My Father’s Day came early this year with one of my best gifts ever.
The day began like the previous one, and the one before that, and the one before that one, stretching back for weeks.
The nurse checked my vital signs and drew blood before daybreak. She gave me medicine that resulted in a miserable ritual of my yanking the IV machine’s electrical plug out of the wall in order to drag the pole with cords tangled beneath the wheels across the small hospital room to the restroom—over and over again.
The dietary staff came into my room, announcing breakfast. As I did thrice daily at mealtimes, I said the smell of food made me nauseated. I asked that the tray be placed in a drawer out of range from my olfactory senses.
I waited and listened for the predictable, muffled conversation outside the room that signaled the arrival of one of my oncologists and his team of medical students.
They entered the room on Monday morning right on schedule, surrounding the foot of the bed. My oncologist asked how I felt, felt my ankles, looked down my throat and used his stethoscope.
I asked him when I could go home, a question that I had asked for three consecutive mornings and that he had answered with the unsatisfactory, “I’ll think about it.”
On this day, he said he needed to see my blood count, a reply that sounded like another dodge. Then, he delivered unexpected hope. He said that maybe later in the day he would release me.
The prospects of release caused me to ignore the word “maybe.” Euphoria washed over me. I don’t remember quoting the Bible. I could have proclaimed, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures for ever.”
Soon after they left the room, I pulled on my thick socks, grabbed my housecoat out of the closet, yanked the IV machine’s electrical cord out of the wall, put on a face mask, tugged open the heavy door and stepped into the hallway like a bank robber looking for the getaway car.
I paced the 11th floor, pushing the pole from which hung IV bags around and around the small square. I felt great. I was going home.
When the expected release did not arrive quickly, I started pedaling the stationary bike near the nurse’s station. Subconsciously, I was surely trying to counteract the adage “out of sight, out of mind.”
I began asking the nurses if they had seen my blood count and heard from my oncologist. They answered repeatedly in the negative. By mid-day, I was fed up with passivity. If he wouldn’t call, then it was time to call him. I probably suggested rather directly—well, forcefully— that since he had not called they needed to call him. I was ready to go home.
One exasperated nurse reminded me that he had given a qualified answer that he might release me late in the day at 5:30 p.m.
Seeing no medical justification for his decision and no reason for my prolonged imprisonment, I kept asking about my release. Promised freedom was not to be denied.
According to my wife’s assessment, I so irritated the nursing staff that they must have pled with the oncologist for my discharge.
My reprieve came early in the afternoon: I could go home.
I immediately called Betsy with a short, singular instructive, “Come get me, right now.”
Fearing that the hospital staff might withdraw its pardon, I returned to badgering the nurses. They needed to unplug my PIC line that kept me tethered to the wretched IV machine.
As soon as they did, I crawled out of bed, slipped off the hospital gown and put on the same clothes that I had worn into the hospital a month earlier. Of course, they didn’t fit. I didn’t care. I was going home.
I took down from the wall the taped cards and pictures, tossed items into baskets and bags, and wondered what was taking my wife so long to get to the hospital.
When she showed up, I was vexed. Leave all that stuff that wouldn’t fit into containers, I said. Hurry up and sign the release papers, I said. Let’s go, I said. No wheelchair was needed, I said, although everyone insisted that I needed it to exit the hospital.
“Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last,” I thought to myself as I was wheeled into the elevator.
The theme song from “Born Free,” one of my favorite childhood movies, played in my head as we descended to the ground floor.
The day’s warmth, the sun’s brightness and the earth’s lushness surprised me. The freshly planted flowers next to the sidewalk, the welcome home sign on the front door and the tilled vegetable garden in the backyard brought joy. I was home.
Despite the tremors, the metallic taste of water, the regular nausea, the inability of my fingers to strike the right keys to log on to the computer, the uncomfortable brightness of TV, the wandering around the house every two hours at night, I was home, where no problems were insurmountable and hope was reignited. I swore that I would never go back into the hospital.
The next day, after inspecting the tilled garden, I lay down in the grass, feeling the still cool earth and looking at the clear blue sky.
Having been in the far country, I was finally home, thank God.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.