My Dad’s Surgery at 88

I just spent a week at my dad’s home in North Carolina, taking care of him before and after surgery. This is not the first time I’ve gone to be with him while he was hospitalized. The last time was a couple of years ago when he was having stomach problems, and they were thinking of doing exploratory surgery. I was terrified at the time that he had stomach cancer, from the symptoms he had (his brother died of stomach cancer), but it turned out to be a nasty virus he’d picked up from visiting my stepmother at the nursing home. I also went to North Carolina to take care of him 8 years ago when he had a quadruple bypass.

Originally I planned to visit Dad for a weekend at the end of March,  just to give him moral support after he’d been through a couple of rough weeks. But plans changed after he was scheduled for surgery on April 14. I knew he’d need help when he got home from the hospital. It didn’t dawn on me then how busy we’d be before Dad’s surgery. We spent two days going to the doctor and then the hospital for preop testing and bloodwork.

My dad and I are not in an ideal situation. He’s 88 years old and approaching the time when he won’t be able to live by himself. He’s fiercely independent, still drives, walks with a cane (which he leaves leaning against the walls in various places), and doesn’t like the thought of having to move to an assisted living facility. We live about 5 1/2 hours from each other. I’m the only child, and I’ve always felt a special bond with my dad.

We’ve had conversations over the past two or three years about the possibility of his moving to Nashville, where I live. But our situation is complicated. As I mentioned previously, Daddy is married, and his wife is in a nursing home. She just turned 93 on April 15.

During this visit with my dad, we talked about some matters that many aging parents and their adult children don’t want to face: what kind of funeral he’d like to have if he didn’t make it through the surgery, who would conduct the service, where it would be, and how we could remember him in our hometown as well as his current city. Daddy made it plain that he does not want to be cremated, and he mentioned that he was bothered by the idea of my plans to be cremated when I die. He showed me the location of all his important papers, including his living will and durable medical power of attorney.

My dad is a fighter. When he went to the hospital, he had left his cane somewhere (we didn’t notice until we drove up to the hospital entrance), and he walked in on his own power. He didn’t want to “trouble me” to get out of the car and walk him in, so I respected his wishes, even though he’s a bit unsteady on his feet. I lingered in the car and watched until I saw that he’d gotten inside okay.

All went smoothly before the operation. Daddy changed into his hospital gown, and he patiently answered all the questions he was asked by three different people. He made a few jokes, and he seemed calm even though I knew from earlier conversation that morning that he was a little anxious about his surgery, a button TURP procedure for his prostate.

I nearly panicked when they came to take him to surgery. I thought, “What if this is the last time I see him?” I was reminded of the old saying, “Minor surgery is what happens to other people. When you’re the one having surgery, it’s always major.”

A nurse said to the other attendants wheeling him out of the room, “This is one of our World War II vets,” and they looked at him with respect. I said, “Daddy, I’ll be sitting in your room when they bring you back from surgery.” (Although I wanted to hug him and say, “I love you,” that just didn’t seem appropriate. I was afraid I’d start crying, and Daddy didn’t need that. I squeezed his hand. I don’t miss many opportunities to tell him I love him, so all was good there.)

While Daddy was in surgery, I tried to keep myself occupied. Waiting is hard. I took a walk outside the hospital; it was a beautiful spring day, and exercise was therapeutic.  There was still more time to kill when I returned to Dad’s room. I tried to read but couldn’t concentrate. I wound up doing some deep breathing exercises and standing poses I’d learned in yoga. I prayed.

Finally the phone rang, and the urologist let me know the procedure was over, and Daddy’s surgery had gone well. Huge relief!

About 45 minutes later, medical personnel wheeled him into his room. Daddy looked around as if he was trying to make sense of everything. I said hi to him; he didn’t respond. In a few minutes he said, “So when are they going to do the surgery? I never saw the doctor, but I heard everyone talking.” He kept trying to piece together the hours of his life he’d missed.

Not long after that, he said, ” I wonder when I’ll get to eat.” I thought, “Now, that’s my dad. He’s going to be okay.”

[Another post is coming about my reflections on caregiving for a week. Stay tuned.]

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