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Behind the Brown Door

My year in review

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If you're looking for enlightenment, if you're searching for your true purpose or even the meaning of life, I've got great news for you.

All of this and more can be found at 1500 Matthews Township Parkway, on the third floor, behind the nondescript brown door to the left of the elevators. An hour-long stay should be all that's required. For maximum effect, I'd recommend prefacing that with another hour on the first floor, through the double doors at the end of the parking lot -- just follow the ambulances if you get lost.

And if you don't get it after that, then odds are you never will.

This fall, I spent an hour in the first-floor emergency room with my father bleeding to death right in front of me and nearly a month on and off in the hospital and the critical care unit behind the nondescript door while he fought for his life, and I haven't been the same since.

Watching a vital signs monitor hooked up to someone you love when they are really in trouble brings things into focus like a sledgehammer right between the eyes. It gets harder when you start to pick up on what the numbers mean, because then you know that the reason the nurse's face looks like that when she reads them is because your father has lost over half the blood in his body.

The hair-raising process of watching the monitor can be agonizingly slow, so your mind has time to wander. There were so many lunches with him that I canceled because I was chasing some hot story, or times that he wanted to help me around the house but I was too busy prepping for a radio show. It's odd how I can clearly remember calling to cancel, but I can't remember which stories those were or what was so urgent about those shows that they couldn't be put off for a few hours.

I love my family, but my father is special. There he was in the hospital, so out of it that he drifted in and out of consciousness, and what does he remember first? Not his bills, or the vacant rental property he's losing money on, but the family the charitable group he leads is helping who will be out on the street soon unless they get a check to help them pay the rent. Dad was handling that case himself, so I'd have to figure out how to get in touch with someone who could cut the check, he said. Typical dad.

At first, because our society has been so successful at walling off these realities from everyday life, you feel like it's only happening to you. That's because they bury the worst of it deep inside the hospital, where most visitors won't see it.

The site of the truly ill initially shocks you because it is so foreign to our youth-filled culture. The families of young people, old people, affluent people and poor people all sit glued to vital signs monitors, inhabiting the same surreal space deep within our hospitals, the dividers they put between themselves in the outside world quickly replaced by the divider between them and the outside world. Then they start to go -- the man in the next room, the woman down the hall -- not to be seen again until they appear neat and fresh-faced in their obituary pictures a few days later.

Every time you turn a corner, you risk running into the middle of a family moment you'd rather not see. In shadowy nooks and crannies, people you don't know cry, and when someone special goes, hospital staff members, no matter how battle hardened, often cry, too.

And all the while you think, if we can just get dad out of here, things will be different. I'll be a better daughter, the kind someone like him deserves. And, if you're like me, after a few days of this, you start to realize just how far out of whack your life has gotten. I'd spent so much time working that I hardly knew my four-year-old nephew. My parents live across town, yet lately I'd somehow fallen into a pattern of going weeks without seeing them. And for what? Nothing, I discovered, that would mean anything to me if I were the one hooked to that monitor.

Dad's home now, weak but recovering, and I'm recovering, too. For the first time in three years, I've burned through all my vacation time instead of letting some expire unused. I've started doing the things I used to do again -- hanging out at home, cooking for my favorite people, helping mom get ready for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and attending my nephew's pre-school Christmas concert, the one I was too busy to go to last year.

He talks about your family a lot, his teacher told me. "And me?" I asked her. She shook her head no.

I intend to change that. But mostly, I'm trying never to forget what I learned on the third floor of 1500 Matthews Township Parkway, and how lucky I am to have been given a second chance to grasp it before it's too late.

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