cut out the old knee and cemented in a new one. Now Dad’s at home with a walker and physical therapy three times a week. Soon he’ll graduate to a cane. In another month maybe, he’ll be driving again.

From the surgical perspective, there were no surprises. The operation took four hours, which was what we’d anticipated. Dad was hospitalized for five days – the expected duration. I extracted him from rehab in time for Thanksgiving, which was just as we’d planned.

In the end, what was surprising was us. We Dreesens surprised me.

My family has a particular view of ourselves. We’re a Navy family – tough and practical. We’ve lived through the adversity of night carrier landings and Vietnam. We deal with difficulty by planning for it. And we don’t dwell on the possibility of bad outcome. In truth, we try not to even think about it. Instead we make everything a project and we try to keep busy.

So that’s how we handled Dad’s surgery. I picked his orthopedist and anesthesiologist. I schmoozed his resident and his nurses. I worked with his social worker to choose a rehab. When I found out that his operation would be the first of the day, I was elated. The surgeon, I knew from experience, would be fresh and enthusiastic. Dad nodded understandingly when I explained it to him and thanked me for all my work. Then he packed his bag, preparing for this mission, as he would have for any other.

Then D-Day arrived: Dad’s surgery Day.

When I arrived at the house to pick him up at 5:15 a.m., Dad looked tired and old. The sweatsuit he’d chosen to wear to the hospital was wrinkled. I’d been planning like crazy; busy as a little bee with the events surrounding his surgery. Dad himself, though, seemed flustered at the flurry of activity in the pre-op holding area.

As he got ready to roll back to the O.R., the nurses made him surrender his glasses and dentures. Bleary-eyed and toothless, he looked frail and vulnerable. We’d planned his operation for months, but I hadn’t envisioned this part – the part where my aging Dad was wheeled away and I was left sitting in his empty cubicle, floored by his mortality.

My mother was my sister’s project, and my sister, Boo, had worked hard on her. In many phone calls from Maine, Boo had encouraged Mom to get an aide or a maid or an assistant of some sort to help with shopping and cleaning while Dad was away.

“I don’t like people hanging around,” Mom insisted. “I’m fine. Buy me some frozen dinners. I’ll nuke ’em.”

So my sister’s plan was to do just that: Fly in from Maine for the first few days, and tee up my emphysematous, fragile, oxygen-dependent Mom for three weeks without Dad.

Boo had a checklist: Clean out the kitchen and get all the laundry done, stock up on frozen meat loaf and chicken pot pie. She’d make sure the microwave worked and everything would be fine.

One morning at home with Mom, though, heralded the failure of Boo’s plan. My mother is short of breath at rest, and even more so when she’s nervous. At home that first morning, even dressing made her huff and puff. Confronting my mother’s marginal lungs, my sister switched to Plan B. Fifty phone calls later, she’d arranged for an aide.

I look back on our experience, and I shake my head in amazement.

My sister and I aren’t dumb. I’m a doctor. She’s an educator. Yet despite our education and experience, our well-laid plans were ridiculous. We weren’t prepared for any of it – for the fear of Dad’s mortality, for the obvious needs of my mother.

My sister and I got stuck somehow in a time warp, in which we were a tough Navy family taking on another difficult mission.

We forgot that what we really are is a retired Navy pilot with a bad leg, and his social worker wife with an oxygen tank. We’re two daughters in our 50s who still hear authority in parental voices and struggle with how to both respect and override it.

Mercifully, it worked out OK. Dad is home with Mom, which is good. He’s still using a walker, which infuriates them both. They’ve kept the aide.

If we were in the military, you might say that my parents have been demoted, stripped of their command. And, in some ways, that’s true. This is our post-military life though, so what’s really happened is that we’re all seeing more clearly both who we’ve been and who we’ve become. We’re acknowledging, at last, one another’s strengths and fragility.

Dreesen: elizabethdreesen@gmail.com

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