The Rearview Mirror

They say hindsight’s 20/20. I think this means that our past experiences are meant to inform our present ones. Maybe they are right – whoever they are, but this happens only when we allow ourselves the occasional glance in the rearview mirror. This is a scary thing to do because even though the mirror isn’t showing us anything we haven’t seen and places we haven’t been before, it’s also showing us an image of our selves in the present moment. And that can be confusing.

A not-me picture of someone in a rearview mirror

We might see pain and death and devastation in that rearview glance, but we are also seeing the living, breathing survivor of a person that made it through whatever was back there – and has all kinds of strengths and insights because of those experiences.

I’m learning to let myself take in both – the past and the present.

———–

On a bright, sunny Saturday morning in July of 2007, my phone rang before I was even fully awake. When I picked it up, I heard my mom’s voice – shaky, desperate, distant – “Kaysie, I need you to go get your father.”

It was the morning of my daughter’s highly anticipated tenth birthday party. We had planned a city-wide scavenger hunt for her, her friends, and our friends who were the parents of her friends. It was going to be a blast and perfect and exhausting.

And it was.

But in the midst of the joy of Morgan’s birthday celebration, I now carried a sober reminder that the burden of my father was still very much mine.

Dad was back in Houston – in the hospital at MD Anderson after the surgery that was supposed to extend his life. The surgeons carved along the length of his neck – from his ear down to his sternum – in order to remove the cancer that had metastasized there. They also took much of that ear. They were ready to release him a week later, but refused to do so without a family member present at discharge.

By this time my parents were officially divorced and, even though my mom and aunt accompanied him to Houston for the surgery, they only stayed a few days before heading back to Mississippi. It was all my mom could bear.

My dad literally had no one.

Except reluctant, but dutiful me.

As soon as I hung up the phone after my mom’s call, I turned around and called my friend, Molly, and said, “So I need to ask a very big favor of you.”

God bless Molly. This friend has stayed by my side throughout this wild ride life has had me on – sometimes even getting on the ride with me. There aren’t many better evidences of the love of God in my life than my friendship with Molly Baker Olsen.

“What’s up?” she replied.

“Soooooo…will you go to Houston with me this afternoon to help me bring my dad home?”

“This afternoon?”

“Yep. The hospital says they’re discharging him, but I have to be there to pick him up. And it has to happen today.”

“Well, okay then. Let me pack a bag. We can leave right after Morgan’s party.”

She didn’t even miss a beat.

See what I mean?

Plus, I promised her a lovely kolache breakfast the next morning before we left Houston.

Kolaches are balls of pastry dough stuffed with things like fruit or sausage, cheese, and potatoes. I was introduced to them the month before while in Houston with Keek and my dad for all of his preliminary tests at MD Anderson, and I thought they were delicious and worth a stop before we hit the road to head back home.

So after Morgan’s fabulous scavenger hunt – and the two hours of driving around Tulsa that the party involved – Molly and I headed to Houston. We were still about two hours away at 8pm, when the hospital called to tell me that they were going to go ahead and discharge my father, put him in a taxi, and send him to a hotel of his choosing. We could just meet him there.

I guess they were done with dad, too.

Around 11pm, we pulled into the parking lot of the motel my father had chosen for us to stay in that night – a run down, dump of a place with LITERAL DEAD ANIMALS in the parking lot.

Not even kidding. As Molly and I were unloading the car, a sideward glance revealed an unfortunate feline way past rigor mortis and well into full-on decay. We may or may not have screamed and jumped into each other’s arms. Don’t mock. You would have done the same.

For the love. And again, God bless my friend, Molly. I’m a pretty confident person, for sure, and ready to take on challenges as they come. But I’m also quite confident that one of the few things I simply cannot do is walk past a dead cat alone in the middle of the night.

I was wholly unprepared for the way my father would look when we arrived. Much of his ear was gone and even with the dressings on it was clear the work the doctors had done was extensive and invasive. Dad was happy and relieved to see us, but I think also embarrassed that Molly was there – however much of a help she was to me – and that we had to come get him. He was also heavily medicated and not making a lot of sense.

And we were exhausted, so we all went to bed.

And I tried not to think about that dead cat.

The next morning as we prepared to head back home to Tulsa, I knocked on dad’s door to let him know we were packing up. He mumbled something unintelligible, then opened the door. His face was flushed, he was pacing the hotel room, and he was mumbling incoherently. It was clear to me he was unwell, but when I called my mom and described dad’s condition, she told me to give him some Tylenol and head home where his doctors in Tulsa could care for him.

She was so done with my father. She could only see him in the rearview mirror with all the pain and hurt he’d caused and forgot that the present was there as well – a present moment that included a daughter shouldering the burden she’d left behind.

I get it now. Looking in the rearview mirror. But in the moment I just felt quite abandoned by her. And I also still really wanted to be a dutiful daughter.

Talk about conflicted.

Not knowing what to do differently in that moment, we medicated dad, loaded him up, and prepared to head back home…but first we stopped for a much-anticipated kolache breakfast. #priorities

It was an unfortunate choice. In fact, I will never be able to eat kolaches again for the remainder of my days. You see, when we sat down to eat, my father made his best attempts at eating the sausage, egg and cheese kolache he had requested, but his mouth just wouldn’t work. Or maybe his swallow reflex. Or maybe his brain. Either way, he put bite after bite methodically into his mouth while Molly and I watched those bites fall right back out again. Our previously ravenous appetites were obliterated, and we quickly became repulsed by the food in front of us and very concerned about getting my dad home as fast as possible.

After loading dad into the backseat of the car, I got behind the wheel and, before heading towards Tulsa, made sure my father was in my sights through the rearview mirror.

Then I turned the car towards home and tried not to think about kolaches.

As we drove through Houston and made our way to the suburbs on the north side of town, my father began to sink lower and lower into the seat. I asked him questions in an attempt to keep him alert, and his responses became less and less grounded in reality. In fact, in full view of downtown Houston, dad said, “I’ve always loved this city. San Francisco is really beautiful.”

And I began to cry.

It seemed pretty clear from what I could see in the rearview mirror that my father was dying and we wouldn’t make it back to Tulsa before he breathed his last breath. But I didn’t know what else to do, either. I was my thirty-eight year old, present moment self driving the car on the complex highway system around Houston – knowing full well we were in danger and needed to turn around. Yet there was an eight-year old part of me in the reflection screaming, “But Mom said…!” That eight-year old was very familiar with all of the ways dad had used his various health issues to hold his family hostage. She had also endured the exhaustion that came with one not-so-much health crisis after another. And because she couldn’t separate the past from the very real crisis of the present, she also believed that Mom knew best how to handle these things.

She was wrong.

So as I drove and watched my father began to slip away in the rearview mirror, I simply cried while those two parts of me – the present part and the past part – slugged it out.

Until Molly said I should pull over.

Thank You, God, for Molly.

We pulled into a Target parking lot on the outskirts of Houston, and I called my mom. Again, she told me to give dad meds and keep driving him home. I went into Target while Molly watched over dad and bought a thermometer, a blanket and some ibuprofen… and then I took dad’s temp. It was 103 degrees and climbing. He was delirious at this point, unable to sit up without assistance, and mumbling incoherently.

So I called my mom. Again.

And this time I heard the irritation in her voice.

“Kaysie, he’ll be FINE. I don’t know what else to tell you. I mean, you just need to keep driving and get him home.”

But I knew in my gut that if we did that, my father would be dead before we reached Tulsa.

In the back of the car.

So in desperation I called my friend, Kathy – a kind of surrogate mom for me during this season of my life. Again, I have the best friends. Kathy listened to me describe the situation and, without hesitation, recommended that I take my father back to MD Anderson.

I knew she was right.

But I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to listen to my mother, to trust that she was counseling me well because she was the grownup…and to get my dad home. But with Kathy in one ear and Molly in the other, I was able to gather up my grownup self and turn us back to Houston.

When we arrived at the emergency room of MD Anderson and the attending physician pulled open my father’s shirt, the problem was instantly clear to all of us. From the incision down his neck – like the tendrils of the root system of a tree – was a streak of red inching its way to my father’s heart.

Dad was immediately placed in ICU. He had contracted MRSA – a serious staph infection – in his surgical wound, and it was quickly making its way to his heart.

My adult self was very grateful we’d turned the car around.

My child self was completely bewildered.

Molly and I found ourselves stuck in Houston with one day’s worth of clothing and toiletries, no place to stay…and my father’s brand new credit card. Dad, in his time of need, was suddenly generous toward us and gave me permission to use his card to get a hotel room and whatever supplies we needed.

This is the only time in my thirty-eight years of knowing my father that he freely gave me money.

The. Only. Time. I remember asking him for the money I needed to participate in a church choir activity when I was fourteen. A church activity in which, by the way, he had demanded I participate. I sat in the backseat of the family car as we drove home from church – paralyzed by the fear I felt over how he would respond to my request. Unwanted tears streamed down my face when I finally worked up the courage to ask. And my fear was warranted. My family sat in strained silence in the driveway. No one dared to move. My father became furious in an instant – seething really. Dad was always tight-fisted with the little money we had…unless he was at the local bar or wine and liquor store. His response to my request was to rage, to call me selfish and ungrateful, and to sum up our financial problems by pointing the finger at me.

So it was an uncomfortable feeling for me to take that card.

I wonder if he ever allowed himself a glance in the rearview mirror. Did he see me sitting there crying? Did he see my reflection as his own painful childhood and forget that he was actually in the present?

For my part, a glance back to this moment can cause me to flood with other similar memories and feelings that make me feel altogether unworthy of care. This is why that rearview mirror glance has to be done while remembering that what I see there is in the past, and the truth is that the present is full of all kinds of ways I am loved and cared for.

My dad couldn’t do that.

———-

As a grown-ass woman (and with some coaching from my husband and my brother), I was able to embrace the idea that paying for #allthethings in Houston was the very least my father could do. Molly and I booked a lovely room in the hotel connected to the hospital – with a king-sized bed and the softest sheets in the world.

I still dream about those sheets.

We went to Target and bought some necessities (like underwear, comfy sweatshirts and chocolate).

And we bought ourselves a very necessary latte at Starbucks – the first of many we would consume over the following days.

For the next four days we walked the halls of MD Anderson in between the very involved visits to my dad’s room. Because he had MRSA, visitors were required to don the PPE provided by the hospital. Surely in the pandemic-y world that we now live in, we all know what PPE means but, just in case…those letters stand for Personal Protective Equipment.

Putting it all on was quite the process. At the door to dad’s room was a bin containing yellow disposable gowns, latex gloves and masks. We covered ourselves with #allthethings – which took almost as long as the visit that followed…because, truthfully, sitting with my father wasn’t at the top of the list of things I wanted to do.

By the third day it was clear my father wasn’t going to be getting out of the hospital anytime soon…if ever. Mark was home with our three kids – managing #allthethings with the help of our friends, but he was stretched thin trying to juggle it all. And as much fun as she was clearly having with my very sick father and me, Molly needed to get home to her family – but she was unwilling to leave me in Houston alone.

So I called my mom again and asked for her help.

That was a hard phone call.

Mom refused to come to Houston and take over. Or maybe Mom couldn’t come to Houston and take over. She had nothing to give to my father. And she was terrified of becoming trapped by him so soon after finally getting free. Either way, this boundary she set made a whole lot of sense to me…and it also cost me and my family so much.

I also know she regretted the choice she made for the rest of her life.

And this makes me sad.

You see, my father told my mother on the regular that if she ever left him, he would die.

He said it when reeling drunk; he said it when jobless and without the means to take care of us; he said it when overcome by remorse and self-pity and fear that she might leave.

He said it to hold her captive.

And he must have meant it, because that’s exactly what happened.

Anyway, since Mom wouldn’t/couldn’t come to Houston, I asked her to go to Tulsa to help Mark with the kids. This she was willing and able to do.

My next phone call was to my brother. We’d been talking throughout the whole ordeal, of course. He had been advising and supporting me throughout the whole ordeal, but Patton had also set a boundary with our father in the months leading up to the final dissolution of our parents’ marriage, so he’d intentionally not been in contact with or available to dad that summer. But when it became clear that I was in over my head and needed him, Patton booked a flight to Houston.

The next day I traded Molly for Patton at Houston Hobby Airport. I cried tears of gratitude when I said goodbye to Molly and cried tears of relief when my brother arrived and wrapped his arms around me. As Patton and I headed back to MD Anderson, I felt myself settling into a space very familiar to and comfortable for me – the space in which my brother and I could take on the world…or at least could take on the world of our father.

Both my thirty-eight year old and my eight-year old self felt much better in this space.

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