A Slumber Party With My Comatose Dad
Who thought this was a good idea?
If your one and only party guest is in a coma, then there’s less of a chance they’ll leave before having cake. Not that they can eat the cake but, yeah, they’ll definitely be sticking around.
1986 brought traumatic downfall and catastrophic uprooting.
The year I was turning fifteen, things had started on such an upswing.
The previous December we’d driven across two provinces in our snazzy burgundy Buick — from Brandon, Manitoba to Ottawa, Ontario — to start a new life.
It was Mom and Dad, my younger brother and sister, and me. We left my older sister behind to finish up her high school semester, obviously, the three of us younger siblings were not in the crucial stage of our schooling just yet.
We could still start and stop our education willy-nilly.
It never got easier. We moved a lot.
Don’t ask me to remember what I lovingly made for dinner last Thursday evening but I have no problem remembering my outfit choice on the first day of grade seven at yet another new school. Ah, the polyester light grey slacks, pink blouse, lilac and yellow vest combo, my short hair curled and back-combed.
Despite my empowering appearance, I could not stop my pits from sweating (did it show dark pink through the blouse?) as I was introduced by Mrs. Dunn to 27 sets of curious eyes. Who knows why we moved so often? My dad worked for a moving company for several years. Maybe it was ‘Hey, free move! Let’s go!’
One year, just as he’d started his own branch of a moving company in New Brunswick, hard times hit swiftly. There had been an economic downturn in Atlantic Canada at the time and he took a massive hit financially.
We left for Manitoba a few years later.
He never made a ton of money, my dad.
He made up for it in other ways though. When he wasn’t working his backside off to bring home whatever bacon he could slice up, he was present. Saturday morning snuggles lying in my mom and dad’s bed were a treat. I’d lay my head on his bulging bicep and skooch right in, so content to have a few minutes with him before the siblings inevitably stole our alone time.
On Sunday mornings my mom was likely sleeping in while Dad made breakfast — eggs and bacon, toast and jam. He joined every choir at every church we’d attended and so whilst cracking the eggs he’d bellow his baritone with the choir music blasting from the monolithic stereo console.
He laughed a raspy laugh. He loved my mom. She made him laugh. She was naughty and irreverent but such a giver of her time, just like him.
They had people over constantly for a coffee and a smoke, another coffee and three more smokes, and then maybe more.
More coffees and more smokes.
They endeared themselves to many.
And they gave us kids a stable and happy childhood.
Certainly, I had my catastrophes — being tossed from the Big Wheel when skidding too hard, racing to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy, and the time Stacey traded her fuzzy Garfield sticker with Andrea instead of with me even though I offered the puffy Hello Kitty one. I mean Hello Kitty for Garfield, now that would have been a good trade! Devastating.
In Ottawa, everything was supposed to settle down. My dad was changing careers, joining his successful older sister in the real estate industry. Such a people person, my dad would have thrived in that environment. He was doing the real estate courses and getting his exams back in the mail. A big, fat, red ‘92%’ scrawled on one test and a ‘98%’ on the other.
In mid-February, my folks planned a weekend in the Niagara area to visit my mom’s family who they hadn’t seen in years. It was a doable six-hour drive, no big deal in good weather. But on the drive back to Ottawa, it was far from good weather. February snowstorms, not fun at all.
They were hit head-on by a vehicle that lost control on the sleek highway. My mom and the other passenger died that day. Both drivers went into a coma — likely medically induced. The other man lived four more days.
The accident happened on a Monday. My fifteenth birthday was exactly one week later. Between those Mondays, we visited my dad at the hospital (one and a half hours away), picked out my mom’s coffin, went to her two wakes and her funeral — the first one I’d ever been to.
There was certainly no party planning happening.
What even mattered anymore anyway?
The hospital environment where my dad lay still was sterile, grey, and had a fleshy, bodily fluid scent I can still conjure up right now as I write.
I decided I wanted to stay overnight in the hospital with him for my birthday, from Sunday night to Monday. I’m not sure who thought this was a good idea.
I can appreciate the accommodation that relatives, nurses, and doctors must have made for me. Likely no one knew if it was a good idea or not. But when a teen whose mom has just died wants to have a birthday slumber party-not-party with her comatose father, not knowing how much time he has left, I guess the powers that be make it happen.
Who drove me the hour and a half to the hospital? I have no idea, maybe my cousin? Where did he stay for the night? In a hotel? No clue.
A cot was set up next to his bed for me.
There were no streamers, no cake, no big ol’ bear hug, or talk of what I’d accomplish in the year coming up.
We always got to pick out our favourite meal on our birthday and Mom would make it for us. A person in a coma doesn’t get any hospital food, so there was no dinner to share.
I was left alone with my dad for the night. The two of us plus nurses, doctors, and all the monitors with their demanding beeps and flashes. A nurse would swoosh the curtain between us every time she had to suck the fluid from his lungs. Where does that gunk even go? Some central vacuum cleaner-like contraption? And then the next nurse on the next shift would come in and do it again.
The gurgling, hacking, sucking sound over and over all night long. I’m sure I didn’t sleep.
Happy birthday to me.
It must have been my cousin, Art, who drove with me because I remember arriving back at our little rental house in Ottawa with him the next afternoon. He and his wife, Grace, both in their mid-twenties, had decided to stay with the four of us for the time being.
No one was sure what was in store for my dad.
And so no one was sure what was in store for us kids.
I was beyond exhausted, in all the ways, when we pulled into the driveway.
All I wanted to do was go down to my windowless bedroom in the basement and sleep and sleep and sleep. I wouldn’t have cared if my shoes were on or off.
But as I approached the living room to say hi before descending the stairs, I heard a murmuring.
There were the streamers. And the cake. And three friends. Grace thought it would be nice for me to have a low-key birthday gathering.
She would never find out that I felt even more depleted at the thought of pretending to appreciate her care and thoughtfulness. But I did the pretending.
Because that’s what I did back then. Lots of smiling and nodding when all I wanted was my deep dark cave.
Grace did nothing wrong, she did a lovely thing. No one knew what to do for us four siblings who would eventually lose both of their parents in quick succession.
My dad was the party guest of choice for my fifteenth birthday. I don’t remember one second of it being warm and lovely and cozy — did I think it would be in that hospital room? I’m not sure, but reality set in that night. His condition became very real and grim for me.
Maybe it wasn’t the best idea but some part of me is glad I chose to be there. I went into it wanting to satisfy that hopeful slice in my brain and heart that said, He’s still your dad. He’d want to spend your birthday with you.
And he most definitely would have. And so I went.
Maybe he knew I was there, maybe he didn’t.
But I was there and I must have needed to be.
Since that somber birthday all those years ago, I have had so many sweet celebrations to commemorate my birth.
The streamers, the cake, the family, and the friends.
February 24, 1986, is a birthday I will never forget. I spent it with the person who mattered the most.
Spend your birthdays with the ones who matter the most.
Because they matter. The most.