There's a gentleman I know whom I refer to as "father." People call him Chuck if they've met him in the last quarter century. Many of the people who made his acquaintance before then call him "Waldo." The nickname Waldo is derived from his last name, "Emerson," in reference to the great transcendentalist thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson. Oddly enough, my Chuck isn't a big fan of Ralph. Chuck's birth certificate bears the name "Charles Merrill Emerson Jr," or something close to that. There was some question at one point whether the "Merrill" on his birth certificate exactly matched the "Merrill" on my own birth certificate, which designates me as not "Jr" but "III." An "r" or an "l" were said to have been absentee through some fluke of hospital childbirth procedure. I've frequently thought of attempting to adopt the nickname "Waldo," as my father no longer uses it much. I've refrained for fear of seeming presumptuous.
I'm going to write briefly today on the topic of Chuck (or "dad," or "father.") Rather, I'd like to write briefly about a sub-topic of the meta-topic of dad, which in and of itself is a sub-topic of family, which is a topic that becomes increasingly important to me these days. I've returned recently from a family reunion in the slow-paced state of South Dakota, where I was surrounded by more family than I could easily shake a stick at, and I was struck by how much my life, my psyche, and my body could change over varying periods of time between seeing a myriad of family members without my love or feeling of connection between these individuals wavering in the slightest. I digress, here, but with purpose. In the realm of the earthly, I find fewer and fewer things that retain the value that they once appeared to me to have, and fewer and fewer things that even succeed in ever appearing valuable to me, despite their apparent power to seem valuable to many other people. My family is something that has retained in all places, and in many places even increased, its value to me on an array of different levels. To the reader, I would hope that you have experienced, or are currently experiencing, the maximum benefit of some kind of loving family. There are few things more euphoric or guiltless in the world, and I know much on the topics of both euphoria and guilt.
To return to the topic, or rather to elucidate it in the first place, I am writing today to celebrate something that happened precisely eight years ago. In the interest of brevity, I will just let this go here: my father received a life-saving liver transplant on this day in that long past year. We have coined this, then, his "liver-birthday." (Father also has a "kidney-birthday," celebrated along with my sister, who donated the kidney.) (Father also has a normal birthday, bringing his grand total of birthdays to three.)
In remaining faithful to the nearly-full-disclosure which has been common in my online writings, I will say that eight years ago I was personally preparing to dive head first into a world of depravity and addiction, and will admit that, despite my family having always been there for me throughout my lifetime, I was not always adequately present during the trials of my family around the time when my father had his transplant in a monolithic hospital in Denver. As a result of some of my activities in those days, there are large portions of memory that seem to have been whisked away permanently, as if my brain had never even been wont to log them down at all. Some of the things I remember most, I wish I didn't, and many of the things I wish I could recall with greater ease, I cannot. It's interesting to me the way certain memories fade so thoroughly at the edges as to become nearly translucent, blending into that span of time that we just recall as "general, unremarkable life," and how at the center of those memories there can still be sticking points, jutting out like boulders from a river with sharp spires, that seem as though they will never fade with the rest. They refuse to succumb, these tiny points, to the constant flow of the river of life. Still images or tiny clips of sound frequently constitute such memories, and, more frequently for myself, smells. Smells seem to exist outside of time. An image is one second, no, less than one second. A point. A memory of a voice or a sound can exist in a few second span, but this span is nearly equally exactly defined as an image, refusing to flow over and endlessly in a loop. A scent knows no limit of time and I can pull it up out of the filing cabinet of my memory and play with it for minutes or sometimes even hours on end, allowing it to flow across countless images and sounds.
I recall well hospital odor.
Hospital odor is known to be sterile. The air smells as if it is too thin to breath in most sections of a hospital, and is cool to the nose. Walking about, though, passing various bustling nursing stations and quiet patient quarters with curtains drawn and support machines intermittently beeping, the scent of anything that isn't stereotypically sterile hospital air strikes the nostrils with ferocity, not the way a new odor would strike you walking on a busy city street. It is the stark contrast against sterile, almost odorless air, obviously, that makes these various other smells so strong. Many of the scents are not what anyone would likely describe as pleasant, but the memory, at least, enjoys logging them away for later. The smell of vomit or stale urine are detectable from some rooms, while other rooms allow the detection of a bouquet or perhaps numerous bouquets of flowers, all of them likely adorned by a small card demanding that the patient "get well soon." I particularly enjoy the scents of the lunch or dinner cart as it is rolled around from patient to patient. The smell of the cart reminds me every time of the cafeteria in elementary school. To this day I have some fondness for mass-prepared foodstuffs like you find in hospitals and elementary schools.
Eight years ago today, my immediate family were no strangers to hospitals. My father had been waiting on the liver transplant donation list for several years. When he had first learned of his diagnosis with Hepatitis-C, the disease which had proceeded to destroy his (forgive the colloquialism) OE liver, he had stopped drinking beer (something he had enjoyed in the days of my early youth) and began seeing specially trained doctors immediately. In fact, aside from being a very large man, father had seemed completely healthy to me when he first learned about the Hep-C. Amazing, though, how in a few short years things changed.
My supposition is that it would be arduous and beyond the point to recount the many trips our family took to the various odorous hospitals and emergency rooms with my father in the later years of my second decade. I will say this: the man, once healthy, found himself on the precipice of death. He had gone from being maybe thrice my size to being a man who weighed less than I did. There were times when my mother woke me in the middle of the night in a panic. "Dad's not breathing!" she said. She explained hurriedly that, more precisely, he was breathing, but that he was breathing at an unimaginably slow rate. We went to check. I got close to his nearly lifeless figure, under a mountain of blankets in his big bed, that I might hear his nose whistle or see his chest rise. He took a short half breath in, and let it out immediately. I counted. One. Two. Three... Nearly fifteen seconds before the next time he took a breath, and I was immediately as panicked as my mother. The ambulance came. Face and eyes jaundiced, the ambulance had to come get him more than once as he suffered and waited for his name to arrive at the top of the transplant list. We prayed. There were times when he was conscious, but that the ammonia in his body, normally filtered out by a healthy liver, was so prevalent that it had shut down parts of his brain to the extent that he didn't even seem to know who we were. "Dad, it's me, Charles. Do you know me?" He tried to mumble something in response unintelligibly, but stared through me as if I wasn't there.
These were terrifying times, as the representation of manhood in my life held on by a quickly unraveling string.
Twice, before the epic day eight years ago, we had what we now refer to as the "false alarms." The hospital called us and said that they thought they had a liver that would match my father, and that we ought to get him down to Denver as quickly as possible. After rushing to the hospital and waiting in dim patient rooms, too anxious and excited to say much except, repeatedly, "I hope this is it...," we were disappointed. These livers were no good. As explained, they had had "too much fatty tissue," or "there was a more viable candidate on hand." None of us had ever felt so let down. Portions of hope chipped away for me as time went on. I feared the worst.
I don't feel presumptuous or as though I am exaggerating or being insincere when I say that one of my life experiences was watching my father in the process of death. He was, indeed, dying. When I was clear of mind, my heart ached. Many times, I avoided being clear of mind.
And then, the liver was found! As I said, with some things, memory is not a high definition film but rather a series of images and noises and extended odors. The image I recall is my father in a busy surgical prep room. I believe that we were all crying. They had IV's in him in several places and he, more than any of us, appeared fearless somehow. Strong. Ready. As if he had known that it was coming. I shook the hand of the man about to perform the surgery, and we hugged dad. "I love you. I love you. I love you," my sister, mother and I said to him over and over. That grim idea in the back of our heads, or at least mine, was that something would go wrong and that I wouldn't ever get to say it again. We hugged him and we could smell a half a dozen other people, the odor of sickness and corporal desperation, as they were being prepped for other surgeries. IV machines and heart rate monitors beeping, always beeping. The sound of nurses and doctors conversing was calm and collected, standing in contrast with the words we choked through tears.
Finally, we were told to leave to a waiting room, back to the crisp, cool, too thin air. A scent of coffee here and there, and of hand sanitizer.
I don't recall the waiting much at all except that it occurred as though inside of a time warp. My mother was impatient, and kept her eye on every doctor or nurse walking toward us. Maybe this person was about to give us news. I could sense her disappointment when they never stopped, but each time veered off through a set of doors through which only doctor and nurse types were allowed. We prayed that whatever the news was, when we heard it, that it would be of success. The waiting took days or maybe years. I imagined the procedure in my head, my father's abdomen opened up by sharp implements and tensioned mechanisms. Horrifying ideas, I think, to anyone outside of the surgical community.
Finally, after moments that I can't remember but which I know stretched out and out and out, the news came.
Joy of joys.
I wanted to find the surgeon and hug him until his ribs broke, wetting his scrubs with my snot and tears. I wanted to find the assistants and the nurses and do the same. We huddled together and waited until the moment when we could actually see father, and whispered to one another relief and love. I wanted to scream my elation.
The next time we saw dad, he had more tubes coming out of him than we'd yet to see on any previous hospital visit. He was, as discerned from his face, in incredible pain, despite the steady drip of morphine the physicians were using to try to mitigate it. This was a moment of overwhelming emotion. Some emotions are things not properly described by English, or, at least, not properly described in the condensed form of a mere word or sentence or paragraph. I will try, once: I felt as though relief and joy were a sledgehammer being repeatedly brought down at full force upon my sternum.
We wept again, in a different shade or tone than we had hours before. Father smelled awful, his breath a rotten sweet odor as we approached him to (very gently) embrace his neck. He couldn't have water in a cup, but was allowed to suck minuscule amounts of water out of a little flavored sponge that rested at the end of a lollipop style stick. I suppose this dehydration accounted for his breath. The smell of urine seemed present, too, and momentarily I thought I smelled flesh, as if the scent from the operating table was still with him. He weakly ventured a smile. His eyes were bright, and already seemed to be draining of the yellow tint that had been present before.
I guess love doesn't have a smell. At least not when love is defined in the ephemeral, emotional sense. If it had an odor, the smell of it in that room the first time seeing dad after his operation, although he was in so much agony at the moment that tears were in his eyes, would be one of the single most intensely happy memories from my entire life. Instead, one of my happiest memories is the unpleasant odor from my dad's mouth in that moment. I can smell it even now. Foul and sweet at once, and perhaps a stand-in for the scent of love.
And so I have this fragmented and imperfect memory of hospital smells and love and this date eight years ago. The love persists, today, although the hospital smells occur (thankfully) less frequently these days.
My intention, after all of this, has been to say three things. First: please consider changing your license or ID to the status of "organ and tissue donor" if you have not done so. It takes very little effort on your part, but can make a world of difference in the lives of others. Second: if you would, join me in devoting a moment of reflection and a prayer (if you are the praying type) to the memory of the woman who passed away shortly before my father's transplant, providing the bittersweet organ he so desperately needed. I am thinking about her and her family today. Third (to my father): happy birthday, dad. The only thing that has stood between myself and complete insanity, loss of meaning or even total destruction at many many times in my life has been you. I am grateful in a way that defies expression that you are still here with us and for us. You are a testament to faith and love and manhood, and there could be no thing in the world that would make me stop loving you. I'm thinking about you and saying a prayer for you today. You're the best.