Standing in the hospital lobby, waiting for the elevator to open, I anxiously bite my lip. It seems like I haven’t seen my daddy in forever. But then, to a ten year old time creeps at an agonizingly slow pace.
I’ve had difficulty making sense of what has been happening. All I understand is that daddy had a surgery of some kind. All that matters to me is that I haven’t been able to see him for what seems like a long time. (In those days, 1964, kids were not allowed to visit hospital rooms.)
My daddy is the strongest man I know. Not strong like those pictures of Charles Atlas in the back of my Archie comic books, body glistening in a semi-crouch with a globe of the world on his shoulder, promising to turn any 98 pound weakling into a mirror image of him. Nor is daddy strong like my older cousins who lift weights, have tattoos on their arms and wear their tight t-shirts with the sleeves rolled up to give full exposure to their mighty biceps and triceps.
Those people are more like caricatures, distant and unattainable to me.
I’ve never seen my daddy look like he is afraid of anything.
His vise-like grip is inescapable (I should know. I’ve tried to dance my way out of it many times, always failing). Even his thumps on my head can make my eyeballs rattle in their sockets.
Daddy’s voice can boom like thunder, especially when he is preaching – or when I’m in trouble. His voice can rattle the windows and rattle my nerves, making me feel like peeing in my pants when I have to face him.
I’m afraid of my daddy, but I love him, too.
And I’ve missed him.
I’ve asked my older sister a thousand times, “When is daddy coming home?”
She tries to explain it to me using words like “cancer,” “kidney removed,” “50/50 chance.” She’s very dramatic about it all, but I make no sense of it.
All that matters to me is that daddy has been gone a long time and I’ve grown more fearful.
The strong man is not home. Who will protect us?
A few nights ago I was sitting in the car in the parking lot of the hospital with my Grandma Johnson. She is a round faced woman with a quick and easy laugh that has a musical lilt to it. My momma had gone in to see daddy and, instead of going with her to see her son, Grandma had stayed with me in the car.
I pressed my face against the window looking up at the towering building, trying to guess which room he was in. Grandma gently rubbed my back and said, “It’s going to be alright. You’ll see your daddy soon.”
I don’t know why, but I began to cry. She folded me into her bosom and softly hummed a familiar hymn.
Today, finally, I’m going to get to see daddy. My brothers, sister and I form a half circle in front of the elevator door. Mother has gone up to get daddy and bring him down to us.
The door opens. The only people in the elevator are my mother, my dad and a nurse. Daddy is sitting down and is in his pajamas. Even I know you’re not supposed to wear pajamas in a public place like a hospital lobby. What is he thinking?!
I rush forward and bang my ankle and knee into something hard. I look down and suddenly realize that daddy is in a wheelchair.
A wheel chair? Why a wheel chair?
Momma shoos me back. “Let us roll him out of the elevator David.”
I step back embarrassed.
I look at daddy’s face. It doesn’t look right. The deep tan of his face has been replaced by an ashen gray.
The nurse rolls him into the semicircle of my siblings and grandmother.
I can’t hold back. I rush him again, this time from the side to avoid the armor of the wheelchair. I throw my arms around his neck and press my face into it.
Daddy groans in pain.
Momma quickly takes my arms from around his neck and says, “You have to be careful. You’ll hurt him.”
I back away, confused.
The strongest man I know has fallen, having received a mortal blow.
I feel like I am losing my footing, as if there is an earthquake taking place. I take refuge beside my stocky grandmother who puts an understanding hand on my shoulder to steady me. She dabs her eyes with a tissue.
It is a pivotal moment in my life.
In the coming weeks and months I begin to understand that everything is subject to change. Our family is turned upside down as daddy lies in bed, the twin hammers of surgery and subsequent cobalt treatments having beat him down, and momma goes to work.
As I watch my daddy’s efforts to reclaim his health, I begin to understand that there are different kinds of strength. There are the strengths of will power and character and determination. He demonstrates an indomitable spirit that refuses to give up.
There is also the strength of family, as my brothers and sister and I share new responsibilities in our home. I learn how to iron a shirt and how to hang clothes on a clothesline to dry, being sure to shake as many wrinkles as possible out of the wet items before hanging them up.
The strongest man I ever knew eventually returned to his rightful place in our home. But my view of him had changed. He seemed even stronger than before.
And I suspect our family was stronger, too, for having walked together through the valley of the shadow of death.