This is Part 2 of a series of articles I will post this month. Part 1 is here.
My first day back in Florida is mostly a blur. I flew to the Pensacola airport, where my brother met me. It was an hour’s drive to the town where my parents and siblings live. Our conversation on the drive, and later at the restaurant where we had lunch was probably the best preparation for seeing my father’s current condition one could have. My brother mentioned that my dad was concerned there was something wrong with his computer. He’d been so concerned about it one night that week that my mom finally called my brother at 2 or 3 in the morning to talk about it. Bro drove over to their house to see if he could find the problem, but there was nothing obvious. Being there and working on the computer was enough to calm my dad for the night, at least.
The change in my dad was stark. Physically, he didn’t seem all that different. He still had the taut, stringy musculature of a long distance runner. Though the line from tautness to gauntness had been crossed, it wasn’t obvious through his khakis and t-shirt. The thick, fine salt and pepper hair had gone pure white. The stark change was in his alertness, his finely honed sense of humor, his wit, and his facile use of language. When he talked, there were long pauses as he struggled to find the right words. Sometimes, his attention wandered before the words were found. Other times he was visibly upset, fighting against the brain fog, determined to communicate, to be there.
My mom was playing hostess as has always been her wont when I visit, but I could hear fear and grief in the subtleties of her tone, as well as seeing the constant turning of gears in her mind as she juggled my father’s medication schedule, coaxed him into eating a little more, and briefed me about the last few months, all while projecting Southern hospitality and charm.
It was a tense day.
After dinner (a dinner of which I have no memory), my dad decided to tackle the subject of his computer woes with the family “expert”. I’m on the software side and always have been. When called upon to fix an ailing machine, I always worry it will be beyond my expertise.
The machine booted up fine. I asked him which application was being troublesome.
I was pretty sure what I’d find, and I was right. No viruses, but a grandkid had installed Steam and downloaded some games. The appearance in Chrome had been “teen-ified”. Black background, dark grey lettering, and nearly invisible menus. It took about 2 minutes to fix.
But, that wasn’t the main problem. My dad said he needed to get online to look at a test result on his doctor’s website. Well, he didn’t precisely say that. He struggled mightily to find technical terms that had once fallen so easily from his tongue. By trade, he was a rocket scientist. No, really. He was a rocket scientist before he retired.
I asked him how he navigated to his doctor’s site, and he couldn’t explain it. So, I searched Chrome history. I checked Firefox and IE history, too, just in case. I looked through his recent emails.
He tried to explain what precisely he was looking for. I had a fuzzy picture from his description. It sounded like he was describing a mathematical model, and that he’d realized there was an error in the model. He needed to fix it or get his doctor to fix it, because he was on the wrong medications. The treatment protocols were wrong.
From the moment I’d started looking for a link to his doctor’s website, I’d been pretty sure I was dealing with a figment of his imagination. On the one hand, I wanted to treat him seriously. He was my dad. he was an adult and he deserved all due respect and consideration, regardless of whether he was hallucinating, or whether there was some kernel of fact and reality in what he was trying to tell me. On the other hand, I wanted to help him back to reality and help him stop worrying about this model or whatever it was.
He had a doctor appointment the next morning, and the plan was for him to start chemotherapy at the end of the week. I built as complete a mental picture of what my dad was looking for as I could, and asked him if he wanted me to bring it up with the doctor the next day.
He did, in that moment. The next day before we left for the appointment, he had changed his mind.
Throughout this investigation and discussion, I was reliving a moment from my childhood. I was in 6th grade. The week before winter break, I had come down with a bad case of the flu. I spent over a week with a high fever, inability to hold down food or water, and an ever-deepening state of confusion punctuated occasionally by delirious hallucinations. My ears rang. They buzzed constantly with a high-pitched whine. It never went away. As the days mounted, I became convinced that the whine had meaning. I became convinced that I was becoming – or had become – a robot. It sounds so silly to say those words now, but at the time I was terrified and absolutely certain the whine was the sound of my newly mechanical brain doing its thing.
Finally, in a desperate effort to find my way to reality, I called out to my dad. He came into the room to see what I needed. I asked him, “Do you hear a noise in here?”
“What kind of noise”?
“A machine noise, really high.”
He listened carefully, walking around the room and cocking his head. Finally, he replied. “I don’t hear anything.”
The relief was overwhelming.
The delusion faded a little, and it was several weeks before I completely put it to rest. But, my dad’s serious consideration and exploration of the room before telling me the noise didn’t exist became an anchor in reality while I went through a few more days of fever and several weeks of weakness.
It was several months after the night I fixed the computer’s browser before I learned the precise nature of the kernel of reality at the center of his illusion. He remembered watching the CAT scan on a screen when the technician had found the tumors on his liver. A couple days later, the doctor told him he had pancreatic cancer. Somewhere in the ebb and flow of consciousness and clarity, he at times didn’t understand that the liver tumors had spread from his pancreas and he thought his whole treatment protocol was based on an error.
There was a mental place where this misunderstanding lived. Sometimes he was too confused to understand or remember it. Most of the time he was alert and with-it enough to know the diagnosis was right and that cancer had spread before it was detected. But, sometimes he was disconnected enough from reality to think it was all a mistake, and if he could only work on that mathematical model, he could make everything right. His diagnosis would be proven a mistake, and he could go back to his life as it had been before the nightmare began.
I hope that my serious consideration and exploration of his concerns that night, and other times when he tried to solve this puzzle helped him as much as he helped me as a feverish child find my way back to reality.