My dad got out of the hospital yesterday. He went in twenty-one days ago for open heart surgery. He has an irregular heartbeat, called atrial fibrillation, that causes palpitations and shortness of breath. He’s had several treatments to try and stem it, including medication and catheter ablation, where they go up a vein in your leg and create scar tissue on the heart by cutting it or using electricity to burn it. He hasn’t responded to any of that, so the next step was cutting open his chest.
The responsibility of taking after my dad has defaulted to me. I’ve never been close to my dad’s wife, and she’s got some sort of issue with driving. My brother has been in Germany for the last seven years or so, and the rest of dad’s family lives about eight hundred miles away. So I was his primary point of contact, the one the nurses and doctors to provide updates during his surgery and recovery, and it fell to me to provide updates to the rest of the family. I was the one to visit him after his surgery, and spoon fed him hospital eggs the day after his surgery. He looked like he’d been hit by a truck and was so doped up on painkillers that he later told me that he didn’t remember me visiting him.
The whole question of his post-op care was a tough one. Open heart patients can’t drive for several weeks, and aren’t supposed to lift anything more than five pounds for about eight weeks after the surgery. My dad assumed that he was going to have some sort of extended stay in a rehab facility, but the hospital didn’t recommend it, so he would have had to pay out of pocket for nursing home care. So there was a bit of scrambling to figure out where he was going to go. He couldn’t go home, and he didn’t want to go to his wife’s house, (they live in separate homes for some reason,) and he couldn’t stay with us for more than a day or two. So out-of-pocket nursing home it was. So I went to pick him up from the hospital.
When I got there dad told me that he had to stay. His breastbone had separated six millimeters, and the doctors wanted to go back in and tighten him up or rewire it. So he would need to spend another week in the hospital. But hey, at least he was out of afib.
So when I went to pick him up yesterday, he had spent a total of twenty-one days in the hospital. Thankfully, he’d been able to recover enough that they had lifted restrictions on his driving, so I brought him home so that he could check on his house and get his truck. Going back to my family home was very strange.
I haven’t been to the house in over ten years. So driving through the small town that I grew up in and see all the changes was very surreal. It’s a small town which could almost be considered a suburb of one of the larger cities around here, but the major roadways are a bit too roundabout for regular commuting, you have to take a series of winding, single lane back roads to get there. The closer we got to the house, the weirder things seemed, as the playgrounds and ballparks that I grew up around seemed so small compared to what I remembered. Houses that had belonged to friends brought back waves of nostalgia as I tried to remember who had lived where.
And then there was my dad’s house.
There was a reason that I hadn’t been to the house in ten years. After my mom left, and my brother and I moved out, my dad had lived in the house with his wife and my two stepsisters for a number of years. That hadn’t worked out, and so my dad had been living alone for the last dozen years or so, and it would be putting it mildly to say that he hadn’t kept up with things.
The last time I had been at the house was prior to my wedding. Missus and I had gone out there to try and clean up some things. Hoarder is about the only way that I can describe it. It just seemed that nothing got thrown out, and my dad is not the type of person who, how do you say, cleans. It was a mess, and my fiancée and I spent a few hours trying to tidy up things. After we left, she vowed never to come back. And in a way, I did as well.
Unfinished projects seems to be a family tradition. My paternal grandfather lived in the country, down an old dirt road amid oil derricks and strip mines. He had a earthen-covered home that he had built, but never really finished, with an old bus which had been surrendered to nature, as well as a herd of goats that he kept. To this day I cannot stand goat cheese.
My grandfather passed away after a heart attack in his sleep. He left without a will, and my dad and his sisters fought for years with my grandfather’s much younger wife over certain sentimental mementos. There wasn’t much money in the family. But I can just imagine the unfinished projects and junk that was left behind, yard barns and car parks full of tools, backhoes and tractors, other heavy machinery. My grandfather was an orphan, and a bit of a gypsy in a way, and had some sort of self-sufficient homesteader mentality that came from a hard life growing up poor in the midwest.
So that’s the backdrop, walking into my dad’s house for the first time in a decade. Driving past the landscaped family homes in this small suburban subdivision, and there’s my dad’s house, dingy yellow siding with green shutters that were fading to white. I walked in, and there was a great twelve foot oak dining room table, every inch of it covered with junk. The fridge was in the middle of the kitchen, the island covered with more junk. There were three TV’s in the den, the couches were covered in clothes, there were three computers sitting on the floor. I looked on a stack books and saw my high school graduation program, from 1997. My brother’s rec-league participation trophy was still sitting on the bookshelf.
I’ve got pictures of my dad at the house from when I was a kid, my mom and dad in their thirties, young and thin. My dad went into the hospital weighing almost three hundred pounds, and he lost thirty during his stay. I walked into the house and saw cases of diet soda, empty bottles of bourbon, and I looked in the fridge and saw only ice cream bars and lollipops for some odd reason.
I went room to room, surveying and documenting the state of the house so that I could commiserate with my brother. Closets of clothes that hadn’t been worn in decades; games, toys, coats, and books that had belonged to either me or my brother. I checked the attic and found a box of magazines from 1999 that were mine. I took them down and out to the curb, it was the least I could do and about all I could do given the overwhelmingness of the situation.
I didn’t know what to say to my dad. I guess I tried some tough love, but I don’t know if there was a bit of contempt there as well. I just couldn’t believe that the man had been sitting at home during coronavirus for the past year, and had retired, and was living this way. Nothing had changed since the last time I was out there, I suppose. I told him we needed to start cleaning stuff out, because as his trip to the hospital had made clear, I was probably going to be the one sorting through all this stuff for him when he passed, and I really didn’t appreciate him leaving such a fucking mess behind. I’m not sure how I said it, but that was the gist, I’m sure.
He said something smart-assed about my legacy, and I just continued through the house, like a shell-shocked refugee, cataloging the list of repairs that would need to be made, and the list of things that would need to be disposed of. There was an entire wing of the house that was unfinished, and addition that had been built over the garage as a master suite for my dad and his wife, that was abandoned after she moved out.
I gave my dad firm instructions to check in with the group chat I had started with the rest of the family. He promised he was not staying, but just needed to check some things and would drive himself to his wife’s that evening. (He did.) He thanked me, and I left, driving halfway home in silence, processing what I had seen. I sent the pictures to my brother, and talked to him, and afterwards to my wife.
I meditated on it this morning, and went and marked the fourth Sunday off on the calendar for June and July. I figure I’ll need to start going home and spending a few hours doing what I can do. I figure I’ll start by cleaning out the attic, taking things down and putting them in rooms where they can be cataloged and hauled off. There are a couple boxes of fifty year-old LPs along with a turntable and reel-to-reel tape deck. There are Persian rugs, train sets, Boy Scout hats and a number of Tom Swift books from when my dad was a kid. There are dressers and Christmas ornaments that haven’t seen the light of day in forever. There are so many things.
I’ll just keep going home, once a month, moving things and hauling off what I can. I told my brother we needed to drop a dumpster off in the front yard and call 1-800-GOT-JUNK, but for now it has to be me to go over there and start combing through the wreckage.
And when I came back from my trip, to my home that I share with Missus and the girls, my unfinished business stuck out like a sore thumb: the deck that needs staining, the broken hot tub; the patched bathroom hole that needs sanding, filling, and painting. The landscaping, all of the things that have to be kept up, but that haven’t been. We’ve been minimizing our things, and I’m glad that we have been. Cleaning out the clutter and getting rid of all the junk we’ve accumulated. I joked to Missus that most of my clutter is scattered around on hard drives, most of my junk are just files.
At least ones and zeros do not clutter our living room.