Fast forward 42 years. My mom was 58, and my dad was 62. He'd been complaining (for quite some time) of stomach issues that he couldn't quite shake. He'd even been calling off of work here and there because he was feeling so ill (something he NEVER did).
We all should have seen the signs then, but none of us dared to even begin to stick that whole mess under a microscope and examine it for what it really could be. I think we all just assumed he was stressed out at work (Dad's current boss was a real drill-sergeant, and was driving him three seconds shy of completely batty!), and he was carrying it all in his stomach. I can remember very clearly talking to my dad several times about getting checked for a possible ulcer. Little did I know. Little did anyone know.
That summer, we all did what we usually do... we got together as one BIG family, and took a vacation together. My parents always rented a place near the ocean, and all of us would come and go, as work and vacation time permitted. It was so crowded the first night my then-husband and I arrived, that we'd wound up sacking out on lawn chairs in the garage! I kid you not.
We'd arrived on the weekend between the first and second weeks, and I noticed right away that my dad wasn't looking so hot. He'd been complaining of yet another stomach ache, and was drinking -- A LOT of beer -- to pacify himself.
One night my husband and I had come from dinner, and as usual, Dad was sitting in the living room, watching some sporting event. One of my older nieces was sitting in the room with him, chatting him up about the different plays of the game. I went out into the big, farm-style kitchen, and she followed behind me.
"I don't think Grampie's feeling so well," she started. "He's been complaining that his stomach hurts all night, and he doesn't look too well." I peeked around the corner and looked at him. She was right.
She was babysitting her newest cousin for my brother and sister-in-law, and wanted to go out with some of her friends who were staying at another house close by. She was always one of those kids who had a really special relationship with my Dad, and she was afraid to leave him alone. I told her to go ahead and go out with her friends. I'd hang out and watch the baby, and keep an eye on Grampie, too.
As the evening wore on, I could tell my dad was becoming more and more restless. He kept walking in circles, from the bathroom, to the kitchen, back to his chair, all the while mumbling under his breath that his stomach was killing him. Then, without warning, he darted as fast as he could to the kitchen sink, holding his hand to his mouth in a futile attempt to keep the bursting contents from thrusting out before he was in front of an appropriate vessel. He made it to the sink just in time to vomit profusely.
This one act made me realize just HOW sick my father might be. You have to understand.... this man was one of THE strongest men I knew. He NEVER complained about anything, NEVER admitted to an illness, and NEVER, EVER let it defeat him like that, especially in FRONT of anyone. That, to a man like my father, was a cardinal sin.
After his somewhat violent expulsion, he looked as if he'd shrunk about three sizes. His embarrassment was all-encompassing, and he immediately began apologizing to me for allowing me to see this particular brand of "weakness". I told him, as gently as I could, "It's okay, Dad. Everyone gets sick. It's no big deal." But, all of my gentle assurance didn't mean a lick. He was still just as embarrassed about it, and I could tell.
At that particular point in time, several other members of the family began trailing in from wherever it was they'd decided to go. One of my brothers and his wife came in first, just as my father wretched in the sink for a second time. My brother, who was definitely cut from the same cloth as my Dad, quickly assessed what he thought the situation might be, then ran back out to the store, and came back with an arsenal of Pepto Bismol, warm ginger ale, and Tums. He gave my Dad a dosage of Pepto, which he promptly vomited back up in a big pink spray all over the sink. I told him to leave him alone and let him keep his stomach empty. He told me (as a big brother usually does) to mind my own business. We started bickering back and forth about what my Dad's current health plan should be, when my mom walked into the house with my sister right behind her, fresh on the heels of a winning night at Bingo.
My mom's happiness over the extra cash she'd just obtained turned to extreme worry very quickly, as the events of the evening were unfolded to her. Our vacation spot turned into a triage facility, as my brother and I quickly and efficiently let my mother in on all that had happened with my dad up to that point. My oldest niece had come home early (she wasn't enjoying herself too much with her girlfriends; she was too worried about Grampie), and relayed her observations, too.
The rest played out like a scene from a movie.... all of the children, husbands, wives, and grandchildren who were present, were standing at the enormous threshold that divides the living room from the kitchen, watching (but pretending not to) our mom/mother-in-law/grandmother take delicate and precise steps up to her husband, who was lurched over the kitchen sink, vomiting up his shoes, and unable to remove himself from that particular spot.
She rested her hand on his back, and started rubbing gently. The simplicity of that single, loving gesture, shared between two people that had lived close to a lifetime together, caused the tears to well up in my eyes. It was then that the strength that I'd tried so hard to maintain just melted away in me. I instantly became "the baby" girl, and wanted nothing more than to have this whole mess just go away, and have everything that was right and good about us all being together in this house return.
I somehow felt safer, though. My mom was here. She would take care of him now.
My dad's stomach finally settled enough (or emptied out enough, whatever the case may be) for him to be able to sit and relax for a bit. As was customary in our many previous evenings in the house, someone picked up a deck of cards that was left in the middle of the farm table, and began a card game. As people entered and exited the kitchen, and various bodies vacated and filled the seats around the table, different games transpired throughout the remainder of the evening.
Eventually, everyone pooped out, and called it a day. We'd decided, during one of our many, many hands, that Dad was to be taken to a local clinic the next morning. It was also decided who would go with him, and who would stay behind to help watch the children. I was elected to be one of the babysitters.
As the card players weaned off, and everybody started retiring to their respective rooms, with their brains full of what could be ahead of them in the day ahead, my dad and I were the only two left playing a game of Rummy 500 at the table.
I was afraid to leave him. I was afraid to end the evening, knowing, deep in my heart, that this would be the last night of normalcy. Somehow I knew, even then, that after my dad was seen by a doctor the next day, our lives as we knew them would be turned upside down. We were finally forced to look into that microscope. And what we saw wasn't pretty.
He asked me to stay with him, too. I think he knew that something horrid was about to unfold, and I think he wanted this last night to be the last wonderful memory he remembered. I was happy to oblige.
So, I forced myself to stay awake, and play cards, and talk with my Dad. I stayed at that table with him, hand for hand, and match for match, until he finally folded, both literally and figuratively. He said he thought he was tired enough to try and go to sleep, and he thanked me for keeping him company.
I got up, and began shutting everything down, and I watched him shuffle off to bed. As I stood there, in the near dark, finally able to let the tears I'd struggled to hold onto loose, I knew that my wonderful, sheltered, carefree, childhood life was over as I knew it.