I tiptoed into a room that my husband and I finally claimed (after another brother and his wife went back home when their week-long stay was over -- before this fiasco had ever begun to unfold), and quietly got ready for bed.
The room we were in was huge, and yet there were only two twin beds in it. Two TEENY twin beds. My guess is, that many a young child camped out on the floor, scooped up by a slippery, warm, down-filled sleeping bag. I wanted to feel that kind of warmth at that particular moment; to be nestled within something, and to have something or someone revive my heart and keep the chill away that was invading my very soul. I felt so lost, and so helpless.
I got up off of the teeny twin bed, and went to the far end of the room. Although it was probably around 3:00 a.m. at that point, and my body was physically exhausted, my brain was swirling with way too many thoughts and worst case scenarios to let me shut down enough to sleep. And, since my husband was sawing a serious pile of wood in his own teeny twin bed, I didn't want my rustling and fidgeting, and general restlessness, to wake him up.
I sat down in the big, handmade Adirondack chair in the corner of the room. It was fitted with a really lovely, soft cushion, and felt like a beautifully worn in glove underneath me. Someone had enough smarts to place this chair beneath the window, which had the most beautiful view of the marshes and the vast stretch of sky. It was a clear night, and there were 56-gazillion stars. I strained my eyes to pick out the biggest, plumpest, shiniest one and made a wish. If there was ever a time when that little-girl promise needed to come true, now was certainly it.
I began to pray. I prayed to God that the worst was not happening to this man.... a man who'd done so much to be so strong for all of us. I prayed that this was somehow something a lot less menial than my worry-wart mind was trying to convince me of. I prayed that my dad would be allowed to stay with all of us for a long time to come. And, I prayed that nothing would hurt him any worse than he was hurting earlier that evening. I honestly didn't know if I could muster up enough courage and strength to endure it if it got any worse for him.
I must have dozed off in that chair, counting those stars, and making my wishes. I woke up to bright sunshine streaming on my face. At some point in the night, my husband got up and pulled the blankets off of my teeny twin bed and put them on me. I guess he felt, too, that some things were better left alone.
I had no idea what time it was, but I noticed the sound....or lack thereof....right away. When you're staying in a house that's chock full of people, you tend to notice when there's NO noise much faster than when there's a buzz of people all around you. I sat up, allowed myself to stretch for a brief moment (just enough to get the kinks out... there were no indulgences allowed on that day), got up and bolted down the stairs.
The house appeared empty.
My heart sank even lower.
The last thing I'd said to my dad before we parted ways the night before was, "Dad, just promise me if you don't feel any better in the morning that you'll just suck it in and go see a doc so Ma doesn't drive us all ballistic?" He let out this tired little laugh, and said, "Okay, Cheryl. If I'm feeling this bad tomorrow, I will go. I promise."
I'd half hoped that it was all a terrible, terrible dream. That the wonky position I'd put my tired body in in that chair made me dream a funky, horrible dream, and that I'd wake to the smells of coffee brewing, bacon and sausage sizzling, and eggs cooking. I'd hear the sounds of the adults engaged in various conversations, and the kids playing a game of tag, or dodgeball, or street hockey out in street in front of the house.
But it was quiet. Too quiet. Deathly quiet. And that made the reality of the situation just reach up and smack me in the face all over again. Dad had kept his promise, like he always did, and the caravan took him off to the clinic to find out what could possibly be wrong.
I walked out to the kitchen, and made myself the first of what must have been 10,000 glasses of iced coffee in those coming days, and sat down at the farmhouse table, in the very seat my father occupied several hours before. It was then that I saw the note, written in my sister's perfect Catholic school girl handwriting:
"Jackie, Ma and I went into Dennis with Dad to take him to the clinic. Alison and Pam took the kids down to the beach. We'll be back as soon as we can. Margie."
The note had an air of lightness to it, that felt totally wrong for the situation. It was as if my older sister was in complete denial about the possibility of there being anything tragically wrong with my father. Maybe she was right. Maybe I was the one that was worrying too much. Maybe she knew something I didn't. And maybe she was Chicken Little, and the sky was falling.
I went back upstairs to my bedroom, sat on my teeny twin bed, and began to get my bathing suit on. My husband heard me walking around, and rolled over to greet me. "Any news?" he asked. "Yeah. My Dad did go to the clinic, after all. I have no idea when they left, and so I have no idea when they'll be back."
I finished getting my suit on, and started packing a small bag for the day. I asked my husband if he wanted to come with me, and he said yes, and he began searching our suitcase to find his swimsuit, too. I added another towel, his sunglasses and a baseball hat in the bag.
I knew I didn't have to pack a lunch... my sister-in-law, who's almost all Italian, probably packed enough food to feed the entire array of beachcombers who wandered down to the beach that day. When she stressed, she cooked, she baked, she ate. It was her thing.
I threw my hair up in a ponytail, handed the bag off to my husband, and walked down the stairs and out into the bright sunshine. We opted to walk to the beach, not saying much the entire time. I was afraid to talk about my Dad, 'cause I didn't want to start crying, and I didn't see any point in talking about much else. I don't think my husband wanted to upset me either. So the entire walk to the beach was silent, except for the "click click click" sounds that my flip flops made as I took each step.
My heart lifted a little when I spotted my nieces, knee deep in the sand, working on the moat to their fairly elaborate sandcastle. They ran up to me when they spotted me, squealing with delight. "Cheryl! Wanna come help us build?" They knew I was a sucker for their big blue eyes and chubby cheeks. "Sure," I said. "I'll be happy to." Maybe if I dug a hole big enough, I could jump in and disappear.
My sister-in-law caught my glance, and uttered one word: "Anything?" I just shook my head no, biting the inside of my mouth to keep from spewing a fresh display of tears.
We spent most of the day at the beach. We finished our sandcastle (a masterpiece), and then the girls set their sights on my husband, who, before long, was buried up to his neck in the sand. We then went to play in the cold salt water for awhile, before coming back to the blankets and the feast that Pam brought with her. Strangely enough, I was hungry. It was salt water air does to you. Makes you hungry.... and tired. At that point, I didn't need much help with either.
After lunch, my husband took the kids off for a walk down the shore, to hunt for shells.
It was only then when my sister-in-law felt comfortable in talking about the craziness that had evolved over the past 12 hours. She wanted me to recount what had happened before she and my brother showed up, and asked me if there were any health issues that I knew of. She said, "You think someone would come down here when they got back, to let us know they were home?" It was then that I realized I hadn't left a note of my own on the kitchen table. I said, "I would like to think so, but maybe we should start heading back after the kids get back...just in case."
And with that, we got up and started shaking sand out of everything and packing it away. We'd take turns bringing things to my sister-in-law's car, leaving one of us behind to watch out for the shell-gatherers.
When my husband and the girls came back, we reviewed their bounty, then told them it was time to head back. Instead of bawking or crying, the girls got really quiet. It was if even those little babies understood the complete brevity of the situation.
We arrived back at the cottage soon after. It was still empty. I didn't know whether to feel relief or frustration. Since this was the age before cell phones, all we could do was wait.
We all got washed up, and then my sister-in law and I started dinner while my niece and my husband played a board game with the girls, and the baby crawled playfully around them. Every once in awhile, we'd hear one of the girls shriek, "Michael! Give me that piece back!" Even at a year old, he was already a little stinker (and he still is).
About a half hour before dinner was ready, the front door opened, and my sister walked in with her two girls, and bags full of all the fixin's to make hot fudge sundaes. It was quickly obvious that my father and mother weren't with her.
As she was putting all of the ice cream in the freezer, she told my sister-in-law and me all that had happened with our dad at the clinic. Of course, because it was an ER, he had to wait forever. My sister said that at one point, he grew so impatient, that he and my mother practically got into a screaming match in the waiting room. He wanted out of there, and she was making damned sure he going anywhere but on an examining table.
He finally got seen, not by one, but two doctors. They deduced that he had a hiatal hernia, and a pretty bad one at that, and told him that he needed to go back to the city and have surgery pretty urgently, before it burst. So, my mom, dad, brother and brother-in-law headed back towards Boston, to meet with doctors at Mt. Auburn Hospital (my mother's preference). His surgery was tentatively scheduled for the following morning.
I can't begin to tell you what kind of weight was lifted off of my shoulders when I heard the news. Thank GOD... it was only a hernia! Granted, it was a doozie, but it definitely explained all of his recent symptoms.
We sat around in the living room after dinner, enjoying our sundaes and trying to figure out who was going back into Boston in the morning.