During the first week of May last spring, I was busy. I took finals, turned 21 and moved out of my first apartment. With summer vacation finally within reach, you would have guessed I would be excited, relieved and looking forward to the next few months. I was exactly the opposite. My father’s radical robotic prostatectomy was taking place in the second week of May and all of us — my mother, father, brother and sister-in-law, were getting anxious.
We were anxious, yes, but my father was by far the worst. You hear the stories about families freaking out while the patient himself waits patiently and without fear. My father was neither of these things. His temper was short and he regarded the coming days with an air of a man walking to the gallows instead of to the place where his life would actually be saved. The last meal we ate at home together felt like the Last Supper, and my dad counted down the days until he had to carry around his urine in a catheter bag.
My mother and I drove him to Henry Ford Hospital on a Friday morning. Perpetually early, he saw to it that we were there a good two hours before his required check-in time. He took us to the wrong elevator while I tried to keep the atmosphere cheerful. To me, it was simple: Come here, go through your sci-fi surgery and we can all forget that cancer ever happened, and I can forget that I even knew what a prostate was. This was a necessary means to our desired end and I wanted it over with. No stalling, no apprehension — the sooner you get in the hospital and under the video game hands of the Da Vinci machine, the sooner we can all get the hell out. [silly]
Finally, the nurses took my dad back to the pre-op room for preparations. They put Dad into a cute little nightgown, an adorable little shower cap and these charming, elastic slippers. His chagrin was palpable as the hospital workers stripped him of everything — including his pride. My mother and I smiled sweetly at everyone we spoke to, determined to make my dad their favorite patient, thinking they would take extra good care of him. He tried to make jokes, but mostly they came off stale. No one was really listening to anything, anyway.
My dad’s bizarre obsession with hospital technology began here. The Da Vinci machine they were going to use is right out of Star Trek. The doctors work in front of a big-screen television and insert the cameras into the abdomen. Using the extreme close-up, they operate using cameras and video game controls entirely — a doctor’s hand never came near my father during the surgery itself.
As an engineer and a faithful viewer of “Modern Marvels,” my father couldn’t get enough of it. At every opportunity, he asked if they could show him the machine before he went under. “I find it fascinating” were his words of choice. Fascinating is no longer an adjective that I can use seriously.
My brother found us, finally, after I gave him directions to the pre-op. After we had a chance to be together, they began to wheel my father away. We kissed and hugged him, wished him good luck and assured him he would be fine. Myself, I was glad. I’d never been more relieved. They had him in their metal hands and there was nothing else I could do. They were going to remove whatever mean thing was attacking my father and I wouldn’t have to worry anymore.
The three of us went downstairs to eat lunch. We sat outside in the sun trying to talk of anything but prostates and “fascinating” machines. My brother and I plotted to steal one of the blue chairs they were handing out to hospital employees. Some of them had five, I swear. Why could we not have ONE?
We passed the next four hours and then returned to the waiting room to wait for the doctor. I read some book I don’t remember, and my mother blatantly stole a woman’s magazine (a family of thieves, no doubt.) Another hour or so passed and we were starting to get nervous. My mother was called to the front desk and returned a little embarrassed. It seemed the doctor had been to see us 30 minutes before we came back. She talked to him and exhaled. So did we, even before she told us. He was fine. He was sleeping and we could go to a different waiting room closer to him.
[family]Once we finally got into his room, he was awake, but totally drugged up. His spirits were high, just like his wooziness level. I confess — I was uneasy. Here was my father — the builder of sewers and roads, mathematician extraordinaire and pillar of strength in the family — pale, out of his mind with painkillers and tubes sticking out of him while he was flat on his back. This is not an image of my father I’m used to seeing, but his incessant teasing of the nurse relaxed us all. Had he not been floating in another dimension, he would have been as stern and humorless as usual.
In fact, he was so “happy” he felt the need to wheel his IV around the hallway in his hospital gown to pop in to the other prostatectomy post-ops to see where they’d all come from and ask them if they found the machine as “fascinating” as he had. Henry Ford is the leading prostate cancer hospital in the world, so he was expecting to find people from all over the globe. Instead, he found someone from Toledo.
As my mother and I drove the hour back home, we didn’t speak. We had been at the hospital for almost 12 hours and neither of us could express the relief we felt knowing the miserable, malevolent infection had been removed from Dad’s body. I didn’t care how hard it was to recover, it was gone. [infection]
That evening, I dragged my best friend out against her will to the bar for some numbing of the senses. We sat in the booth and, over a plate of the greasiest nachos ever created, I was thrilled to hear about boy troubles — anything that didn’t involve a life-threatening disease was peaches to me. It was over.
The next morning, we drove back to Detroit to collect my father. Today, he was more uncomfortable and complained about a dull abdominal pain. Well, yes, Dad. A robot when into your stomach and yanked out an organ that is necessary for procreation. Your body is probably not very happy with you — cancer-free or not.
Now, he was unhappy and, overnight, became the patient I knew I couldn’t be patient with. My dad never showed real discomfort. Sure, I’ve never seen someone stub his toe as much as my father, but he never experienced anything long-lasting. I couldn’t handle it. This was not — could not be — my father. If my dad wasn’t there to hoist our family on his shoulders, who would? I excused myself to the bathroom down the hall, sat on the toilet seat and cried into my palms. My universe had been totally uprooted, and nothing made sense. At the same time, my father was recovering from a semi-serious surgery, and there I was, hiding like a child and weeping out of self-pity. Nothing was right. My dad sick, and me totally selfish and ungrateful. I never wanted to see Henry Ford Hospital again.
[dad]I drove home that day. Dad was wedged into the back seat of the Pacifica with Mom next to him, asking him if he was comfortable at every mile sign. He swears I hit every pothole and crack in the road, while I maintain I drove 20 mph under and didn’t hit one.
The next few weeks passed with the same lingering confusion. I was unhappy my father was going through any pain, but I was uncomfortable in my house — and then ashamed of that. I fled to my brother and his wife’s house as an escape and thrived on the boring routine they’d constructed. I watched TV with them and played with their dog on the floor, endlessly grateful to have a catheter bag nowhere in sight.
Soon enough, my dad recovered. He insisted on lifting heavy objects (two weeks before he was supposed to) and got bored — painfully bored. He drove my mother and I crazy, but that was better than the helpless man from the weeks prior. Things went back to normal — and not as slowly as you might imagine.
Last week, my dad got the all-important blood test to check for any presence of cancer. Zero percent. ZERO. My parents had martinis in celebration, and I called my brother the next day to share with him a congratulatory hello — a hug from over the line, and an unspoken “thank you for being alive, thank you for being my brother, thank you for going through this with me.” Zero percent. Cancer-free.

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