In case of a family emergency occurring three weeks before your fifteenth birthday on a hot morning in July, never sleep naked the night before. Scrambling for shorts and a decent shirt when you can hear your mother screaming downstairs is hard and a waste of the strange precious seconds you’ll need to crush the fourteen Berber steps to save your father’s life.
While you’re running, it is best not to think of yourself as a superhero and not become too visibly excited either, because this isn’t a drill, you are not a character on In a Heartbeat, there are no jump cuts from bloody mess to hospital hands and get-well-soons. Here, you’ll have to work.
By the time you reach the third step from the foyer—your feet rug-burned, head hot, eyes swimming—you’ll see your father’s hairy ankles and feet, dirty from the gym, jutting out from the powder room door that —you’ll find out later—your shaky little mother kicked in all by herself. Must be all that praying she does, you’ll guess.
When you can hear that odd echo, an over and over again liquid noise on the bathroom tile, take those last steps towards your mother, to the door, over to your father’s feet. That noise—along with the image of your twelve-year-old brother standing defeated in the foyer like you’ve never seen him stand, just whimpering, Dad, dad oh my god, trying to find something to do with his hands, reaching for his head, his arms; and your mother, who looks like the real superhero as she rips your father’s body from the bathroom floor—that noise, you’ll realize, was your father’s face breathing in the blood from his brain.
When confronted with the probability of your father’s death, your first instinct will be to laugh, because nothing about it seems real. From this day on you’ll struggle to put a stake in any present moment, fleeing from things too troubling like a spooked rabbit, hiding under blankets with a remote for hours on end. Later you’ll suspect you’re like this because of all the TV you watched before and obsessively after this day, and will continue to watch until you’re very, very old. And who’s to say this is a problem? Invite these stories into your brain on a daily basis. Let the characters unpack their things and reside there in the grey crevices. Let them make life more bearable. Think more about their problems than your own.
This will be the first and only time you’ve seen your father this naked—his gym shorts around his knees, chest on the floor, bare ass in the air—and you’ll wonder why you’re fixating on his skin, your reflection in the hallway mirror, when you should be calling for help. Run to the phone, because all you can really do is call an ambulance like you’ve seen it done a hundred times on Road Rules. Know that while you’re explaining to that absurdly placid voice on the line that you’ve just found your father face down in his blood and it must be, like, a seizure or something, you’ll inwardly admit that you’ve always secretly wanted something like this to happen. After all, you’ve been prepped for crisis your whole life so far: twisters on the playground, school shootings, and housefires. You’ve been waiting years to maneuver the Heimlich, to stop drop and roll, to fire a can of pepper spray into the eyes of an attacker, but you never really get to blow that whistle until you’re swearing like you mean it on the phone to the woman who’s helping you, because you’re fourteen and kind of stupid and feel like saying fuck to a stranger while giving her the street address to your house off the main road.
A tip for your father’s yard: before the fire trucks are dispatched and come blaring up your driveway, before the EMTs are let in the front door to wrap your father like leftovers in white sheets and strap him into the ambulance with your mother, before the neighbors have time to gather outside and smash your brother’s wet face into their breasts, and before they send those sad casseroles that bloat and rot in the fridge while you’re at the hospital watching Newlyweds on the end of your father’s bed, eating his cold applesauce while your mother eats nothing at all, remove your father’s flower pots from the front steps. Cover his azaleas, his mums, and monkey grass with beach blankets. Stand in front of the Japanese maple and wave your arms so they know not to sideswipe its branches with their truck because he planted it when you were twelve and the trunk is still tender. Move everything out of the way or you’ll end up gathering chunks of pottery in trash bags, raking back tire tracks in the lawn while the neighborhood watches you hunching around the broken yard, wearing no bra and backwards gym shorts, wondering if your dad’s off dying somewhere.
When you’re told it’s a brain aneurysm and not a heart attack or a seizure, not something you’ve heard of or expected from your barrel-chested father who reached adulthood in the seventies, who lifted barbells before bar-time with his pals, met your mother at a gym and liked her because she liked to eat; your father, who competed in posing, teeth gleaming, making grandmas gasp with his chocolate bar stomach, oiled up, taking steroids only for a week or two, all through his twenties overeating, overworking, overdoing everything and now in his late forties with his spiking hypertension and borderline obesity, yes, you were all waiting for the heart attack that would take him early, not a popping in his brain, so do not, do not ask your mother if he will die. Because he won’t die. Spare her another suggestion of his death. Don’t ask unless you want to see her face droop when she hears the question. But at least she won’t cry like you and your brother. No. She’ll just look at the crucifix on the wall while you look at your silhouette in the black TV screen instead of thinking of your father’s operation; the surgeons sifting through his brains, his head a spaghetti squash disappearing into a cocoon of white sheets. Try not to forget his face already.
And you won’t have time to forget, because you’ll see him almost every day for the next ninety days. You’ll watch his skin collapse into his cranium, maxilla, mandible while he’s fed sugar water through tubes in his forearms. You’ll come to learn what an immobile human being starts to smell like: sweet and a little medical. For a month he won’t speak, the violent gash they darn across his head will do it for him, and it makes all of you wonder if this is what it’s going to be like from now on.
And his friends will file in. Twenty-five years of engineers and their wives, money and food in their hands. They will tip their hats to you, mess up your brother’s hair, hug your mother, acting somewhat ceremonial in a ring around your father’s hospital bed, hands on their bellies in button-ups, shoved deep in their khakis. Some of them will kneel, while others just stand there staring like that’s their big funny man, their best friend, looking so small next to his kids who are frozen on the squeaky couch watching Nick tell Jessica that the tuna from the can is not chicken, it is tuna.
His best friend will come too. Get ready, because he’ll kneel there next your father, hands sewn like he’s praying, and you aren’t sure if he is or if anyone really believes talking to themselves is going to bring your father out of a coma, but he just keeps saying, He’s fine, my big guy, he’s breathing, right? How can you kids watch that crap at a time like this?
Let them take you places to distract you; to the movies with their older daughters, theme parks, dinners, the lake, and racquetball matches while your mother spends her nights sleeping upright in hospital chairs or sometimes on his bed, her torso bent near his knees, waking up through the night to clean the spots on his body where the nurses missed, the little hidden spots left for lovers; between the toes, behind the ears, and under the blankets, the roof of his mouth behind the hose where she’ll fish out the cakes of buildup from salivation with her perfect nails, and later, that’s how you’ll define love, that and whether or not someone will watch your shows with you.
And eventually he will wake. His right eye will wander in different directions and meet your gaze as you stare at his body reflected in the metal latex glove dispenser. He’ll want to reach out and squeeze your hands through the wires, so don’t treat him like a stranger, like you’re scared, because he’ll tell you later he could hear and see everything. Think about all the movies you’ve seen about sick parents and imitate the performances of their children. When the hose comes out he’ll call your mother an old horse and say he doesn’t know who you are but it’s nice to meet you. Remember how the kids acted with Susan Sarandon in Stepmom. Consider printing standees of family photos at Kinkos and planting them around his hospital room like a memory forest to remind him of his old life before this new one. But you’re not clever enough for all that, so you recite a bunch of lines from A Walk to Remember: that you’ve missed him, that you’ll beat this together, that miracles can happen.
But don’t worry, it’s amazing what he’ll learn again: what is an apple, how to eat, how to walk, your mother’s name, how to balance a checkbook, how to synthesize the two images of his hospital short rib that his eyes are seeing separately. On your fifteenth birthday you’ll watch him from the drafty entrance of the patient cafeteria, alone in a gown at a table stabbing at beef that isn’t there with a spork, his face unmoving, shrunken. His mouth will take the shape of a gasp, and you’ll cry because you’ll know he’s in there, frustrated and hungry. Rush over and stuff him with cake, and remember he’s just relearning to chew so his mouth will stay open for a minute, full of buttercream, so you’ll push his chin up and down saying, Isn’t that so yummy? To recover from this moment you will watch Anna Nicole Smith’s E! True Hollywood Story and The Simple Life for forty-eight hours straight under pillows where no one bothers you because they’re too busy eating old egg salad and whispering about how much of a vegetable your father might’ve become if it wasn’t for your bravery, your mother’s quiet strength.
And you’ll learn things too: how to go back to school smelling sweet and a little medical because you spent the night before in a rehab center listening to your dad talk about walking with his dead father down the halls; how to pass your brother in the hall and nod like old war buddies because you both didn’t get any sleep last night; how to watch your father shrink and grow into a man again, his memories returning in giant waves crashing in his brain, leaving little deposits in the creases for him to find. How to view reruns of The Golden Girls and The Real World: Paris every day for the rest of the summer with your Grandma, who visits for what seems like years until she breathes her last breath one month after your father returns home. You’ll learn that no human is indestructible as you watch him struggle from the floor onto walking bars to take his first real footstep in three months, all one hundred and eighty pounds of him excited after that first, stiff march and then picking up speed with one, two, three robotic steps to the end of the row. He’ll look so proud of himself when you clap for him and then confused when he sees your mother with her hands over her face.
And that day, on the drive home, because you always have to go home after seeing something like that, you’ll wonder if you just left the scene of a miracle and if it was, why it feels different than you thought it would—flatter, less incandescent. There will be a rainbow stretching across the road, and while it’s very beautiful, it holds no real significance to you, but your mother will slow the car and gesture towards the colors, her face yellow with sun, saying, How can you think there is no God now? and the moment feels so straight out of a Lifetime movie that you laugh right in her face instead of answering the question. You’ve been conditioned to witness the miraculous—seen every medical marvel flash before your eyes one thousand times on-screen—doesn’t she watch Untold Stories from the E.R.? You want to tell her how every family has their rainbow, projects meaning onto a lingering cardinal, an overbright star, a butterfly on a basketball hoop.
But take in the moment anyway. Deposit it in the creases of your brain and save it for later. Because stepping back and pretending this isn’t what is happening to your family is much easier than recognizing the true weight of things. When you’re older, after the Japanese maple has grown taller than your house, after the thing that finally takes your father passes quietly by, you’ll stand in a white kitchen toasting Eggos for your teenager. In this moment you’ll rewind and fast-forward through these memories to work out who you’ve become—a woman who parses her reality in moving pictures—and think maybe you haven’t changed much at all. Except that today you are a mother and a wife, one who wakes charging into uncharted lands of bottomless worry, the blissful, painful love of parents. A TV plays somewhere in the house. Your husband locks a door. The waffles pop. The sun is almost up.