I was just twelve when my parents called me and my two brothers into the living room. I knew something was going on because we had a family room where we watched television and played board games. The family room is where my dad put on the music and we all danced around, it was the fun room. The living room was reserved for guests, for when my parents considered someone special, they visited in the living room. I always knew not much living went on in that stuffy room.
My dad sat forlorn, looking at the chocolate brown carpet that was so popular in the early 1980's. My mom did most of the talking. She usually did, she was good at explaining things to us. She knew the right words to use with her kids. My dad was good at other things, fishing, mowing the grass, playing the banjo and building campfires. My mom was good at talking. They made a good team.
My dad hadn't been himself for a while. He was tired, moody, and spent alot of time sleeping. He had gotten pneumonia and a weird rash in his mouth before he would finally go to the doctor. He liked doctors well enough, but he was from the generation where real men didn't get sick, and sickness meant weakness. My mom was using words like blood cells, and lymphatic. She was trying, but she wasn't doing as good of a job as usual. She was stammering and crying as she tried to tell us that my father had leukemia. Those first few months we spent too much time in that stuffy living room, talking about my dad dying.
As anyone with nursing knowledge knows, my father began chemotherapy treatments. I began 7th grade as my dad began dying. It was a scary, stressful time for everyone. He was merely 38, my mom just 33. He had a large family and out of five siblings, three matched on five of the six proteins needed for a bone marrow transplant. All of that news was delivered in the "living room" too. I had never seen my hard motorcycle riding uncles cry before. If they were crying were things worse than I knew? I suddenly felt the stuffiness of that living room spreading through our whole house. The only time when things felt good was when my dad sat under my bedroom window and played his banjo. "Therapy", "coping" I had heard the nurse say. The nurse. She was warm, she didn't feel at all like the living room. She smiled, and she laughed. Her eyes never looked at the floor, she always used them to talk to my dad, and us. She has so much time, and her voice never trembled when she said the words radiation, chemo and white blood cells.
We lived in a rural town where the number of cows might have matched the number people. We were a tight knit community. That also meant the hospital was small. It also meant the hospital was tight knit. I always wanted to go to my dad's appointments when ever I could. It wasn't often, as he was private about the cancer, to himself he had become weak. The nurses at our hospital were amazing to me. I looked at them like a kid looks at fireflies on a June night. In awe, in amazement, all with a jar in hand. I wanted the nurses to talk to me. They always said things like " How are you?" and their tone always invited me to tell the truth. Their arms were strong as their one hand rested on my one shoulder and their stethoscope bopped off my other. They always hugged my mom, and some of them cried with her. I always noticed their tears were different, not cried out of fear, but out of need,the need to take away some hurt, physical and emotional. Their tears seemed braver than mine.
My family spent twelve years in and out of that hospital. We went to larger ones too of course. We went to several larger ones, and not all the nurses had the same faces, or names, but they all felt the same. They all mesmerized me. I watched everything they did. I watched how they treated my dad. He smiled when they spoke, he visibly felt better. They made him feel alive. They didn't treat him like he was dying. They treated him like he was living, like he was living in the family room.
My father passed away in that same small hospital twelve years after his diagnosis with Chronic Lymphatic Leukemia. He had endured chemo, radiation, experimental drug treatments, blood transfusions and numerous other interventions. He had lost hair, teeth, and 75 lbs. He lost his sense of smell and taste only after everything he smelled or tasted made him sick for a year. He lost his nose to an infection. He lost his ability to work, to walk long distances. He lost his pride when he had to sleep on those horrible chux. He lost so much to the cancer. He had also gained the marriage of two children, the birth of six grandchildren, the anniversaries of twelve years, eleven Christmas trees, 98 birthdays parties of kids and grand-kids, and hundreds of nights playing the banjo on the back porch under the window his grand-kids were now sleeping in on warm Saturday nights. We in turn experienced in our nurses' lives, four new babies, three new homes, two weddings, five new grand-babies, some new cars, canning recipes, and garden tips. You know the things families share.
It took years for the house to lose the feeling of the living room. It started on a Sunday evening, just a month after my dad was buried. Four of the nurses from the hospital stopped by to check on my mom. She was living alone now, we were all grown and living our lives. I happened to be there when they came. Of course my mom invited them into the living room to visit. They were special, important, guests. I sat listening to the conversation. I brought coffee and tea, some homemade banana bread a neighbor dropped off seemed perfect to serve too. As I sat there looking at these special guests I realized this was the perfect room to bring them to. It no longer felt so stuffy, so oppressive. The furniture began to look inviting, and the chocolate brown carpet looked unusually soft. This was a good place to bring such special guests. They represented everything the last twelve years had been. Their care, their expertise, their dedication enabled my family to live, and the room began to feel like a place I could sit to read, or play with my babies. It also felt like the perfect place to start studying for my own nursing degree.