Monday, July 15, 2013

April 10, 2013

"You better come right away," said the voice over the phone.

My statistical mechanics class was meeting in an hour, so I was reviewing my notes. It took a moment for those words to come into focus as my mind crept out of those deep recesses where physics lives and thrives.

I knew that my father had been hospitalized for a couple days for a severe headache and nausea, but this was nothing new.  He occasionally would visit the ER for one thing or another, but it always ended up being benign; such as falling from a dizzy spell caused by dehydration (he never liked to drink water).  He seemed invincible.  Though he was just a couple months shy of his 97th birthday, he was still serving lunch to seniors at the Ukrainian Center, driving his own car, and being aware of the price of gas at every nearby station.

I never pictured it ending this way.

The rest of the morning is a blur.  Somehow, I called my wife and my two grown children to give them the news and booked plane tickets for the next morning.  We flew from three different airports, converged in Salt Lake City and were on the plane together to Philadelphia.

I decided to teach that morning. Physics always has a calming influence. It is difficult to explain to others who do not share in this passion how physics brings deep satisfaction and even comfort. The beauty of the narrative of nature as expressed by equations.  We are surrounded by order that can be quantified and explained, encompassing all in a grand embrace.  Puzzles today are like the excitement in the novelty of a new relationship. As one puzzle is solved another one takes its place, like a spouse that never ceases to amaze and delight. Always there; rock solid, and reliable with predictable unpredictability.

That one-hour class went by quickly.  Thoughts of my father persisted, but was calm and secure as a child shielded by her parents.

The previous weekend I had devoted a few hours to calculating the wave functions of a many-particle quantum system in terms of the single particle wave functions.  This calculation is not novel and appears in many textbooks; but, I never understand anything well unless I calculate it for myself.  I transcribed my notes into a LaTeX file (a scientific typesetting program) for my records.  Below is a screen capture of part of the document's first page.

I printed a handout for my group and preapred a Power Point version for a group meeting that was to be held at 3:00 pm that surreal day.

Lively discussions prolonged the one-hour talk to two hours -- my physics-induced euphoria amplified many-fold by their participation.  I still remember this group meeting fondly though a darkness hovered in the periphery.

I had lots to prepare.  Packing was the least of my worries.  The doctor had asked about my father's living will; a concept never taken seriously by my father. The responsibility of my power of attorney over his well-being weighed heavily on me.  I wanted to make the right decision.  I needed to get into his head.

Though my father has a grumpy demeanor, I know that he enjoys life -- complaining, one of his pleasures. Just a week before his stroke, a retired social worker at the Ukrainian Center witnessed one of his dizzy spells and confiscated his car keys.  He called me every day to complain and asked over and over how he would get around without his car.  Having mobility is still very important to him.  So, having the hope of returning to at least a semi-independent lifestyle was important.  During that trip back east, I played over and over again the conversation I would have with his doctors.

When we arrived in his hospital room, he was a gray bag of jelly; not just tiny psychically but drained of life.  He had always been energetic, detesting inertia, wielding strength.  Here was a meek and helpless being, attached to beeping machines and tubes.  In that first minute, tears flowed like huge rivers from the eyes of my wife, daughter, and even my son, who rarely shows emotion.  I don't recall my son ever shedding a tear, even as a child.  I held it in.  I had to be strong and keep a clear head for my discussions with the doctors.

My daughter stared up at me through her tears, disapprovingly, "why aren't you shedding even one tear?" She is so much like my mother, who passed away 23 years ago, seeing me through those same eyes.  My mother would have said the same thing.

The nurses kept on shaking my father, trying to bring back consciousness, but unsuccessfully.  The prognoses for someone his age with a stroke is not great, they told me, but we should still try to stimulate him.

He always loved music, so we played a medley on our phones.

He perked up.  His eyes were closed but you could tell from the tension in his brow that he was listening.  Someone was in there.

I sang my rendition of the Ukrainian National Anthem.  I could see him paying attention.  His head tilted slightly and he opened his eyes, which stared blankly without focus.  He was clearly listening. I continued to sing with greater vigor.

When I reached the end of the Anthem, his head fell gently back to the pillow, turning his head to me, his eyes still de-focused and glazed over.  He inhaled heavily, crumpled his face as if smelling a putrid odor, and said firmly, "You STILL don't know the lyrics,"  making clear his disdain for my imperfection.  I was giggling.

He was always angry with me for not embracing his love for everything Ukrainian, and this was always a sore topic that I tried to avoid.  Now, his wrath was welcome.  He was back.  Over the next three days, he continued to improve and was almost his old self, but with the need for physical therapy to build his muscles after two weeks of being in bed.

I visited him again when he was moved from the hospital to a nursing home for rehab.  He hated the place, with the loud synthesizer music alarm blaring each time he tried to stand up.  It is understandable that the precaution is necessary for his own protection when one-on-one attention is not possible.  Nevertheless, he felt like a prisoner and resented being restricted to his room most of the day and forbidden to walk.

The first day I visited him in rehab, he seemed much better than at the hospital.  At times he was tired and slept, at other times, he talked about all sorts of things, fully aware of the fact that he had had a stroke.  Below is a photo of my father in the back garden of the nursing home.

I found the nursing home depressing -- lucid individuals with fragile bodies waiting to expire, surrounded by others with a variety of aliments including not-so-old residents with advanced dementia, staring blankly into space, others screaming in terror for no apparent reason.  The nurses, doctors, and medical professionals are very good.  The head nurse spent lots of time with me reviewing the details about my father's condition and what to expect.  It was the atmosphere that made me desperately want to extract my father from that horrible place, but he needed therapy to regain some weight and physical strength. A few weeks ago, he was finally out.  I even saw him walking with a cane on Skype!

I'm heading back to Philadelphia to bring my father to Pullman for my daughter's wedding.  She was deeply traumatized by his illness and the frailty that had conquered his invincibility.  She knew that her marriage was very meaningful to him as it is to her, so she and her fiance accelerated their wedding plans so that he could be included while still lucid and gaining enough vigor to travel.

To our delight, my father is looking forward to the wedding and talks about it every time I call him.  Now we are agonizing about whether we should keep him in Pullman or return him to Philly after the wedding.

It's difficult to decide what is best for him.  He still has a life with his friends.  He goes to the Ukrainian center twice a week for the senior lunch, where he chats with his friends.  On Sundays, he goes to a Ukrainian church.  In Pullman he has us, but we are pessimistic about being able to keep him at our home.  We have lots of stairs and have to be at work during the day to teach.  There are no Ukrainian speaking people we could hire to sit with him when we are away, and he is so stubborn, refusing to speak English, which he spoke his whole working life. 

In Pullman, he has us, and we could have him over for dinner every day and take him out on weekends.  And, we are his family.  In Philadelphia, he has a Ukrainian couple watch him while his caretaker is at work and is somewhat of a celebrity with his friends.  He can talk about the good old days and be assured of a choir of amens.  We, on the other hand, need to work evenings so don't have the luxury of lounging around in idle chatter.

My immediate concern is my ability to care for him during his stay in Pullman.  He has several medical conditions that a non-medical person such as I view with great trepidation.  Then there are the logistics.  What if he gets fatigued at the time of the wedding and we can't wake him to the ceremony?  What if he gets sick on the plane?

By writing now, I am procrastinating.  The wedding is in a week and I am at Salt Lake City waiting for my flight to Philly. My final report is due on a grant and 3 dissertations await my reading, all due in a week! But, with all the stress, writing about it seems to release some pressure.

As usual, the occasional calculation with pen and pencil takes me to my own cozy corner, like chatting with an old friend at a fireplace sipping on a hot beverage.  And reading theses, while time consuming, can also be rewarding, especially when I can see how far the students have come and all the fine work that was generated by our collective minds.  The excitement of the work, the upcoming wedding, and my father's visit all are events to celebrate.  The happiness is peppered with concerns about how my decisions will affect my father's long-term well-being.  And more immediately, will I be able to handle the challenges before me over the next week.

I am about to board, and plan to spend the 4+ hours on the plane working.

 Gotta catch my plane...