On February 29th, I saw that I had a missed call and a voicemail from my dad. It was the second time in the week he had called, and i felt guilty that I missed it. To be fair, I had just gotten out of group therapy. I knew I needed to call him back, so I paused what I was doing and took a moment to listen to the voicemail.
“Jordan, this is Ethel, give me a call back when you get this.”
Ethel isn’t my dad’s name. My dad’s girlfriend is named Ethel. I called back.
“We’re at [San Francisco] General. Your dad is in bad shape and acting weird. He said he had two boils on his leg and he wanted a potato skin to suck out the poison. I brought him here.”
Oh. I told her to keep me posted. Things quickly escalated.
Papa had to be sedated and taken back to the operating room. I got several calls from medical specialists. He had necrotizing fasciitis—gangrene, as Ethel will tell me later—and they needed my consent for treatment. As his next of kin, I needed to sign off on everything. Do I live in San Francisco? Can I come to the hospital right now?
I consented to treatments quickly. The doctors tried to explain everything that they could as quickly as possible. I wrote things down, repeated everything back verbatim as if I was a waiter and they were my patron.
(Later, when Ethel and I would meet up in person, she would tell me that the nurse was highly impressed by how quickly I grasped the situation, medical terminology, and could repeat things back. This would become a reoccurring theme throughout my dad’s medical stay: non-Black people commenting on how articulate and poised I was. I digress.)
My dad would need to be intubated, his wound to undergo debridement, washing out the necrotized tissue as soon as possible. His diabetes complicated matters and he would need continual dialysis—the infection site had gone septic and his kidneys were failing. He would need some blood in during the debridement as well. Was I okay with all of these things? Did I understand?
Yes, of course. Please, just save my dad.
I had a week to get down to San Francisco from Seattle. The week before, my partner had just said goodbye to his dad for the last time. Already on palliative care, as my partner was heading back to the hospice from work, his dad took his last breaths. The stress in our apartment had been so thick you needed your best machete to cut through it.
On Sunday, my dad went to the ER, on Wednesday we brought my partner’s dad back from the crematorium. On Friday, I flew out to San Francisco.
My friend Jen picked me up from the airport and drove me to the hospital. My bag in tow, I went straight to the ICU, signed some more papers, and sat by my dad’s bedside. Ethel was there. Her eyes had been red from crying. We hugged. We talked.
“Jordan, I didn’t know what to do. I can’t do anything. I’m not the next of kin.” Her voice was raspy.
“C’mon Ethel, let’s get some food.”
We talked. I found out more information about my dad. About how things were truly between him and Ethel. I had an inkling from what he told me, but my dad was—is—a proud man. He had suffered so much loss in the last couple of years, that he didn’t let on how much it had hurt him. And, in turn, how much he had turned inward and not talked to Ethel about it. While he lashed out, Ethel stood by him. But the last three years had taken a toll on their relationship.
“Jordan, I love Jon, I really do. But I’m not in love with him right now. But I love him.”
After our talk I understood: things were shifting, and they wouldn’t be the same. This situation, and how my dad got here, would alter the course of both our lives. And I’m not sure I’m ready for it.