When my dad called to tell me he’d fallen off a ladder putting up the outdoor television and had broken his leg and needed surgery, I cried my eyes out. Probably an overly dramatic reaction, but ever since my mom died four years ago, I’ve been holding onto him more tightly. It has been one thing after another, with my dad having bladder cancer, then prostate cancer, my stepmom’s heart surgeries and my stepfather’s liver cancer, not to mention my in-laws’ health scares. It was too much. I knew I needed to be with my dad, and my husband supportively agreed to hold down our fort.
I flew diagonally across the country from my home in Seattle to Osprey Cove, a retirement community in St. Mary’s, Georgia. My dad and stepmom kept me in mind when building their custom one-story home, so it was perfect for my dad, who was now also on wheels. When I arrived, my dad was two weeks post-op and maneuvering his $115/month rental wheelchair pretty well. He had just opened a bottle of pinot noir. I watched him angle and re-angle his wheelchair and then Go Go Gadget his arm to successfully grab wine glasses off the hanging rack. Wheelchair to wheelchair, eyes to eyes, we clinked our glasses.
Considering my dad couldn’t put weight on his leg for another four weeks and was missing the best time of year in St. Mary’s to play golf, he had a positive outlook. But I guess that didn’t surprise me. My dad was very familiar with the whole “not being able to walk” thing. When I was 14, I was in a car accident and crushed my L2 vertebra and have been paralyzed from the hips down since. My dad helped me position my sliding board while I learned to transfer, and he installed my shower bench. He also helped me put my jeans on before school. I’d lie in bed while he’d hold my legs high and I’d shimmy them up over my hips. Now it was my dad’s turn to use a sliding board and shower bench. And it was his turn to transfer onto the La-Z-Boy couch, aka his “perch,” and recline to more easily get his shorts up.
After I became paralyzed, my neurosurgeon told me to stay in the best shape possible. He said there would be a cure for spinal cord injuries in the next 10 years and I needed to be ready. So I worked out my upper body with an arm bike and weights. I had leg braces made so I could stand, and my parents rented a motorized bike called a Quadriciser to move my legs. I swam, I stretched and I ate a healthy diet. It’s been 23 years, and even though I’m not “cured,” I continue to take care of myself. I even got certified as a health coach. When my dad mentioned he’d like me to help him stay in shape during his recovery, it filled me with joy. I had the opportunity to apply all I had learned over the years to help him.
Working Out and Kicking Back
Since my dad’s first physical therapy appointment wasn’t for another week, we decided to focus on strengthening his upper body to make transfers easier, as well as work on his upcoming transition to a walker. Maybe it would even improve his golf swing! With the Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love” playing in the background, we got to work. As I guided my dad through some resistance band exercises, I instructed him to engage his core and keep his shoulders down and back. To keep him motivated, I played a video of Aaron Fotheringham doing a back flip in his wheelchair, and said, “If you work hard enough, Dad, this could be you.”
After our workout, we’d reward ourselves by transferring onto the perch. Buttons pushed, we’d recline back, while our legs were raised. We’d read, watch movies like Hidden Figures or The Intern, and inevitably, we’d fall asleep. The La-Z-Boy is dangerously comfortable and should come with a warning sign, “IF YOU ENTER YOU WILL MOST DEFINITELY NOT STAY AWAKE.” As a mom of a 2-year old, I was settling into this routine nicely.
Well rested, we were more than ready for happy hour and gin rummy. My dad is a very competitive card player. When he is at his other home in Knoxville, he plays every day with a group of guys at a place they call “The Treehouse.” It’s a windowless room in a strip mall, full of couches, a big screen TV, a bar, poker table and cigar smoke. (My husband once gained entry, which is how I know these specifics.) I hadn’t played gin in forever, so I encouraged my dad and stepmom to go first in order to observe and plan my attack. My dad’s strategy is to figure out what his opponent has, so he doesn’t give them a card they need. Anytime you pick up a card, he obnoxiously repeats it over and over to lock it into his brain, “Eight of hearts, eight of hearts, eight of hearts.” Thankfully I was able to tune him out, and after a couple days I was beating him at least half of the time. Though frustrated, deep down I knew my dad was proud of me.
A highlight of our day was when my dad and stepmom’s friends would drive over in their golf carts — my favorite was a neon green-and-white striped one named “Margarita.” They’d stop by for a chit chat, to drop off a good book they’d just finished reading, or to share a yummy home-cooked dinner. One of the couples was prepping for their annual 50-person shrimp boil and recounted their drama-filled day trying to find enough shrimp. Even though my dad and stepmom had only lived there a few years, it was like they had known these friends forever. They’d hilariously tell stories, crack jokes and give each other a hard time. It was pure entertainment, like a trashy reality show: The Real Retirees of Osprey Cove.
Dad Turns 70
After seven days, we had settled into a nice routine, and it was hard to say goodbye. Being injured forces you to slow down, to just be. And it felt good to just be with my dad. To sit with him, keep him company and bring him handfuls of mixed nuts to snack on, as he refused to keep the huge Costco container by him in fear of eating too many and jeopardizing his waist line. I was going to miss my dad, our workouts and our nightly viewings of Family Feud.
Three months later, my sister and I waited curbside at the airport. It was our dad’s 70th birthday, and we’d flown in to celebrate. He pulled up in his Buick Enclave and walked over, with just a slight limp, to hug us. He looked well. We threw him a party with his closest friends, and my sister and I gave him a framed collage of photos from when we were young. Back then, 70 seemed so old.
The next day was beautiful, 68 degrees and sunny. As my dad and I headed through the garage to go on a walk, he stopped in front of his wheelchair, which was parked against the wall next to his golf clubs. He sat in it, bent over to grab his tennis shoes, and put them on. I laughed. His wheelchair had a new purpose.
My dad walked, and I rolled, through the neighborhood. We’d stop to chat with neighbors and to check out the new houses being built. When we finished the mile-long loop, my dad sat back down in his wheelchair and rolled into the driveway. He stopped, looked up at the sky and closed his eyes.
As I watched him sunbathe, I thought about how lucky I was to be his daughter. I pulled my chair up beside his, grabbed his hand, and held it tight.