By Wendy Hodge

Clocks operate differently in a hospital – like the Bermuda triangle, it’s an unsolved mystery. Whether you’re a patient or a visitor, the standard rules of time do not apply. Minute hands move slower, and hour hands seem to move not at all. Looking away for a while doesn’t help. Believe me, I’ve tried. You look back at the clock after what has to be an hour or more, and time has stopped. You can hear the numbers on the clock face laughing, if you listen.
So here I sit, in my dad’s hospital room, ignoring the clock altogether and watching the darkness beyond the window. There is little noise. Dad is asleep. It’s been a rough few days, and he is exhausted. My phone says it’s 3 AM, and I am still groggy from being awakened an hour ago.
I’d spent the evening with Dad, helping him get settled after surgery, making sure he ate his dinner, getting him comfortable enough to sleep, and waiting for his medication to take effect. We’d chatted a bit about the man I had been dating and how he’d turned out to be a not-so-nice guy and wouldn’t be coming around anymore. Finally, around midnight, I had slipped out and headed home.
By 1:00, I was asleep – but not for long. Just before 2:00, my phone rang. My dad’s voice shocked me out of sleep. He sounded terrified.
“Wendy, there’s a fella in my room.”
“Dad?? What do you mean?”
“There’s a fella in my room. Just standing there.”
“Is it a nurse, Dad?”
“No, I don’t think so. He won’t answer me when I talk to him.”
“Dad, you had a dream. Remember the doctor said the anesthesia would make you dream weird things?”
“I’m telling you, it’s not a dream. There’s a fella in my room!”
Responding to the tremor in his voice, I said, “Okay, Dad. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Pulling back on the same clothes I’d discarded a short time earlier, I sighed and felt impatience and fatigue. I drove the dark streets, rode the chilly elevator, and walked the fluorescent hall until I was once again in his room.
He was wide awake, and the look of fear on his face when I walked in broke my heart. My dad, World War II vet, hard-working family man, was waiting for me to make him feel safe. And in that moment, I knew things had shifted and would never be the same again.
He pointed to the corner and whispered, “There he is.” An abandoned IV pole was the only thing on that side of the room. I rolled it over to the side of the bed and said, “Dad, it’s okay. Just a pole. There’s no one else here.”
He sagged with relief and said, “Well, I’m sorry. I could’ve sworn that was some fella.”
“It’s okay, Dad.”
“Since you’re here, how about you get me some peanut butter crackers?”
I laughed and said, “Sure.”
He asked me to eat with him, so we made a picnic on the blanket and shared the crackers and a Coke. He chewed happily for a minute and then paused to look at me. “I’m glad you’re not seeing that man you were dating anymore.”
“Why is that, Dad?”
“You deserve better. He never said a nice thing about you to me or your mother. And you deserve somebody who knows how lucky they are to have you.”
I was speechless. My dad’s never been one to shower praise on anybody. Fighting back the tears, I whispered, “Thanks, Dad.”
He relaxed back into his pillow and was soon asleep. I cleaned up the remains of our snack and tucked the blanket around his arms. Standing there, looking at him, I was struck by how small and how vulnerable he was lying there in a hospital bed. His body is betraying him. It’s sliding ever forward to its end.
And now, here at last, we’ve had the beginning of a real conversation. I’ve been waiting such a long time for that.
Talking to people has always been easy for me. I am drawn to strangers. I want to hear their stories. It’s the people I love that are, often, the hardest to have important conversations with. Is it pride, fear, sheer emotion that stops the words before they’re heard? That’s the beauty of conversation, though… it isn’t always done with words. It can be a look that passes between two old friends, no words needed. The lift of an eyebrow or a tilt of the head can speak volumes. I’ve been touched, held and loved in ways that transcended words. A frown can stop you dead in your tracks. So can a tear sliding down a loved one’s cheek. And sometimes, too, there are words that are just too hard to say out loud, so they must be whispered in the dark of a hospital room or written on a piece of paper to purge them from your soul.
‘Dad, you’ve done right by our family. I’m sorry I didn’t go fishing with you when I was a kid, all those times you asked me to. Are you proud of me? I’ve always been so afraid that the wrong daughter was taken from our family. I’m sorry for the times I disappointed you. Thank you for loving me. I love you right back.’
It’s almost 4:00. No point in going home now, so I will close my eyes and wait for the sun to shine. Tomorrow and all the days to come will not be easy. Taking care of aging parents never is. But what a privilege, and what a gift the conversations will be. At long last.