Strong Hands

September 15, 2017

My dad died yesterday. Suffice to say, I am extremely proud to be his daughter. He was so proud of my sister and me. All I can do to cope is to do what I can to help me remember him, and help you all know what he was like by writing about him.

I’ve been wracking my brain to think about what to say about my Daddy. Even if I write a whole book about him, it won’t be enough. That man touched everyone he met in a positive way. He never got cross. He had infinite patience. He yelled at the TV during Cowboys games. He did get irritated with folks for talking during Cowboys games. He loved a good steak and a Budweiser (NOT Bud Lite).

He was creative and would doodle things on the little pads of paper he kept stacked on the dining room table that served as his desk. I just realized, I use the dining room table as my desk, too. Someone once asked me why I say “thataway” instead of that way. Like, “Put your backpack by the door, thataway you’ll be ready for school in the morning.” Or “move the couch thataway.”

When we were in the hospital last week, he asked the nurse to move the pillow “thataway” so now I know. I also say, “That ain’t no good,” when an unfortunate thing happens. That’s verbatim something he would say. When we hung up from phone calls, he would always say, “I love you,” but then we would get distracted and keep talking. We would always say I love you three or four more times before finally hanging up. 

He had thick strong hands. His knuckles grew with age and arthritis from a life of manual labor. I remember holding his hand walking into school, walking through the State Fair of Texas, in the past three weeks, nearly every time he had blood drawn, and in the final seconds that he was breathing, first on a machine and then for a few moments on his own. I squeezed his hands, and admired the crooked pinky on his left hand that he once broke and never got fixed.

When I was in third grade my family had a red Jeep Cherokee. He loved that car. He often told us not to play in or around the car. We were suspicious that he wanted to keep the cars nice and free from sticky little kid fingerprints, which was partially true. But the true reason was that a neighbor child had been playing in a station wagon a few years earlier and kicked the transmission into reverse. The car rolled into the street and was t-boned. I know Daddy was paranoid about us getting hurt.

Nevertheless, I decided to take a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towels out to the garage alone and shine up the Jeep for Dad. I should clarify he neither asked me to do this nor knew I was doing this. I managed to polish the bumper – it was a chrome bumper with matching chrome hub cabs, a feature he mentioned nearly every time he described the Jeep, both while we owned it and for years after we sold it.  Having finished the bumper, I sprayed a generous sheen of Windex all over the hood. Following that, I stepped on the bumper and hoisted myself up on the hood to reach the windshield. My wipe job wasn’t great because the hood was slick, and I could feel the red metal of the hood slipping beneath my shins. The windshield started to fall out of reach, but by the time I could drop the bottle and towels and try to regain my balance, I was on the garage floor.

I thought for sure I was safe from injury, suffering only little thump on my bottom from the concrete. Then I saw the blood. And there was more blood, and more blood and more blood. Along the side of my leg, just outside of my right knee was split open like a surgeon had taken to it with a blade. The skin was wide open, exposing the subcutaneous fat and muscle beneath it.

I looked to my left and saw a bit of blood dripping from the license plate mounted proudly and without a license plate bumper dead center of that chrome bumper. The sight of blood made me scream more than the actual pain (later I found out some nerves had been severed so I was only really half in pain and half shocked). The first and only thing out of my mouth was “Daddy!” He had been in the kitchen, just off the garage separated by a wooden door we were cautioned always to close behind us in the summer time to avoid “air conditioning the neighborhood.”

Having experienced 10 full years of my dramatic personality, he came running at my tone but remained skeptical until he saw the blood on the ground. He kneeled immediately to my side, calming me and trying to push the sliced skin together and stop some bleeding. Then he hollered for Shannon, my older sister, a sixteen year old beauty with a slick sarcastic manner, to come outside.

“What?” she asked, probably annoyed we pulled her away from a phone call or TV show. For my parents’ sake I’m glad they had a reasonable, smart, grounded child like Shannon. Folks can only take one bleeding Windex-soaked creature wailing in the garage. Then she saw the blood.

“Call 911!” he commanded. And she did. After hanging up, she came out with a “cup towel,” what our family called thin kitchen towels with tasseled edges printed with floral patterns. The paramedics arrived not too long after that. Meanwhile, he calmed me down, stroked my hair, and wiped the tears from my face. The paramedics wrapped my leg tight with gauze and offered to transport me to the hospital.

“How much does that cost?” a reasonable question for a one-income family with no health insurance.

“$600.”

“We’ll drive.”

So I was loaded into the very car that had betrayed me with its chrome bumper. I remember the red checked interior, with red carpeting and red leather doors. I sat in the back and propped my leg up on the seat. We rolled out of the steep driveway and drove ten minutes to the Mesquite Community Hospital, later condemned for high patient death rates (or so the local legend went).

And in the ER waiting room we sat, nearly twelve hours. Enough time for him to call my mom who had been visiting her mother, my Mam-Maw, in the hospital for one of her many bone related injuries. (A tall woman with osteoporosis, Mam-Maw was prone to falling down and each fall resulted in a broken bone or a need for a joint-replacement surgery. By the time she died, she was half-woman, half-machine, and all sass.) 

They finally took me back and laid me down on a gurney. My experience with gurneys was strictly through television, where dead bodies were rolled off to morgues. I did not want to be on a gurney. They also unfurled the gauze on my leg, and when the air hit it, a searing pain caused me to scream and writhe beneath the doctors’ grips. There were about three of them, doctors or nurses, hovering above me. They shined a bright halogen light on me, and when I think back, I remember it fuzzy, scary and bright, probably like most whackos remember their alien abductions. I refused to lie still.

A man with a humongous needle came close to my face and said, “I have to put this needle in your leg, lie still.” Oh, ok then. Let me just calm down. I’m ten years old. Obviously I understand the gravity of the situation. Dr. Idiot was clearly not trained in dealing with children. Lucky for him, and for me, my dad was there. He held my hand and got real close to my face.

“I love you, sweetie. It’ll be over in just a minute. Just take a few breaths and lie very still.” I basically never did what anyone told me as a child with the exception of Dad. If he told me to take my medicine, I did. If he told me to stop pretending to throw up at school to get out early, I did (and he really did have to do that once I learned that if you told the teacher you threw up, you were automatically sent home. Test you didn’t want to take? Fake a barf. Mean kid on the playground? Fake a barf. Dad worked nights and was home during the days and you wanted to hang out with him? Fake a barf.)

And he was right. A few deep breaths, and they got the numbing medicine in my leg. From there, the stitches were a breeze because I had dad distracting me, talking to me, holding my hand, and by that time, I had a very numb leg. 

So when he got sick, it was a given I would be there. He had held my hand, served as a distraction when I was so scared. I think on the scale of sliced leg and giant needle to a child that cancer to an adult is just as scary. So when they stuck him with needles in his arm, first in a different but just as rickety regional hospital, I was there with Shannon and Mom to hold his hand.  That first hospital stuck him five times in one arm and finally called in a relief pitcher to stick the other arm.

And after we transferred him, each time the team at UT Southwestern took blood, whether it was an easy go (a “one stick” job as we called it) or whether it took a specialist with a Doppler machine because too many of his veins were collapsing after being poked, I am grateful I got to be there and hold his hand. 

One night right before he was admitted to the ICU for the final time, he sent my exhausted, dedicated mother home early before the sun went down. He didn’t want her to drive so far in the dark, and I stayed behind to hang out with him. A preseason football game was starting and I was trying to calm his nerves down enough to lie back and watch it.

He sat on the side of his bed, his yellow hospital gown split up the back exposing his thin pale skin. His hands, the same strong ones that had slipped newspapers and held mine so many times, shook so hard I could see it from across the room. I walked over and sat beside him on the bed.

“Daddy, what’s wrong?”

“Just nervous, I guess.”

“You don’t have any reason to be nervous. They’re taking care of you here.” Yet his hand still shook. I ran my hand back and forth between his shoulder blades and he let his head drop down. He shut his eyes and breathed in and out.

“Did you see that weatherman fart on the news while he was reporting on the hurricanes?” I asked. He tilted his head and opened one eye.

“What? That really happened?” he asked. We giggled together. He drew his eyes up and looked out the window across the sun setting on the Dallas skyline.

“You know at work, during lunch, I loved looking up YouTube videos about news people screwing up,” he said.

“Like that one guy that gets attacked by a bee?” I said. He laughed.

“You know, just you being here, sweetie, it makes a huge difference. It really does.” I leaned over and put my head on his shoulder. We just sat there for a few minutes, looking across Dallas at the white steel cable bridge to the right to the ball at Reunion Tower and all the other buildings pierced by the warm orange sun.

Heather McKinney