My dad’s life in rehab was a tedious schedule—brain injury curriculum: bed times, meal times, nap times, bath times, bathroom times, walks, therapy sessions, tests, workouts and pills to take. Pills after pills after pills, to be taken on the hour, with meals, at bedtime, three times a day. Pills you could see through and pills that left a powdery residue. Pills you could write on a chalkboard with and pills you could pop like a Gusher.
The grueling itinerary and his buffet of pills were elemental in getting him on track with his recovery, something that would give him shot at his old life. The accident had left us starting out from scratch, building him back into a real man, from medicines and mealtimes, rules and activities.
When people would ask how he was doing, I felt like I was spouting off rudimentary action verbs—simple action verbs, the kind you learn when you are first learning a language. He’d failed Spanish twice in high school.
Well, my dad has to relearn how to … walk …
A smiley man, what a human being would be like if he was crafted from a Care Bear, was helping him put one foot in front of the other. Down a path of parallel steel bars they went, as painful as watching paint dry, every day.
“’At’s it, John!”
I watched them, driven by the pure curiosity of how you teach a grown man to walk paired with the hope that he would do it on his own in my presence. The smiley man stood at one end, coaxing him forward, applauding his strength and stamina as he panted and sputtered, dragging his feet as if they were tied to cement blocks. As he made millimeters of progress, the cheery man clapped him on.
“You da man!”
Learning to walk, again, at forty-six. Funny how you can’t start out crawling.
Oh, he has to learn how to talk all over again …
“Gimme a kiss.” His first words, said to my mother, were spoken in a scratchy, coarse whisper the day he woke up from his coma. Now all he did was swear, grunt, bellow, holler, and hiss between spurts of breath, with poor diction on the few words he did choose to use. Never a complete sentence.
“John, you have to tell us what you want,” my mother would say to him. “We’ll get it for you, but you need to tell us what it is.”
I suppose No! is a sentence, complete with punctuation the way he said it.
They have him learning to write …
At first, he scribbled all over the notepad we gave him. He was more impressed by the marks a pen could make than anything else. Then he started to write letters, out of sequence, but in his familiar, barely legible penmanship—choppy caps from an awkward lefty.
He wrote my name first, his first word. The pride felt backwards.
We have to help him learn to eat again …
Vanilla Ensure, cleverly designed to open with the same enjoyment of a pop can, was a recipe tailored to people older than my grandparents who had bodies that rejected nutrients and supplements. I popped the tab down and stuck a straw into the frothy, cement-gray liquid posing as a milkshake. I wanted to know if it was as chalky and awful-tasting as it appeared. I took a sip. Worse! How could he stomach them? He hated sweets, and I hated vanilla. The nurse told me he fought harder against the chocolate than the vanilla. Vanilla Ensures—two cans a day.
We’re hoping he’ll learn to read again …
He stared blankly at Dick-and-Jane style paragraphs and pushed flash cards off his tray. Books, magazines, and newspapers piled up in stacks around him. I thought about reading to him. How do you read to your father? What do you read to your father? What would he read to you? English poetry? American? How about Frost?
“Whose woods these are I think I know/His house is in the village though/He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods fill up with snow.”
He promptly fell asleep. A poem about snow in summer is stupid.
To use the bathroom …
My father was wetting the bed, wetting his pants. Was I supposed to potty train him? I was fourteen and had never pissed anything before—myself, my pants, the bed, nothing. And he was shitting the bed at forty-six.
When my father had to go to the bathroom, his body was not able to keep up with the pace that he wanted to move. He’d lean his torso over the side of his bed and forget to swing his legs out from under the sheets to properly plant his feet on the ground.
“Dad, hey … hey …”
As he teetered, I came closer, my arms stretched out. I wanted him to reach for my help, but he just swatted at me, flirting with his imbalance.
If he fell, the weight he might put into my arms would be a bridge to cross if I ever got to it.
“Get!” he said, still leaning forward, still forgetting about his legs.
He leaned, pulling pillows, cords and sheets with him. He didn’t want help from his kid. But I was petrified of him falling. That fear has never gone away.
I would watch him struggle and dodge his swats, and my mind would roll horror footage. His head cracking open on the floor, or the doorframe, or the pavement, or the porcelain sink. Me, sitting in a pile of blood, holding together the two sides of his skull. I’ve always been well aware that all this damage was a closed head injury, but my mind wanted more gore. Me, hopeless, his blood dripping down my wrists, to my elbows, staining everything. He would die. And I would just cry. Years later, when Dexter became a hit, something felt too familiar. I’m aware how fucked up these notions are, so messed up they keep me apart from the actual reality.
And then in reality, his legs always caught up, he’d charge towards the door, looking like some kind of primate rather than a father, sights set on the door handle, which would always catch him. Once he was inside the bathroom, I could breathe again. The design was built for his reckless behavior, and with the door shut, my opportunity to help was over. What he did in there was out of my league and into my mother’s. Knowing what she did for him made me queasy.
She did everything. She cleaned him up and dressed him the same way you would a baby. A giant, cranky, helpless baby man. She would get a washcloth and run it under hot water in the bathroom—the sign for me to leave the two of them in the room and shut the door on my way out. She would lift his gangling appendages one by one, turning and rotating each of them at the joints, bending his elbows and knees. With the warm washcloth, she would wipe down the limp, pale skin that clung to nothing more than his skeleton. Then she’d turn him over, put medicine on his bedsores, and rub his back with lotion, checking for bruises. Sometimes she would have to change his diaper. He wore a diaper, because he frequently did not make it to the bathroom in time. I could not dream of having such love for someone.
That August, my father quit loving me. “Hey, Dad, can you just try some for me?” I asked, picking up a plastic container that looked like it should hold pudding rather than six ounces of watered-down orange juice.
“This will help you get stronger, so you can walk and do things like—”
“I don’t want it!”
“Dad, you’ve got to eat something today.”
I took a deep breath. I closed my eyes and conjured up the caretaker Janna, a patient and firm woman, like my mother.
“Please. Stop yelling at me.”
I jabbed a hole in the foil cover with the straw and set it down in front of him on his tray, which hinged around him in bed like a school desk. He stared at me. He shoved the tray away, swinging it wildly. The orange juice cup slid like a beer mug on a bar. I cupped it, catching it midair before it fell to floor.
“I. Said. Yes.”
I set it down in front of him, again. He picked it up with a quivering grip, took a huge breath, puckered his lips around the straw, and sucked. One long suck until the pudding container was empty. He set it back down and removed the straw.
“Thanks, Dad.” I smiled at him.
He put the straw back in his mouth, sat up straighter, and leaned towards me. I walked closer. What was he doing with the straw? He had always chewed on things: toothpicks, wads of paper, swizzle sticks, grass blades, straws. Still holding the straw to his lips, he looked at me. He pulled the accordion end straight with his free hand and took an audible breath through his nose. I leaned towards him.
A stream of orange juice hit me in the forehead. It trickled down my face. I stood, mouth agape, in complete stillness, taking in the sticky droplets clinging to my eyelashes and the warm streams running down my neck, soaking into my shirt.
He chuckled and threw the straw at me. It glided through the air, just like the paper airplanes he taught me how to make as a kid. We’d fly them through the rafters of the living room and kitchen. Mine were often duds. His ascended effortlessly, picking up air currents I never knew existed in our house.
I walked into the bathroom, braced my arms on the sink, and looked in the mirror. My hipbones pressed against the porcelain. It hurt. I hated him; I wanted to. I hated being sticky. I hated that he was always throwing things, at people, at walls—food, forks, books, pens, spoons, pillows, insults, fits, tantrums—all the time.
The doctors increased his medications. Now the mesh net at the head of his bed had a purpose.
“Mom, what is that for?”
My father lay silent, sleeping in his mosquito net.
“Well, he gets very angry, and he needs restrained.”
“By a net?”
I now felt stupid for the first day I saw the net and for secretly wishing to see destruction in action. It was the same thrill I felt when the local programing was interrupted by the “severe weather warning for Mercer County,” tornadoes spinning frighteningly close, touching down and maybe tearing some barn, stretch of woods, or house to shreds. The imminent sense that something powerful and dangerous was about to happen. Hurricanes hitting the coast, thrashing through beach towns. Crazy men confined in mosquito netting—exhilarating.
“If you let him be, he’ll try to escape, and he’ll hurt himself.”
“Oh, so it’s kinda like a net cage?”
The netting looked like something that belonged on a ski boat, white and waterproof, something made to withstand the elements—thick, shiny cotton thread and chunky metal zippers. Inside, his feet and hands were bound in white nylon straps, thick as seat belts, which kept him from moving.
“He can get pretty nasty, Janna,” said my mother, trying to explain the reason for what I was seeing. “It’s one of the stages that they say he might go through during recovery.”
I thought about the summer Fourth of July picnic at the Riegs’ when Nicole, Steven, Lisa, and I had found a rabid raccoon trapped in the drainpipe that ran under the street. We spent hours entertained by fear and a gripping curiosity, shining a flashlight in the pipe to watch it flinch and hiss, trying to fight and climb its way out. It darted from one end to other, flailing and screeching. Trapped. Combative. Eventually, someone shot it.
“So it’s kind of a good thing?” I asked, fingering the zipper.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if he is going through the stages.”
“Janna, he’s pretty nasty.”
There was nothing I could say. There was nothing nice my mother was saying about my father lately, so maybe there was nothing I wanted to hear. I didn’t see him that much. With school around the corner, I was busy dealing with ninth grade, finding adolescent worries that I challenged to be as important.
The net confinement only lasted a week or so. After the net cage was rolled back up, his anger lessened. He was calming down and starting to talk to us in full sentences—all good things, nothing major. Maybe he was moving through the stages.
In the first days of the accident, when death was the biggest thing to fear, a nurse gave me a book. Simply because I was the fourteen-year-old whose dad had just come out of a coma and now had a brain injury, and according the Glasgow Coma Scale, at 5, he was just two points shy of being in a vegetative state. The book was supposed to help me navigate what could happen if (and when) he woke up. When a Parent Has a Brain Injury: Sons and Daughters Speak Out.
It was a poor excuse for a book—a pamphlet, really. In the hospital, I paged through it, but the writing was boring. I was not able to relate to people talking about dating their boyfriends and bringing their father home and getting into drugs, so I put the book in my desk drawer, thinking I might have a need for it someday.
Janna Leyde is a writer and certified yoga teacher in Brooklyn, NY. She has a master’s in journalism from NYU, and He Never Liked Cake is her first book.