MEMOIR: Chapter 41 Bethesda III

Chapter 41

Bethesda III

 The third day, last treatment of Round One, Tim felt well enough afterward to venture onto the Metrorail for a quick trip to the Capitol, and we set out on foot for a preview of the cherry blossom tour.

We bought hot dogs from a vending cart on the Ellipse and sat on the grassy grounds of the WashingtonMonument. From there we could look across the TidalBasin at bare trees that would soon be an explosion of life enveloping the Jefferson Memorial in endless drifts of pink and white.

It was a cool day, but clear and sunny. Tim pulled his hat snug over his ears, zipped up his jacket, eased himself back onto the grass and propped his head on his folded arms. “This is the life,” he said. “I could stay here forever.”

Forever lasted about an hour, during which he napped. I watched him sleep, and thought about what he called guilt. I had my own regrets about the day Dad died. It had been Fathers’ Day, and I had a stupid present for him—some kind of trendy garden tool he’d probably never use—but Jack’s parents were visiting the farm for the first time, and Jack’s daughter Marion, and it was her birthday, and I’d made a cake and I was preparing a celebratory midday dinner. When the call came from the E.R. in Seaside, nothing sounded bad enough to drop everything and race over there. “They’ve had an accident, Tim has a concussion, Travis has leg injuries, we’re treating them both.”

I figured I’d get dinner on the table, sing Happy Birthday, then we’d go to the E.R.

The next call, however, was a little more ominous. “Travis’ injuries are pretty serious, we may have to send him to Portland, St. Vincent’s. But for now, he’s stable.”

I rushed dinner onto the table, told everyone I had to go to the E.R. in Seaside. It ruined what should have been a festive dinner, everyone disappointed and glum. Did I have to go? Is it that bad? Well, it’s not good, but I guess I could wait a bit…

The next call was, “He’s in the ambulance, they’re rushing him to St. Vincent’s. He’s lost a lot of blood, his leg injuries are very serious, and there’s concern about his heart. They’re going to operate.”

His heart? Anxiety made my own heart thump and race. St. Vincent’s was famous for open-heart surgeons. How could it be his heart? He’d never mentioned symptoms to us.

Feeling guilty about leaving everyone to fend for themselves in our big, old, drafty farmhouse, I grabbed my coat. “I’m sorry, but I have to leave. Dad’s being transported to Portland. Jack, you don’t have to go. Stay, finish the party, have the birthday cake.”

Jack calmly got his own coat. “If it’s that bad, I’m going too. You shouldn’t be driving, anyway.” Jack’s Mom and Dad were supportive, but uneasy. Marion was clearly disappointed, her 24th birthday ruined. The day seemed to turn dark and gloomy, inside the house and outside.

By the time we got to Portland, Dad was already in surgery with Dr Albert Starr, renowned heart surgeon. Half an hour later, Dr. Starr came to the waiting room where we were the only occupants, his surgical mask around his neck, and stood in the doorway looking at us. Jack and I stood up. “How is he?”

Dr. Starr came closer. We already knew, but he told us. “I’m sorry to tell you, but Travis didn’t make it.”

The words banged around in my brain, muting the doctor’s next words. “He had a large aortic aneurysm, it could have burst at any time, and the impact of the crash, the steering wheel, well, it was just too much.”

There was more, about his legs—so seriously crushed he’d have had two amputations if he’d lived. I didn’t want to hear more. The image of Dad, a paraplegic in a wheelchair, was horrifying. This man, so hard-working and active all his life, would have begged to die if it had come to that.

Jack and I walked the halls, walked outside, cried, talked, wondered, hugged and consoled each other. For me the magnitude of all of this hadn’t sunk in yet—Tim was still in the hospital in Seaside, should I go there?

Jack counseled me through it. “No, call your brothers and sisters first, they’ll all come, they can stay at the farm.”

Dad’s widow, a woman he had been unhappily married to for a couple of years, was in a room upstairs in the hospital, heavily sedated. “What do we do about Opal?” I asked.

“She’s pretty drugged up, we’ll go sit with her awhile, then let’s just go home.”

Yes. We had guests. And we still had birthday cake to get through. And then the rest of the family would come.

Tim had guilt, I’d had regrets. From the farm to Seaside was a 30-minute trip. I could have gone, could have been with Tim and Dad, could even have ridden with him in the ambulance. Opal had gone with him, but she was a nervous, twittering, wailing, hand-wringing wreck who had to be put to bed as soon as the ambulance arrived at St. Vincent’s. And I should have gone back to Seaside after Dad died, checked on Tim, seen how bad his concussion was. I wasn’t there to help Tim with his own grief, and his own injuries. But Irene was with him.

There was a single main regret: my Dad died alone. I could have been with him, but instead, I’d been entertaining guests. Taking care of my responsibilities.

But then Dad had helped me to get over it. Maybe it was time to tell Tim about how Dad  had helped. Maybe now he’d be ready to hear it.

Tim got cold and woke up, shivering.

“Welcome back,” I said. “Are these little naps the only sleep you ever get?”

“Just about. I sleep sometimes, but it’s hard…I keep remembering stuff I don’t want to remember.” He got up and gathered his things, pulled on his gray gloves. We headed for the Metro station.

“I have my own regrets about the way Dad died,” I said. “But I got over it.”

We got on the escalator and rode down into the Metro tunnel. “Regrets,” Tim said. “That’s nothing, compared to guilt. Guilt is a whole ‘nother dimension.”

“I don’t understand why you feel so guilty, but I can tell you how I got over my own regrets. It might help you, too.”

Tim leaned against a pillar and crossed his arms and legs, his red socks bright in the artificial light of the Metro tunnel. His face was shadowed, somber.

“Unless you have some magic formula, I don’t see how…” he said. “You know, when I think about that day,” he said, “it makes my head hurt, my stomach hurt, my heart hurt—everything hurts.”

“It’s painful for me too, but how can we not think about that day?”

His pale face, bluish shadows under his eyes, was hard to look at.

He tilted his chin up and closed his eyes for a moment against what he was feeling, then slowly opened his eyes.

“Now that I’m looking death in the face, I think about how Dad died. A lot. Too much, in fact.” He winced. “And I think about how it was my fault.”

Yes, now. Time to tell him. He was ready to hear it now. But we had to get comfortable first.

A row of lights along the platform edge began to flash on and off. Tim uncrossed his legs and leaned forward to look down the tunnel at the approaching train.

The train pulled into the station with a rush of noise and cool air. The destination was posted above the side windows: BETHESDA. Home of the National Institutes of Health.

“That’s us,” I said. We stood back and waited for people to get off the train before we boarded. The train was crowded, and there were no seats together. We separated, and sat deep in reverie and sadness, both of us remembering Fathers’ Day.

We got off the train eight stops later and walked fast, our breaths floating white like clouds in the dark, eager to get to the warmth and community of the hotel bar. Without a consultation, we both knew what we needed now: something alcoholic. For me, warm and alcoholic.

We found a small table in the corner of the hotel bar and slid side by side into the red vinyl booth bench against the dark-paneled wall.

The waitress was friendly and quick. I ordered first.

“A Coffee Nudge, please.”

She stuck her pencil behind her ear and leaned both hands on the table.

“A coffee what?”

Tim poked me in the ribs with his elbow. “That’s a nudge,” he said. “I think Coffee Nudge is more of a West Coast thing.”

“Really? Crème de cacao, Kahlua, brandy, hot coffee?”

The waitress tossed her long blonde hair back. “Oh, you mean a Keoke coffee. With whipped cream, right?”

“Absolutely.”

She turned to Tim. “And for you, sir?”

“I was going to order Pinot Noir, but now I think maybe I’ll have one of those, too.”

The waitress left to get our drinks.

“That’s some serious booze you just ordered,” Tim said. “Trying to get us drunk?”

“Seems like a good night for it,” I said. “Might as well be sloppy sad drunks instead of just sober and sad.”

We sat in silence with our drinks while I tried to decide when and how I would tell him my story about Dad.

Tim drank off the last of his Keoke Coffee and signaled the waitress for another. She held up two fingers with a questioning look.

“Want another?” Tim said.

“I shouldn’t, I can’t talk straight as it is. But only one more. I’m not used to drinking this much, and the coffee doesn’t seem to override all that booze. Especially on an empty stomach. Maybe we should order some bar snacks or something.” I picked up the bar menu.

“Here, buffalo wings,” I said, pointing at the menu. “With celery sticks and blue cheese, a balanced meal.”

Tim waved the menu at the waitress. She came over.

“I’ll have another Keiko—no, that’s a movie whale—a sick whale at that—another of those coffee things, for me,” Tim said. “And an order of Buffalo Wings. And…looked like you took some Caesar salads to that table over there.”

“We do have small Caesar salads on the bar menu.”

“Bring two of those,” he said. “And more water, please.”

I drank off the rest of my water.

By the time we had finished our chicken wings and salads, and were halfway through our second Keoke, Tim’s face had picked up some rosy color and he slid down on his tailbone, relaxed.

“Okay, I’m drunk enough,” he said. “What’s your magic formula?”

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