This column was forwarded to us by a reader who stumbled upon it and was touched by the reference to a caring person the author came across in Scotland County. The author has allowed us to republish it. — editor.
My mom called me a couple of weeks ago frantic and nearly hysterical. My 78-year-old father, who had been in the hospital because of a blood clot, had become dehydrated and malnourished. He was delirious, reliving days in Vietnam, yelling orders to troops, lashing out in terror at unseen enemies. I told my mother to do whatever was possible to get him out of there and take him to another hospital where he would get better care.
She hired a private ambulance and had him transported to a hospital in Wilmington. I got in my car and traveled four hours from Charlotte, hoping that by the time I got there, my dad would be stabilized.
I wasn’t prepared for what I found. My Marine father, once vibrant and full of life, wasn’t himself. Lying in the bed was a man I didn’t recognize. His cheeks were sunken, his skin a pale gray; he seemed unable to catch his breath, and he kept pulling oxygen tubes away from his nose. Worse was the wild look in his eyes as they darted from one point to another, seeing things only he could see.
I hurried to his bedside. “Denise,” he said slowly, as if he were trying to remember something from long ago. I took his hand and held it. “How are you?” I asked.
He squeezed my hand, his eyes wide. He motioned for me to come closer. “Not many make it out of the foxhole,” he whispered.
“We’ll get out, Dad; don’t worry,” I whispered back. He held my hand so tightly my fingers were turning purple.
I remembered a time when I was young, when my dad taught me to swim. He didn’t do it like most dads. There were no water wings, no shallow end of the swimming pool. My dad took me to the beach on the Marine Corps base, put me on a boogie board, pulled me out just beyond the waves, and told me to get off.
I was terrified, but I obeyed. I gasped for air as I flailed in the water, desperately trying to feel the sand beneath my toes. I tried to kick, but the tide rolled over me. Just as I went under, I felt my dad grab hold of my hand.
“You can do it,” he said. The tide rose, and salt stung my eyes, but I wasn’t afraid any longer. My dad was there. He wouldn’t let me go.
As I stood beside my dad’s hospital bed, the scent of salt in the ocean air and the crash of the waves faded, replaced by the bitter smell of ammonia and the woosh and beeps of hospital machines. I held on to his hand. “You can do it,” I whispered.
I stayed through the weekend, then returned home. Two weeks later, I left Charlotte again to go see him. As I made my way across Eastern North Carolina, passing cotton fields and camouflage trucks with dead bucks strapped to the front bumper, I tried to distract myself from the worry. But my heart was heavy. Would my dad recognize me? Would he ever be strong enough to go home? Would we ever walk along the beach again and watch sunlight dance on the waves?
Around lunchtime, I stopped at a Taco Bell in Scotland County. When I pulled around to the first window, I took too wide of a turn and had to back up. An older African-American woman was at the window; she smiled warmly as she watched me.
When I tried to right the car, I ran up against the curb. “Sorry,” I said, embarrassed. She laughed kindly, “Don’t worry about it, baby girl. You just take your time.”
I finally maneuvered my car up to the window. “I’m really sorry about that. I’ve been traveling awhile.”
“Where’re you coming from?” she asked. “Charlotte,” I said. “I’m going to visit my dad in the hospital.” She leaned against the ledge, her brow knitted with concern. “Why is he in the hospital?”
I briefly told her, my voice cracking at times. “What’s his name so I can pray for him?” she asked. “Don,” I managed. She nodded. “And what’s yours?” “Denise,” I said, sniffing back the tears.
She looked down at me from the Taco Bell window, the smell of spicy ground beef wafting into my car, her face glowing with reassurance and conviction. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s going to be all right.”
Instinctively, I reached up and took her hand. She closed her other hand on top of mine and held it tight. I looked up at her, at the wrinkles in the corners of shining eyes and around her mouth from years of smiles. I was stunned by her beauty, by her love, and as I drove away, the tension in my chest unclenched, the fear released.
When I walked into the hospital, I found my father sitting up, his eyes bright. “Denise!” he said, his smile big. He held open his arms for me to come to him.
I hurried over and gave him a hug. “It’s good to see you, darling,” he said. Tears streamed down my face, the taste of saltwater on my lips. “It’s always good to see you, Dad.” Always.
D.C. McAllister is a contributing writer for Ricochet.com.