For Mike Copperman, a family hike turned into a realization of the roles he and his father share in each other’s lives.
“Come on, Uncle Mike!” my four-year-old nephew Maddox calls, pulling at my shirt and then racing down the forest trail, knees and elbows akimbo with his short stride, every step a new opportunity for accident. The forest stretches about us, Doug fir spreading branches hung with old man’s beard, the canopy a crosshatch of needles and slivered sky. The undergrowth is thick, the tunnel of trail winding through fern-beds and thickets of vine-y maple, everything green with moss from the spring’s long rain.
“Slow down—be careful—wait!” I caution my nephew. As the boy’s yells recede, the chirp of birds and the creek’s rush and tinkle becomes audible. My father’s uneven footsteps near, and I turn to find him picking gingerly across the uneven surface, limping a little and holding his posture over-straight. He stops, winces with a hand to his back. “The boys go on ahead?”
“They’re off to the lizard lair.” I moisten my lips, try to keep the concern from my voice. “How are you doing?”
He frowns. “Just fine.”
I motion for him to go first, and he bustles past trying to quicken his pace. The blood-bruise on the back of his right leg, where he tore part of the hamstring and glute, is blue and black like the flesh of a movie zombie. I wonder if he’d tell a patient only two weeks into recovery that it was a good idea to hike the steepest section of single-track forest trail in the Umpqua system. Doctor, injure thyself further.
We’ve gone nearly a mile when the grade steepens, switchback after switchback of ascent. The trees on the hillside are higher, leaner, further apart, leaving more visible sky, the sun casting slanting beams that silhouette debris and flying insects in gold. Now, the boys walk close, slowed by the climb. My father’s steps are halting, nearly small as the boys; I almost suggest we turn back, then say nothing, knowing my father will suffer any amount of pain before he’ll admit weakness.
Maddox begins to tire with his small legs, and he takes his exhaustion out on Rylan, poking him in the back and earning my father’s reprimand: “None of that, please.”
He steps between the boys to run interference. My father is patient with them, as he wasn’t always with my brother and I, from whom he expected perfection. Maddox, who we often call “Little,” acts out because his older brother receives the lion’s share of attention. He’s my favorite because I see Jeremy in him and am more sympathetic to his plight than my own—I am not so sure the prodigal should be endlessly forgiven his shortcomings, while the devotion of the younger son goes ignored.
I feel a pull to my pant-leg. “Uncle Mike, I’m tired,” says Maddox in his piping voice.
I glance up the trail at the imminent switchbacks, each sharper and shorter. Drops of sweat glistened on my father’s forehead and about the thinning hair of his pate, and he’s breathing a little. Maddox lifts his arms to my father, who he’s accustomed to hiking with. “Carry me on your shoulders, Papa Terry?”
My father actually starts to bend down before he realizes he can neither stoop down nor bear Maddox’s weight. He stands, hands held toward his grandson as though he can will himself back to health.
Friday night two weeks before, I ignored my phone’s buzzing. When I checked, the message from my brother read, “Dad’s been hit by a car. At the E.R.” I ran a couple reds, did sixty, screeching braked turns on city streets imagining the infinite what-ifs—what if he was badly or permanently injured, dying or dead. Images of House and ER rose up—black screens lit with receding jags of pulse, the frantic beeps of monitors, bustling nurses and the shouted orders of surgeons. I stormed into the hospital to find Jeremy and my sister-in-law Erika eating Thai takeout, the scent of curry filling the small, over-lit room with white-tiled floor and seventies furniture, lounge chairs in jailhouse orange and baby blue. I hurried to Jeremy.
“Mom’s with him waiting on the CT scan,” he said matter-of-factly. “You can go back when the Triage nurse comes.”
“He has broken vertebrae in his back,” Erika added gently. “Some injury to a leg. The check on internal bleeding is precautionary.”
I glanced at the empty admittance desk, settled to a seat. Across the room, a man with a neck tattoo of Celtic geometries sat with a middle-aged woman with tanned, leathery skin, her hair dyed a garish burgundy. She held her hands with palms upturned, as if asking or offering. I turned to Jeremy. “So—what happened?”
Jeremy grimaced. “I guess it was all about Frank’s halibut.”
Frank owns a fishing boat, and regularly brings my parents fresh fish after successful trips, beautiful fillets of salmon and halibut. My father had been on his way to pick up two pounds of fresh halibut after a twelve-hour day at the Clinic. I pictured him on Alder, a one-way street with a two-way bike lane, pedaling fast through the deepening dusk, his helmet bobbing with the vigor of his effort, eager to get to his fish. A student in a sub-compact turned directly in front of my father, who went over the handlebars and hood and landed flat on his back.
“Get this, Mike,” Jeremy said. “He knows something’s wrong with his back, so he checks to see if he can move his feet. When he sees he can, and knows he’s not paralyzed, he calls Mom, and is like, ‘I’ve been in a tiny accident. But if Jer’s on campus, send him to go get the halibut.’”
Suspicious of the story, Jeremy called my father’s cell, heard something in his voice that told him things weren’t right and left his nearby office at a jog, broke into a sprint when he saw the lights of ambulances and police. My father wasn’t pleased he’d come, but was even more unhappy the paramedics wanted to put him in an ambulance with the ER only a couple blocks away, and so finally they put him in a wheelchair and wheeled him over with the ambulance following just in case.
“He told them, I’m a doctor, you didn’t go to medical school. I won’t pay for this!” I smiled at my father’s legendary stinginess, which we’ve tolerated our whole lives in cut-rate hotel rooms and do-it-yourself repair. Jeremy rubbed the fatigue-crease of his brow. “We’ve been here a long time. I want to go home to the boys, if you don’t mind waiting.”
I felt another guilty pang, clapped Jer’s shoulder. “Go on.”
My brother and sister-in-law left me with the Thai food, and I ladled lukewarm curry under the gaze of the woman with the upraised hands, which she still held before her. I ignored the woman until she spoke, the rasp of a longtime smoker and the twang of rural Oregon both evident:
“Your father’s a doctor?”
“Ha! That’s funny. A doctor in the hospital.” She nodded as if affirming her own statement. “He’s gonna be alright?”
“He should be fine.” Saying it aloud for the first time, I felt surprise and then unease—it didn’t seem true, or at least, didn’t do justice to the disturbance of being here waiting on news of his injury. I set my fork to the table, motioned to the woman’s hands. “What brings you folks here?”
The younger tattooed man shifted in his seat. “I’m just her son. I drove her from Cottage Grove, since she can’t drive herself.”
I nodded, another pang of guilt overtaking me—it’s unsurprising I was the last to arrive, and certainly not the son called to fetch the fish. My younger brother and his wife are in a Physics Phd. and Medical School, have three boys and a house with two dogs and a thoroughly settled life which is not easy, but certainly domestic. This last year, at my brother’s invitation, my parents moved into the house that shares their back fence, and they cut a passage between, so that the boys and the dogs move unfettered between, a single, linked family that shared dinners more nights than not.
I became the older, eccentric bachelor uncle, the one with ‘artistic inclinations’ who gets whispered about at family gatherings, the hand-wringing about his questionable future– financial, romantic, professional– conducted whenever I was out of the room, which was often. My father judged my absences, made off-hand comments when I was there about how I spend too much time working out and shooting pool, kept dropping hints about how I should try online dating and find a lady, write a more commercial book, stop running my wheels in place. He thinks there’s a prescription for my condition, that I am the cause of my own affliction. He may be right, but diagnosis does not imply cure.
The woman smiled at her son. “He did drive me to town, was the one to say we had to go. It’s my hands. A week ago they started going numb.”
She examined her palms. “Now they’ve gone stiff, so to smoke a cigarette I’ve got to have Jim hold it for me. It ain’t arthritis. I need answers.”
“I hope you find answers.” I searched for words. “I hope the news is good.”
She grinned. “Hey, maybe your dad can have a look when he comes out—tell him I can pay him in fish!”
She threw her head back and laughed hard and long, until a coughing fit came on her, and I joined in politeness and solidarity, because it’s better to laugh in the face of affliction than to cower or submit. Ten minutes later, when the Triage nurse finally returned to the desk and told me I could go back, the woman waved a hearty goodbye, swinging an arm from the shoulder, still waiting for her fate to be named.
In the back was a series of examining rooms cordoned by curtains. I was halfway down the row when I heard my father’s voice, reedy and emphatic: “Get my clothes, please.”
Then, my mother’s voice, patient but exasperated: “You have an IV in.”
“I can take it out myself, at home.”
“Let it finish! I refuse to try to remove an IV.”
“Lynne, I can do it myself.”
“Stop being ridiculous.”
“I am not—“
I slipped the curtain aside, and my father halted mid-sentence. He stood in a half-unbuttoned hospital gown, his feet too wide, back unnaturally bent for a man who prides himself on his straight posture. Under the fluorescent lights, his skin was pale except for an unnatural flush to his cheeks. One hand clutched a gurney for balance, while the other rested on the tray of an IV cart, a blue tube running from wrist to the hanging bag. Beside him, my mother looked exhausted.
“Mike,” she said. “I was worried you wouldn’t make it.”
She meant no reproach, but another wave of guilt overtook me. “I’m sorry. I came soon as I knew.”
“Can you believe it?” my father craned his head to include the examining room and hospital and the entire unfortunate situation.
I shook my head. “So, did the second CT come back?”
My father’s eyes flashed. “Of course it was clean. I told the attending, no low blood pressure, no bleeding. He ran the damn test anyway.”
“He had to be sure.” My mother smiled conspiratorially. “He’s been the worst patient. Can you imagine, he made the attending put the radiologist on conference call. The poor man was like, ‘Who am I speaking to? Who’s asking these questions?”
I grinned. “Interrogated by unknown authorities.”
My mother sighed. “And now he wants to put on his clothes before the IV’s finished.”
We both turned accusatorially. My father scowled at the IV as if he’d like to yank it free. Then he said, more to himself than to us, “I am a doctor, not a patient.”
Through the course of his recovery, my father refused pain medication, insisted it was best to know just how badly one is hurt. Despite good insurance, he wouldn’t take time off, went into work the next Monday and somehow spent ten hours on his feet, drove home and collapsed and got up the next day and did it all again. This uncompromising effort is how my father has always lived, how he rose from the hard-scrabble streets of Buffalo to put himself through medical school, how he’s managed to practice medicine on his own terms, allotting each patient as much time as they need to feel cared for, though it means he works long hours and makes little for a doctor.
Though he doesn’t realize it, most of my life I’ve followed his example, refusing to compromise to commercial necessity, trying to write and live on my own terms, even when it is a long and lonely endurance. I may have imitated my father’s example too absolutely. Perhaps at times I resent having done so; certainly, I do wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to live in the shadow of a lesser father.
Growing up, my father seemed invincibly stoic, incapable of error, ironclad in judgment, and so absolute in his devotions that there seemed to be no way to live up to his example. My entire life, he has tried to look after me, to advise and guide me, lauding my accomplishments and diagnosing my shortcomings. As I’ve grown up, he’s not always known what to do, but he’s always tried. Now, having seen him laid up in the ER, mortal and only getting older, I can’t return to the world where my father’s authority will always exist. I’m scared of losing him. Some day not long off, I will again be waiting for news that cannot always be good, hoping for reprieve that in the end is granted to no-one. What I do have is here, now—one of only so many sunlit afternoons I can walk with my father and nephew through the woods. Perhaps my father recognizes this precariousness, too—perhaps it’s why he insists on hiking despite the toll of merely tolerable pain.
My father touches Maddox’s shoulder, grimacing with the reach. “No rides today, Little.”
I touch his arm. “Dad, I think we’ve gone far enough for today.”
My father glances wistfully up the trail—he will always want to go further and higher—and then back to the boys.
Rylan chimes in: “I don’t want to go on. I want to go downhill!”
I don’t wait for my father to speak, because there’s no question which way we’re bound; instead, I hoist Maddox atop my shoulders, glad to carry him home.
Photo: Gabriel Amadeus/Flickr
Also by Michael Copperman:
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