Have I ever told you about the time I almost died because my dad refused to take me to the hospital?
His hesitance to take me in didn’t stem from any kooky religious beliefs. We’re not from whatever church has those damned snake charmers who would rather die of venom inhalation, preferring blind faith to heal them over a quick trip to the emergency room to suckle some anti-venom. (In the words of Dr. Phil: “How’s that working out for ya?”)
No, we’re Catholic. We head to the doctor’s office all the time to do things like pick up our birth control, even though when we do that, we use the back door and put on our shifty eyes to check all around us and make sure nobody is watching. Usually we end up running into someone we know from church who’s doing the same thing.
So my dad’s hesitance to take me to the doctor when I was lying on my death bed wasn’t about any strange religious beliefs. It was much simpler than that: It was the money. Even though he had good insurance, my dad had grown up with a father who hadn’t and who hadn’t believed in footing the bill for a doctor visit unless there was an extenuating circumstance…like, say, his child getting an entire plastic fork stuck down his throat that simply wouldn’t come out, even when they flipped him upside down and shook really hard.
You guys. This really happened. And my dad is a smart man—he is—but, like he told us many times during the re-telling of the story (because how could you NOT re-tell a story about getting a goddamned plastic fork stuck all the way down your throat at least a hundred thousand times), when it happened, my grandpa gave my grandma a wry look and sighed in defeat, saying, “Dear God, Charlotte, I told you we should’ve stopped at 6 kids.”
My grandpa lucked out that time, though, because they were riding a city bus at the time, and the driver had really good arms. My dad was being passed around like a party trick, and when it was this guy’s go at shaking him, he got my 5-year-old dad to cough that motherfcker up on his third jiggle, saving my relieved grandfather the cash it would’ve taken to have a doctor do the same thing.
Then there was the time my dad was born in a bucket.
Yeah, my grandma started experiencing labor pains and, probably because of the way she had been conditioned to avoid doctors’ offices at all costs, just grinned and bore them. Then suddenly, it was too late to make it to the doctor’s office to get that kid delivered. And my grandpa was all like, “We don’t need a damned doctor. We’ve got this BUCKET!” as he brandished it proudly to the room of onlookers.
The rest, my friends, is history in the form of a 5’9” stout little man I call my dad.
In any case, my dad held onto this thought about doctor’s visits. They were a waste of money, especially when we had tons of hydrogen peroxide and cotton balls at home to cure any ailments.
At the time of my own infamous illness, I was 17 years old and a really good student. I was one of those kids who hated missing school because I would have all kinds of advanced placement history and English to make up. I couldn’t even enjoy my time spent in bed watching The Jenny Jones show because, between pukes, I was anxious about all of the catching up I was going to have to do in order to keep my spot in the top 10% of my graduating class. (Bet your ass I still use that little tidbit on any and all job applications and resumes—and look how far it’s gotten me!)
I stopped worrying about making up homework, however, when I began to realize that I was going to die. I was going to die right there in my dad’s bed—where they had moved me because the smell of encroaching death was getting too strong in the room that I shared with my younger sister, and she had started complaining. My dad was out of state taking a master’s class (this was before online college courses), so his room was empty as my mom had just moved out with her new boyfriend.
It was a super fun time for all of us.
Anyway, I remember my older sister being really concerned about me. She, too, was taking classes. She was going to become a nurse, so she was more readily able to recognize the signs of someone who was near death, which scared the shit out of her. With Dad out of town and Mom engaging in one of her pre-divorce trysts, my sister would be left to clean up the body.
During one of my higher fevers, I remember hearing her talk on the phone. I turned my head an inch to my left (that was all the farther I could move it anymore) and watched as she glowered into the receiver.
“Tell her—tell her what?” she said in disbelief. She listened for a moment. “No fucking way, old man. There is no way I’m going to tell this poor girl what you just said.” She sighed. “Fine. I’ll let you talk to her.”
She held the phone to my ear since I didn’t have the physical strength to hold it myself. My dad was trying to rally: I remember him telling me it was all in my head; that I could heal myself if I would think less about “not being able to lift my head” and “puking up all solid foods” and more about “girl things” like “rainbows and dresses.”
[Author’s reflection, 21 years later: Rainbows and dresses? I was 17 years old. If he had truly wanted his analogy to work, he should have replaced the “rainbows and dresses” part with something like “learning how to give blow jobs around bracket braces without getting pubes in your mouth.” Admittedly, that would have been disgusting coming from my dad, but still, those were the things I was concerned about during my more coherent moments since, as the illness progressed, I no longer cared about homework but still wanted to find a way to make my high school boyfriend love me even after I had died, which I was convinced was going to happen soon.]
When I started mumbling “rainbows and dresses” into the phone in what my older sister mistakenly thought was another high-fever hallucination, she yanked the phone back up to her ear. “I’m taking her to the hospital, dick,” she insisted, hanging up and loading me into her Nissan Stanza with more concern than I had ever seen in her eyes.
(In our bad moments, when we’re fighting and I call my little sister and insist that if she wasn’t our older sister, I swear I would never talk to her again, I remember this time and she gets a pass.)
On our way to the hospital, I gazed through the windshield at the clear blue sky. “I think it’s time for me to go Home,” I said quietly, almost serenely.
My sister took her eyes off the road to glance at me. “Oh no,” she assured me. “You’re too sick. We’re getting you help.”
“No,” I said, giving her what I’m sure was the creepiest soft smile in the world. “I mean that I think the Lord is calling me back to my Heavenly abode.”
“Holy shit,” my sister muttered, flooring the gas.
Much to my surprise, though, I made it out of the whole situation just fine, save for a little liver damage, but I totally don’t blame my dad for that. It was just the way he was raised. He believed that he could call those little germs’ bluff and save a few bucks—'cept those little bastards weren’t bluffing. My semi-ravaged liver is proof of that.
No big deal.
In fact, I hardly noticed the loss of partial liver function until college, when I met my best friend and began experimenting with drugs and alcohol. I say “drugs” in the plural form, but the hardest and only drug I ever tried was pot. And the 14th time I indulged (Yes, I counted. I’m OCD like that) was the last time I ever did it.
We were on Spring Break our freshman year, and the group of us had just passed around a joint. After the thing had been puffed down to a nub, I decided to join one of the guys on the deck. When I got out there, however, something went wrong.
“My heart is beating all fast!” I exclaimed, panicked.
In slow motion, he turned his head to look at me more closely. “Is it?” he asked.
“It is!” I affirmed.
He squinted his blue eyes, thinking for a moment. “Okay,” he said, and I already felt better because obviously he was going to take control of the situation. “Okay,” he said again.
I waited a moment.
“Okay,” he repeated when he could see that I hadn’t gone anywhere and was still waiting for his help. “If it gets any worse…let me know.”
Suddenly, the pot did what the hell it was supposed to, and I burst into hysterical laughter, pounding heart and all. “Oh, okay,” I said, sputtering with laughter. “And what the fck will you do about it?”
He joined in my laughter. “I don’t know! Get someone to take you to the hospital or something?!”
Just then, my best friend joined us on the deck. “Leigh,” I said to her. “My heart is beating really fcking fast.”
She already knew where this was going; we’d only been best friends since the beginning of the school year—about 8 months—but I couldn't tell you how many times, out on our dorm's smoking deck, she'd been made to listen to my obsessive compulsive paranoid thoughts about how we should've been provided a night stick or at least some wasp spray with our collegiate entry fees so we could protect ourselves while walking to class.
She knew one of my little attacks of paranoia when she saw one.
She was the most experienced pot smoker of all of us; she’d gone to high school in a really small town where that was all they had to do. “Alright, Shay,” she said, holding up her hands, “calm down.”
“But Leigh!” I insisted. “What if I die and I have to talk to God high?” Tears gathered in the corners of my eyes at the thought, while at the same time, pot-induced laughter bubbled up from inside of me.
“Holy shit,” Leigh muttered. She turned to our friend, who was still on the deck, his elbows now resting on his legs, his arms upturned. “And you. What the fck are you doing? Meditating?”
He looked up at her and smiled. “No. I’m trying to tan the undersides of my forearms.”
“Dear God,” Leigh said, shaking her head. “It’s like a goddamned after-school special out here. Quit tanning and let’s get Helen Hunt inside before she jumps off the deck.”
And that was the end of my short-lived collegiate pot-smoking experience. Soon after, I discovered beer and the fact that a life without it is no life at all—liver function be damned. I told the doctor that when I went in for my checkup at the end of that year and he informed me that, because of the illness I’d had when I was 17, my liver was a little wonky and that maybe I should think about giving up alcohol.
“No beer?” I said. “I’d rather be dead.”
“Good, because you probably will be soon,” he replied.
Anyhoo, the point of the story is (Seriously, there is one…kind of) imagine our surprise when my brothers and sisters and I started getting texts like this from Dad:
That bastard wouldn’t allow us to darken the door of a doctor’s office as we grew up, but now he’ll spend $50 annually to get his goddamned cat a haircut. He even coughs up extra to have her sedated first because “I don’t like the way she looks at me when they take her back there…she gets upset.” When he says that last part, he always leans toward us conspiratorially and whispers in case his cat is anywhere in earshot.
When we asked him about his sudden change of heart in spending money on frivolous things, he explained it like this: “I worked hard all my life, and now I’ve got money to blow that I didn’t have when you guys were kids. Besides, doesn’t she look cuuuuuute?”
I wouldn’t be surprised if he was spending extra for her goddamned post-trim therapy sessions. I saw his ears perk up when my little sister’s best friend announced that her own cat was on antidepressants because the furball was so anxious that she was chewing a bloody hole in her own paw.
“Isn’t that about the time you would just, like, shoot it?” I asked, nudging my dad and laughing at my own joke.
He shot me a dirty look. “We’re talking about people’s pets here, Shay,” he said, shaking his head in disgust at me. “A little sensitivity?”
Meanwhile I’m walking around with ½ a goddamned liver.
For you very literal readers: Please know that I’m (pretty sure that I’m) not missing any part of my liver. What happened was, the day I got admitted to the hospital, my Dad finally realized I wasn’t fcking around, and he called the doctor on my case. My dad was crazy worried and planning to get a red-eye home from his out-of-state class, but the doctor told him they had it all under control and that he could finish his class before heading home.
“But DOCTOR!” my older sister, fresh from one of her nursing courses, said, studying the ultrasound of my organs that they had taken as some kind of precaution. “She’s MISSING part of HER LIVER!”
You could see the pride shining in her eyes; she knew stuff.
“Um, that’s her bladder,” one of the nurses in the room said, “and it’s all there.”
To this day, we still make fun of my older sister about it, and she still swears that it most certainly had been my liver that she had pointed out on that ultrasound, and that I’m totally missing part of it. Her refusal to acknowledge her rookie mistake only serves to make the rest of us even more assholey about making jokes about my partial liver just to remind her of what a dumbass she was. I mean, a dumbass who saved my life, obviously…but still a dumbass.
And I really did go to a checkup with a doctor who really did say that I was going to die if I kept drinking the way I was drinking, but I’m not sure that had anything to do with my phantom partial liver.