By Catherine Lanser

After three months at the inpatient rehabilitation facility, it was time for my dad to move again.  Only five months after his brain hemorrhage and already it was hard to count how many stops he had made on his road to recovery.  First there was the hospital where the ambulance took him right after my mom found him on the hallway floor with the worst headache of his life, the one where we decided they should operate to remove the pressure and blood inside his brain. The second was where we waited during the long operation and where he stayed after he made it through. And then hospital rehab before this one.

Although I didn’t entirely understand the intricacies, he was improving and apparently doing “too well” for the inpatient rehab facility. To continue having insurance pay, he needed to go to a facility that administered less care, such as a nursing home. It put two opposing forces against each other.

We wanted our dad to get better; but as he did, he would lose access to the kind of care he needed to help him continue to improve. A nursing home would provide around-the-clock care, but only a few days of rehabilitation. The case manager coordinated with my mom to find him a bed at a facility close to home, preferably the one in our home town.

I knew that place and its long square corridors and rose-colored wallpaper from when my grandma lived there. We visited her often, singing Bicycle Built for Two and You Are My Sunshine in the activity room. When the weather was nice, we rolled her wheel chair out on the front drive where she could watch the cars go by. There was little other activity available, besides sitting in her room.

One of the last times I saw her she was lying in bed, thin hair pulled back and her cheekbones like cliffs because she didn’t have her teeth in her mouth. She gasped for air, jaw wide open. When it was time to feed her, a nurse shot a syringe of green pureed food up across her top gum line and her throat reflexively swallowed. Then, her mouth went back to gaping. She was graced with the longevity of the women on my dad’s side, living to be 98, though she did not seem very coherent at the end.

Dad had made progress during the past three months, and we could see outward signs of the healing that was taking place inside his brain. By then he could use both of his hands in concert with one another and even catch a ball. His speech therapy was also coming along and he was able to respond to more questions, whether by memorization or understanding.

He still had trouble with his swallowing reflex and received all nutrition through the tube in his stomach. We were told to not give him any food or drink orally because he could choke or get pneumonia if food ended up in his lungs. My mom and others did sneak him some treats, mostly cakes and other snacks, but I didn’t like to. He hacked enough as it was and I didn’t want to be the cause of a dangerous coughing attack.

Before he could make the move to the nursing home he needed to be weaned off the heavy-duty restraints that were being used to keep him safe and sometimes to manage his behavior. Nursing home laws restrict the use of unnecessary physical restraints that inhibit a person’s movement. Chemical restraints, like the drugs that sometimes calmed my dad down, would also be limited. It was much different than the days when my grandma was tied into her wheelchair with lap belt.

As such, my dad would have to move from a large diaper-like pelvic-belt restraint that was tied to the wheelchair and impossible to remove on his own, to a self-releasing lap belt. Both were designed to keep him from getting up or falling, but the lap belt was more like a soft seat belt held together with Velcro.  Conceivably he could remove it, though luckily when the restraints were switched he barely noticed and didn’t try to pull the new belt off.

More alarming was the move from the veil bed to a regular bed. The veil bed was something that looked like a man-sized play pen with mesh sides that zipped up to a closed top. It kept him from falling or getting up out of the bed and hurting himself. As awful as it was to think of him caged up, it was worse when they moved him to think there was nothing supporting him.  I imagined him alone in the dark, reaching out into the void.

It reminded me of the night I discovered eternity. I was in my bed, saying my prayers, while everyone else was asleep. As I always did, I started with the Our Father and then moved on to the Hail Mary. The words rattled in my head:  pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

Hour of our death? Did that mean me?

After the Hail Mary, I continued to what I hoped would be a happier prayer.  Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep had always seemed harmless enough, but now I heard the words:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

The words buzzed: soul, die, take. I reached for the last prayer I knew of, not a usual part of my repertoire, the Glory Be. It wasn’t its own prayer, but an addendum that could be added on to another prayer, as a way of saying amen, without saying amen.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.

World without end?

Before I knew it, I was floating through time and space, without a body, forever. I felt the still blackness of the house crushing in on me. It was as if I could see myself in bed from above and was aware of the whole universe of space surrounding me, stretching out into nothingness from our small house, out over Port Washington, out over the entire state of Wisconsin, out over the icy waters of Lake Michigan, passing over the entire United States, and stretching over all the continents and the entire globe. I could see beyond into a Universe of unending absence, and I was there, without a body, only a dead soul.

I crept out of bed and opened the door, careful not to make a sound. I looked up and down the long hallway at the closed bedroom doors. I stepped out of my room and took the few steps across the hall to my parents’ room.

I wanted them to wake up and come out into the hallway and find me there. I didn’t want to wake them, but if they got up for another reason, I might be able to tell them what happened. I might have the courage to tell them about forever and ever. If I could even explain it to them. I just wanted them to tell me everything was alright.

I lifted my hand up, summoning the nerve to knock. I put a finger on the door softly, feeling the greasy Liquid Gold my mom smeared on it to keep the wood looking nice. I pulled my finger away and rubbed the oil into my thumb.

They might yell at me for waking them up. They would probably just tell me to think of something else. I put my hand down by my side and sat down on the floor, resting my back against the wall. I could hear my dad snoring inside.

I tried to think of something besides forever and ever. I thought of things that were yellow: my bedroom wall, lemon meringue pie, Easter eggs. Next, I pictured things with wings: dragonflies, birds, wasps. I said my eight older siblings’ name from oldest to youngest and then in backwards order from youngest to oldest. I curled up next to the wall, becoming less afraid and more tired.

A while later I went back to my room. A while after that I fell asleep. I never mentioned it to my parents. I couldn’t remember how wide forever had felt the night before.

But now I imagined my dad floating above the void as I had seen myself. The facility was so cold and grim during the day, I couldn’t imagine how lonely and terrified he was at night. The drop to the floor was only a couple of feet, but I didn’t know how he could survive it.

During this time my brothers, sisters, mom and I exchanged emails with subject lines like, DadUpdate on Dad, and Visit with Grandpa. After he left the veil bed the emails began to report my dad’s progression from wheelchair to walker. At first, he wasn’t walking so much as making steps forward while being held up underneath his armpits or by a belt while he gripped two parallel bars. Later he would do the same with a walker. At first, my mom reported, “he lists to one side,” but eventually he came back to dry land and stood straighter.

When I heard they were teaching my dad to walk, I thought it might be easier for him to jump off a bridge and land on two feet. If sleeping alone a few feet off the floor was dangerous, what perils could befall him once he stood up?

But by the time he was about to leave the rehab facility, he could walk down the hall and back with just a little assistance. I held my breath every time he did it, even with the therapists. When I was asked to walk with my own hand on his back for the first time as he pushed the walker, I probably shook my head. Surely someone else was better qualified to keep him safe.

As I held tightly to his shirt, I could see every possible horrible fate unfolding with every shuffling step. I felt every potential trip before it happened. I envisioned his legs giving out and his bones crumbling beneath him. I imagined him tumbling forward over the bar of the walker and his face coming off. I pictured him falling backward and shattering his skull.

I sensed the cotton of his turtleneck shirt slipping from my grip as the wheels of the walker slid out of control and took my dad down the long hallway, through the heavy locked doors, and then out of view. I wanted to hold on as tight as I could, but held on loosely so as not to cause what I was sure would happen; gripping, but not gripping. Seeing the fear, but not grasping it.

Together we walked. Each step a small eternity.