My father was 44 years old when I was born. In the 1960s this was considered ancient to have a baby. It wasn’t until I was in third grade when I realized how much older my father was than my friends’ fathers and I cried, fearing that he wouldn’t be alive by the time I grew up. But he has proven to be cat-like in his ability to survive. In the last 25 years, he has endured a triple by-pass, assorted heart episodes, diabetes, kidney stones, and high cholesterol, among other ailments. He never exercises. He eats whatever. And he’s inhaled enough second-hand smoke in the past 50 years to fill the Hindenburg. On a positive note, he avoids alcohol and plays chess three times a week, so there’s that.
He’s had a very long and successful career as a general surgeon. My mother would often remark, “Do you know how many people in Brooklyn would be walking around with colostomy bags today if it weren’t for your father?“ But my mother, also a physician, and competitive by nature, might, if she was feeling prickly, add “not that being a surgeon takes much brain power, it's is all about ‘when in doubt, cut it out.’ ” Sometimes I think my mother’s lucky my father never sewed her mouth shut. Instead, whenever she’d say her little joke, he’d just beam at her as if she had made him a pot roast dinner with matzo ball soup. My mother’s specialty was emergency room medicine. She liked to practice medicine with all the machismo of soldiers on the front line.
A year ago, my father, at 89 years old, lost his balance while walking up two steps from the garage into the house. He fell and suffered a compression fracture in his back. My mother, 80, saw no need to bother any of their children with this news. She felt she could take care of him herself. But moving him around proved difficult and he was in a lot of pain. My mother had some Oxycontin lying around the house and gave it to him. Expiration dates have never had the same meaning to her as they do to ordinary folks. Finding expired medication doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it. If anything, maybe you should take more because it's lost some of its potency. Just to be clear, my mother would never give expired medication in the hospital. There are laws against such things. But at home, why let good medicine go to waste?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what caused my father’s sharp decline, whether it was the Oxycontin, dehydration, or what have you, but shortly after taking the drug my father became seriously ill and delusional. My mother called for an ambulance. Then she called me in a panic, telling me the end was near, and I was to alert all four of my siblings, I, being the unofficial family crier. After 24 hours in the hospital, and the Oxycontin out of his system, my father significantly improved and the crisis had passed. Once again, he had beaten the odds.
But he was still in pain from the original injury and unable to walk well. My older brother Steven, who happens to be a veterinary surgeon, said, “This is like Downer Cow Syndrome.” He went on to explain further, “A cow will fall in the pasture for many reasons, but if you don’t get the cow up, she’ll become depressed and lose the will to live. We need to get Dad up and walking as soon as possible. ”
We took Steven’s advice and after a short stay, my father was released from the hospital, back into the care of his attentive wife. “She doesn’t have to take care of me. I can do everything myself,” he said. But I feel more comfortable checking in with them often anyway. In the back of my mind, I want to make certain my parents don’t disintegrate into a Dead Ringers type of situation.*
The end may still be near, but my eight-year-old self had nothing to fear.
*Dead Ringers was a 1980s horror film directed by David Cronenberg, staring Jeremy Irons in a dual role playing twin gynecologists who treat each other for drug addiction, to disastrous results.