The Dutiful One

By Ana Ottman

Your mother calls you early one Sunday morning. “Your father was rushed to the hospital last night.” Fear: the emotion that clenches you like a desperate lover. It can’t be right; this sentence must belong to some other family. Your parents are still in their early 50s with a child in high school. While other families have battled with cancers and divorces, yours has stayed free from harm. You have no reason to think that things would be different now. It’s been almost 30 years of relative good luck.

Not this time. This time it’s your turn to drop everything and come home. It’s your duty. Who else would come? You have a large family, but no one else seems to be as concerned as you. Life as you know it is on hold.

The cacophony of hurried packing leads to your car being filled up with God knows what. You hit the road. You have eight hours to be lost in thought. Your iPod filled with the latest indie bands tries valiantly to distract you.

He gets up to see you with his walker. The man who rides his bike 20 miles a day, who hikes full days in the mountains, who handles six hours of yard work in your family’s acre of desert landscape like it’s nothing. He says that he can’t feel his feet. His pace is unsteady and slow.

The days blur together. Physical therapy. In and out of the car with the walker. Instructions on yard work. Instructions on house maintenance. Afternoon naps. Cooking his favorite meals. Dishes and cleaning, dishes and cleaning. You haven’t taken a shower in three days. You’re too tired to put yourself together, and in any case, you’re not really leaving the house.

Then, another hospital stay sneaks up on your family. This time it’s not your father, but your youngest sister. Now, it’s long days at urgent care, ambulance rides, multiple hospitals. You realize you’ve spent more time these past couple weeks in medical facilities than perhaps in your entire life before that. She looks so small in that hospital bed. She holds her stuffed panda with a death grip. The pediatrician ward is filled with cribs, which take on a creepy quality under the strange glares of hospital lights and medical tools. She’s in pain; they’re upping the morphine to every two hours.

Things start to feel a little overwhelming. One afternoon you can’t seem to do anything without feeling on the verge of tears, so you go into the bedroom you’re staying in and just let them flow. You want to curl up in your own bed in Los Angeles and stay there for days, except you can’t because there is work to be done and you’re the only one who can do it.

When she emerges from surgery, she panics because of the oxygen mask on her mouth. But the pain has stopped. Her eyes light up when you pull a fluffy round panda with big eyes out of a bag.

Every hour, things begin to feel more normal. Your father is walking better every day. He makes jokes with physical therapy staff about you being his personal assistant. He gives the men at the liquor store a lesson about his fridge kegerator while buying beer. He thanks you for your help, every day.

The clenching around your heart loosens. You feel anxious to get back to your other life. You wonder when is the right time to leave. You have a date in mind, but the guilt about leaving them clouds things. One thing you do know: on your deathbed, you’ll never wish you had worked more, but that you had spent more time with your family. Your priorities are spot-on, and for that, you are grateful. Your fear has been replaced by a calm certainty.

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Image by Michael Chen, used under a Creative Commons license.

Ana Ottman just spent three weeks in Tucson, Arizona. It’s a dry heat.

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