There are times when someone's actions are too much for a simple "thank you" to cover. There are moments that etch themselves into you, at a level you can barely comprehend. These are rare occurrences, but when one of them happens to you, you realize that you are changed. Forever.
When I was young, not yet four years old, I contracted a rare and life-threatening illness. The doctors took a while to diagnose the disease, and there were not a lot of cases from which they could draw on experience. I wound up in the hospital, in and out of consciousness, suffering pretty badly. I was in a Children's Hospital bed for three weeks or so.
I don't remember most of the experience. I was young. I was confused. I was sick. And I was scared. So the memories I have are mostly during the recovery. I remember going down to the cafeteria with my little brother and my grandparents to see Ronald McDonald make balloon animals for the children. I remember a nurse trying to get me excited about dinner one day by making me guess and me never figuring it out. I remember attempting to walk again after my muscles atrophied in the bed and being so frustrated at my failure. And I remember the worst pain in my life when the orderly removed my catheter like he was unplugging a lamp by yanking on the cord.
Then there are the stories that my parents have told me so often that I think I remember them. There is the story of after returning home, sitting at the edge of our driveway in the middle of the summer heat, wrapped up in a blanket and a heavy winter coat because I could not regulate my body temperature. Or the story that is shared most often, the one where my little brother came to visit me in the hospital. This was when I was learning to walk again and was getting very down about not being ambulatory. Apparently, I was happy to see my brother but then he left the room to go down the hall for a drink of water. I got out of bed and willed myself to follow him out the door and to the water fountain. (When I tell the story now, the reason I got out of bed to follow him was because I had to look out for him. He was my little brother and I couldn't let him go down to the water fountain himself.)
But that is not the memory that I recall most. It is not the memory that wakes me up during the night.
My memory of that time period in my life was during my recovery in the hospital. My father was visiting (my mother was at home watching my little brother) and the nurses told him that I could ride around in a wheelchair if he thought it would help me. So my dad loaded me into a wheelchair and pushed me around the hospital. I was happy to be out of my room, but the hospital itself depressed me. At that point, my dad had a great idea and brought me to the roof of the hospital.
In my wheelchair on that rooftop, the first daylight I had seen in weeks, I must have been a sight. Three years old, undernourished from my hospital stay, muscles atrophied, sullen and sickly. Then there was my father. A giant of a man, 6'6" tall, looking rugged and like someone you did not want to annoy. I am not even sure I could tilt my head far enough back to see his face. He had to bend all the way down, on bad knees from years of basketball stresses, in order to talk to me.
Knowing I needed to eat, he asked me what I wanted. I had not regained my appetite yet, so the doctors and nurses had told my father to try to get me to eat. He listed a few items from the cafeteria, but I didn't want any of them. After a while of this back and forth, I told him that I liked the pizza and ginger ale I had the other day (the surprise the nurse was trying to coax out of me). He explained that it was an item that was not on their menu every day, that it was just that one day it was available. However, having had no interest in food for weeks and suddenly realizing that I was craving something, I told my dad again that the pizza I had was the only thing I was wanted.
So my dad found an orderly and asked him to stay with me on the roof for a few minutes. He told me he would be back soon, that he was going to go see if he could find me any of that pizza. He was going to go down to the cafeteria and see what he could find, but he couldn't promise me that he could get the pizza. Again, he tried to suggest other items, but I said that if I couldn't have the pizza and Schweppes Ginger Ale, I didn't want anything.
My father left the roof and went down to the cafeteria. I sat in my wheelchair on the roof of the hospital with an orderly standing there. He tried to talk to me, but I wasn't in a very talkative mood. Every so often I would ask how long it had been, since it seemed like an eternity just looking out over the city. The orderly would reply each time - "ten minutes," "fifteen minutes," "twenty-five minutes," "thirty minutes."
I started getting nervous, even visibly scared, unsure of where my father was. I started asking the orderly more frequently where my dad was and when he would be back. The orderly was friendly and tried to calm me down, but I remember beginning to cry.
"Thirty-five minutes," "forty minutes," "still forty minutes," "forty-two minutes," "forty-five minutes now," and so on it went. Reflecting on this memory, I feel bad for that orderly.
After an hour and a half, my dad returned to the roof. He had a whole pizza in a box in his hands. The box was a generic brown box, something a cafeteria might have on hand, but not marked with any restaurant logo. He didn't have to say anything, I knew. At three years old, I knew. I was crying and upset and just wanted my daddy, but I knew.
He never explained it, but I am sure of the sequence of events. My father went down to the cafeteria which was not serving pizza that day. He talked to one of the cashiers who told him they didn't have any pizza. He talked to one of the cooks who told him they didn't have any pizza. He spoke with a person in a mid-level of authority (a line supervisor or manager-on-duty), explaining the situation that his son wanted some pizza and was refusing all other food. More than likely, he eventually had to speak to someone from the hospital who exerted authority over some of the cafeteria staff. Together they worked out a deal where they could bake an entire pizza special if my dad would purchase it. The hospital employee would explain that they couldn't just make a few slices from scratch, they would have to make the whole pizza. And since it wasn't on the menu, they couldn't sell the other slices.
But his son wanted some pizza. He had not eaten for several days and needed to food to regain his energy. If the cooks were willing to make and bake the pizza for him, he would buy the whole pizza. And he thanked everyone who helped him and apologized to everyone he might have strongly encouraged to help. Finally, after the pizza was made, baked in the ovens, and placed in the generic pizza box, my father brought it back up to the roof for me.
I have felt guilty ever since. Not because of the effort my father went through to get the pizza for me. That display of love for me, his first son, was something I would ever forget. Nor was it something I could ever explain to him how much it touched me.
No, I felt guilty because I knew what he had gone through to get the pizza for me. And while I was starving, I was also week, and being out of my bed for almost two hours was making me very tired. I only ate one slice of the pizza and only a few sips of the ginger ale. I remember apologizing to him right there, telling him I was really sorry. That I knew the effort and I was sorry. I felt like I had wasted his time. I felt like I had wasted his money. I felt that I was not returning the love he was showing me.
I was three years old, but I wanted to eat that whole pizza to show him how much he meant to me. When I couldn't do it, I felt horrible. I didn't want him to think I didn't care. I didn't want him to think that I didn't appreciate him. I didn't want him to not know what impression his efforts that day made.
But I could only eat so much. My father never said that he was disappointed or upset or angry or anything at all. In fact, I am sure that he was happy that I ate something, anything after all this time. I am sure he felt that going to track down a non-existent pizza was simply what fathers do for their sons. Now, I understand that even more.
Yet this memory, this action of my father, for me, not for any other motivation, only me, has blessed me in so many ways. Still, I feel guilty, although I understand I was a sick child and was not acting out of any malice. More than that, though, I still feel grateful. Grateful for my father's efforts, for his perseverance, and for his love. The words "thank you" are nothing close to what I still feel from that moment after all these years. I have never been able to express it. I doubt I ever will. But I know one thing - it is one of the most important grooves in my record and I never get tired of listening to the song.