For almost as long as I can remember, certainly dating back to when I was in middle school, my father had a rare and bizarre blood disease. His blood produced too much protein, simply put. Doctors were rather mystified – according to his university specialists, only one other known man is alive who has this disease and he lives in China – and gave him all sorts of different courses of treatment over the years.
Side effects were many and varied. Sometimes he’d respond to drugs in bad ways, like the time his steroids upped his heart rate so much he had something of a minor heart attack. I was in high school then, and Dad having to go to the doctor or hospital was nothing completely out of the ordinary. He never stayed long, though, and he never talked about it, and I'll bet my sisters don't even remember the heart attack episode.
"Episode." Like we were a sitcom.
Once he got a splinter from firewood and, because of his blood condition, was hospitalized for 11 days.
Truth be told, my father was a walking case of bad health, despite being a great athlete with a speedy metabolism and in good shape as far as cholesterol, fat, blood pressure and the like were concerned. But he’d had severe knee injuries from his college football days, and had had both his kneecaps replaced decades ago. Then later, even after years of deterioration, he refused to get them re-replaced. His blood condition made the operation risky. When I was a kid, he’d have to use all sorts of braces to play sports, and couldn’t ever really run. By the time he was 60, he could barely walk.
Sometimes I think about that. About how I lived life never having seen my father run.
Other side effects were really gross, and also embarrassing. For example, his disease caused blood clots in his eyes, and his vision was always in peril. He would also often get bloody noses. Except in his case, the blood didn’t usually bleed out, it would just collect in his nose the way healthy people collect mucus. And then to take care of this situation, my father would just pick it. Yes. He'd just pick his nose in public. All the time. It used to drive all of us crazy, but he would insist he couldn’t help it. I felt bad for him, of course I did, but why couldn’t he use a tissue?
It is a very troubling emotion, to be at once embarrassed and horrified and disgusted and yet so, so sad for your parent. If I ever caught him picking his nose, I'd mostly just ask him to stop. But mostly I just wanted him to be okay in the first place.
Throughout the course of his weird disease, the main thing that helped my dad stay alive was pheresis. He would regularly drive to a university hospital and have his blood drawn from him, filtered, and then put back in. If I had to guess I’d say he went to get “pheresed” every few weeks for almost 20 years. We didn’t talk about this either, other than to plan our schedules around it as necessary. My dad included. No, no bridge Tuesday, I have to go get pheresed.
We never made a big deal about it, it was just always there: a big, black scary sickness that my whole family worked hard to ignore. In truth, if it weren't for our schedules and occasional stories from the trenches, you wouldn't really know that there was a crazy blood disease quietly controlling my father's life.
I'll tell you though, we never expected my mom to be the one who'd become terminally ill. Or that it would be an unrelated cancer that would claim my dad. But this is the first time in my life I can remember people asking me how I'm doing without then asking, in a somber tone or with a look of fear or pity or empathy or pain in their eyes, about one of my sick parents.
I miss them every day. But I don't miss that.
* * * * * *
After years of the pheresis routine, my dad was pretty immune to seeing blood. Especially his own. And let’s face it, my dad was not the kind of guy big on noticing things anyway. My mother always said she could redecorate the entire house and he wouldn’t notice as long as he could find his way to the icemaker.
One day at the hospital following the procedure-as-usual, he was doing his characteristic walk-hobble* down the wing’s long corridor on his way to the exit. As he was walking, he failed to notice that one of the bandages on his forearm had come loose, and his tired veins had started leaking.
Put another way, my father was completely oblivious to the fact that he was sputtering blood from his arm, leaving a messy trail down the entire hospital hallway. So my father. So breezy -- if bloody -- elegance.
Anyway. When a poor, unsuspecting woman who was probably not so used to seeing blood, turned the corner and saw my father at the other end, she screamed after him. Understandably, she was alarmed.
“Sir? SIR!?!? SIR!!!” (She would have had to shouted many times before it would occur to my father that someone was trying to get his attention.)
Eventually it dawned on my dad that he was being called to. He stopped and looked behind him.
“Sir! You’re BLEEDING!” she yelled to him, also gasping in horror. She probably didn’t stop to contemplate whether she was more horrified at the fact that my father was bleeding, or that he hadn't even noticed.
My dad looked down the corridor at her and the blood and realized what she mst be thinking. He paused for a moment. Then he said, “Oh. It's just, well, I’m going to have to come back...and I didn’t have any breadcrumbs on me, so...”
She just stared at him blankly. He was severely disappointed. He’d thought he'd been rather witty.
*I could devote an entire entry to this walk that plagued my mother and any wall hangings within a 3-foot radius. Perhaps soon I will.