In Over My Head

The birth of clarity hides in the wake of delirium. Life and death are two sides of the same coin.

My subconscious searched for a solution or at least a welcome distraction. Compelled to glance up, I saw her sitting dead center in the bedroom doorway, gazing with solemn interest at the scene unfolding in the room. Her stance exuded an air of calm confidence, an inner strength, and brevity found in knowledge.

Tabbey was one of those reclusive cats found cowering under the sofa or hidden in the bowels of a closet. A crouching blur caught by the corner of your eye, darting into the shadows leaving you to wonder if the image was of this world or another.

The haunting beauty of her green eyes was rarely viewed, and her rings of grey fur more rarely touched. To lock eyes with her now was a startling and disturbing omen, a brief diversion.

My attention snapped back to the manic episode of Dad’s delirium. He called out to his grandson, annoyed by the lack of response from the young man he believed to be in the other room. Miles away and entrenched in the priorities of his own life, the grandson was oblivious to his grandfather’s state of madness.

Coaxing this man of twice my size to lie down onto the hospital bed taking up residence in a space once filled with joy and peace wasn’t easy. Rational thought is a useless weapon against irrational illness. I managed to avert his desire to bang his head on the imaginary door his frantic eyes saw in the apartment wall.

Shooting a quick glance back to the doorway, Tabbey had vanished like a dream erased by awakening eyelids. Another blink and I am witnessing the sights and sound of the death rattle, a struggle to stay here as the body is drowning in death.

And then, stillness.

An immediate silence washed through the room radiating a wave of natural tranquility with an undertow of unnatural eeriness. The silence of inevitability. The world shifting violently below my feet had come to an abrupt stop in an unexpected moment of tearless solitude.

Overcome by the futility of trying to comfort the stranger occupying her husband’s body, Mom had retreated to the living room unaware the end had arrived. Tasked with striking the final blow to her broken heart, I don’t remember my words to her.

Her panic-stricken eyes and the agony of her cries as she raced to his side are harder to forget. “We killed him,” she uttered amid horrified tears. Truth be told, I may have hastened Mom’s entry into widowhood.

After our second call for help, the hospice worker had agreed to come over. He instructed me to give Dad another dose of morphine prior to his arrival. I was in over my head and not qualified to administer drugs, but I did it anyway.

By the time the hospice worker arrived, Dad’s life had ended, and the rituals of death had begun. I don’t recall sobbing until the drive home in what had become my decompression chamber, my transitional airlock between inward fragility and outward fortitude.

The darkness on the horizon had begun drifting toward my family several years ago, nibbling away at the man I took for granted. Somewhere between child and adult, the shepherd of my character evolved from Daddy to Dad. I struggle to remember exactly when that happened and why it was necessary.

Change can be a devious beast, easing into your world until it attacks with a ferociousness you should have foreseen but didn’t. This beast made its presence known on June 3, 2017.

A beautiful day with temperatures in the upper 70’s and winds at a level deserving the title of pleasant breeze, a rare treat for a native Kansan to experience as the seasons transitioned from spring to summer. The illusion of good fortune provided cover for the stealthy approach of the beast. The signs eluded us.

My brother’s call came as I was cleaning up after dinner. He was with our parents when Dad began his manic behavior and incoherent speech. Heading to the car to seek medical attention for Dad, Mom fell down the front steps and broke her foot.

The day no longer carried the label of pleasant.

By the time I arrived at the emergency clinic, Dad’s condition had worsened beyond my brother’s forewarnings. A quick observation of the situation determined the words Dad spoke were meaningful in his own head but utter gibberish to our ears. The utterances were a jumbled mixture of consonants and vowels spoken in the cadence of a normal sentence structure.

The words were driven by fearful panic and eyes filled with desperation as his soul reached out grasping for a lifeline to pull him back to shore. Holding on to his hands and his gaze, I struggled to understand the meaning of his language. Comprehension was out of reach. I nodded and told him it was going to be alright, feigning understanding and the belief we were in the presence of helping hands.

The dual blow from fate dictated the deployment of a divide and conquer strategy. My brother tended to Mom’s broken foot while my husband and I followed the ambulance transporting Dad to the hospital. Diagnosis revealed his prostate cancer had spread resulting in an imbalance of ammonia in his system causing bouts of sudden onset delirium.

A new daily routine arose from the wake of the life I knew before. I went to the hospital before work, and visited again at lunchtime with my sandwich, applesauce, and Diet Mt. Dew in tow. An evening trip varied between going to the hospital or helping with Mom.

Morning hours felt desolate with a smattering of vehicles parked inside the dingy gray hospital parking garage. The air was a stale, grimy mixture of exhaust fumes, cigarette smoke, and musty humidity lingering within the concrete structure.

Sitting in my orange Honda Fit, I gathered my belongings, took a deep meditative breath, and began erecting a protective shell to incase my composure by the end of the hike to Dad’s bedside. Shutting the door of my orange carriage, I pondered if Cinderella felt this way as the clock struck midnight. My last fantastical thought before stern reality took the helm.

The twists and turns of the hospital hallways became automatic. Eyes faced forward, unconscious of people passing by as my state of mindfulness focused on the task of constructing the defensive shield held by a patient’s advocate. Journeying along a winding series of corridors, I prepared for each visit with silent anticipation of the unknown. Harnessing my fear and anguish to present an outward air of composed authority.

I rounded the corner created by the nurses’ station counter and saw him lying crosswise in the middle of the hospital bed. Wearing nothing but a diaper, his head drooped in defeat over one side of the bed as his legs hung motionless over the other. His arms were under his body, still tethered to the bedrails to which he had been shackled.

This man, this loyal husband, this loving father lying on the fringes of life, discarded like a piece of trash once valued as useful. This man, this dutiful soldier, this proud community leader stripped of his clothing, his identity, and his dignity.

The corridor disappeared from below my feet as if I were floating in a different dimension unable to reach the man in desperate need of help. Frozen in a state of stunned speechlessness, the voice inside my head is screaming at me, “Snap out of it! Do something! Help him! I don’t know what to do. I’m not strong enough … I’M NOT STRONG ENOUGH!”

I can’t do this alone. Why will no one help us? Encased in my powerlessness, I’m not sure if I was still moving or breathing. The hospital world sprang into action around me to protect themselves in case I was a significant person capable of destroying the existence they had nurtured into the mangled, calloused monster ironically referred to as healthcare.

In the days that followed, my suit of armor grew thicker and stronger, assembled piece by piece with each step along the worn path from garage to hospital room. My armor prohibited the production of tears as I helped him to the bathroom, fed him, and kept him company as the delirium cycles came and went.

Conversations were unpredictable, the words understandable but the events and notions jumbled. The vivid world in his mind was beyond my perception, try as I might to travel beside him on his frightening journey.

On the evening of Friday, June 17, 2017, I saw Dad for the last time. He turned away from the conversation he was having with a nurse when I entered the room. “Tammy!”, he exclaimed as his face lit up with recognition. In my entire 53 years on this earth, no one had ever emitted such a tsunami of joy over my entry into a room.

This is my little girl!”, he said to the nurse as he reached his hands out to grasp mine. “I remember everything!” he expressed with a sense of relief and urgency. “I remember everything,” he repeated as tears welled up in his wide-open eyes.

As we embraced each other, he donned my armor, relieving me of my burden. We sobbed in each other’s arms with the unspoken knowledge this would be our last opportunity to be together. My hero, my mentor, my greatest champion had awakened and was miraculously present to share a moment of reality with his daughter. My Daddy and I got to see each other one last time.

Over the next four weeks, I clung to the heart-wrenching memory of that gift. The miracle of clarity shared with the diligent and loving beacon of light that guided me from the day I was born. I don’t know why I was awarded such a gift, but I will cherish it always. The next time I see him, we will embrace amid smiles and laughter, and with joy, I will tell him, “I remember everything!”  


Tammy Hader
Tammy Hader
Tammy Hader has no writer’s pedigree. With a BBA in accounting from Wichita State University, numbers are her history. The CPA exam was passed, because that’s what accountants are supposed to do, and thirty years later her accounting life ended with the desire to journey down a different career path. The compass turned toward words to create a new legacy beyond spreadsheets. Her nostalgic writing reflects on the past to explain the present and shine into the future the light of lessons learned. Growing up in a small Midwestern town, influenced by relationships, choices, consequences, and situations, her life is not unique. In her stories, you will recognize reflections of your own past, understand how you arrived at today’s version of you and gaze with her across the bridge into the future.

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  1. I know from previous discussions that this piece was hard to write. It’s a beautiful remembrance. Your writing is so strong here. You bring us right into the room with you when your dad passes. Someday when we talk again, you can tell me what it felt like to write it…and publish it.

  2. Oh my. My heart. As I am still able to enjoy the company and conversations with my 89 year old father, this piece really hit home from a relationship standpoint. Thank you Tammy for reminding me of how precious time is and for taking us on your journey. So well written, vulnerable with heart. God rest your sweet father’s soul.