Sitting with my family today (my mother and father in-law, my wife and two boys) I pause to reflect on a life changing anniversary. Ten years ago today I was experiencing my first Thanksgiving alone. I was not only sitting with other people who were not part of my family, I was sitting down alone in a food court in a strange country: 10,000 miles away from my wife and eight week-old first-born son.
Ten years and two weeks ago I received a phone call from my mother: my father had been hit by a car half-way across the globe in a nation called Dubai where he had been working as a consultant. The details of how he came about living and working there are enough to fill a book. Regardless, my mother was giving me all the information she had about what had happened to my father – her husband – and we were trying to figure out what to do. We were trying to figure out how long he would survive, and what that survival would mean.
We suspected that having my mother fly to an Arab nation to negotiate with men who are used to having women behind a veil would not be the wisest thing. I was not so thrilled by this prospect because I knew that my mother was a much stronger negotiator than I was.
Twenty-four hours later I was on a 767 from Boston’s Logan Airport to Heathrow in London, and eventually on to Dubai, courtesy of my father’s employer in Dubai.
The trip was a blur. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew my father had a T-12 burst fracture (broken back), and a shattered pelvis. Calling friends for advice regarding what all of this meant, my one close friend from college who had become an emergency room physician seemed more concerned by the pelvis injury and all of the complications that arise from those.
The only time my concentration was jarred away from these thoughts was two-thirds of the way through the leg of the seven-hour flight from Heathrow to Dubai. Sitting in the back coach section of the wide-body Airbus, watching Bollywood movies spoken and sung in Hindi with Arabic sub-titles, I noticed that suddenly practically three quarters of the plane stood up and headed to the rest rooms.
One-by-one, these passengers entered the lavatories as sharp-dressed Westerners of Arab decent, and exited as full-blown Arabs: men in their traditional Thoubs and women in their head-covering Hejabs.
Six hours later, after contending with immigration officials regarding a visa application that had not been filed through the correct channels, and learning the ins and outs of jostling for position in a “line,” I was standing in the apartment my father had occupied for the past few months. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Culture here was very different from back home in the States. In the three lines I had to wait in to remedy the visa issues, there was never a line, per se; masses of men pushed towards the windows behind which were the people we all needed to see. Women may have been technically allowed in these lines, but you never saw any. There was very little space between all of us pushing towards the window, but pushing was never allowed. I found this out when I shouldered my way into a space. Three men erupted in Arabic, chastising what I had done…I think. What I took time to observed was very deft footwork, where the men would see a gap in the group and slyly slip their way closer to the window, all without touching anyone else.
The relief I felt entering my father’s apartment was short lived. At this moment I came face-to-face with how my father had sequestered himself in a foreign land. A simple studio apartment with a hot plate, an apartment sized washing machine that also dried the clothes after washing them, and a small bathroom was obviously a temporary home; there were no photos or signs of settling in. For reasons that would (or will) fill another book my father had been in this overseas Mos Eisley Cantina – the bar scene from the very first Star Wars – and I started to feel very sad. He’d been alone in this strange land, and his apartment showed it: his only connection back to family a telephone line.
My sadness for how my father had been living, however, was quickly extinguished when I met one of the many people who my father had touched in the short time he had lived here. Every person I met with whom he had worked said to me, “your father is a great man.” After the twelfth person said this to me I was able to momentarily let the concern of my reason for being there subside and let the pride in my father swell over me.
Later, I finally made it to the hospital to check with the doctors about how my father was doing and to see my father in the Intensive Care Unit.
He was stable. He looked awful. He looked old.
I know that last comment sounds odd, but in the time since I had last seem him a couple of years prior I was amazed at how much this trauma aged him. The accident had happened only three days prior, but he looked thin, gaunt, and frail. No surprise, however. I learned from the doctor that while on the Emergency Room table they had given him eight pints of blood. He had three broken vertebrae: one was shattered. He had a broken arm, a broken leg, most likely broken bones in his face, and on the leg that was broken a hunk of flesh had been taken away that was so deep that the bone had been exposed. There was still incredible danger of infection setting in, and yet when I walked in and my father saw me, he was the one who made me feel better. There it was: his smile.
Despite wispy, disheveled hair, and two day stubble, his smile lit up the room.
He and I sat with each other for a long time. Well it was a long time for him. He dozed off from time to time. We talked about all sorts of things – catching up, kind of, since we hadn’t seen each other in over two years – and he asked me to go back to his office to try to close three of the deals he had been working on. There he was, waking up from a near-death experience, and he was thinking about his job.
The subsequent days were filled with killing time in between visiting hours at the hospital by walking around Dubai, and making hours of phone calls trying to learn as much as possible about my father’s injuries, and what would be best for him. He needed surgery to stabilize his back: basically to fuse his shattered vertebrae so he could do simple things like sit up. There were two options: having the surgery in Dubai, or flying him back to the States.
While negotiating who would pay for his flight back to the States was a tricky endeavor (a chapter at least in a book), eventually we arranged for flying my father to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City for surgery. The decision was solidified when I had my fifth conversation with the emergency room surgeon who worked on my father – a Dubai-national who received his medical training in the U.S. – and I asked him about what I should do. He said, “If he was my father, I’d bring him to the States.”
Even though the decision was made, arranging the transportation would take almost another week, which meant that I would be spending Thanksgiving in Dubai.
Thanksgiving in Dubai was just another day. The morning call to prayers from the minarets rang out at 4AM. The first hint of sunrise slipped over the dusty city at 6AM, and I called my wife to check in on how our son was doing and to wish her goodnight on Thanksgiving eve in Boston since Dubai’s time zone is nine hours ahead of Boston.
I showered, dressed and walked outside into the building heat of the day, stopping at a café for a croissant and a coffee. Visiting hours at the hospital would not start for another hour.
I slowly finished my coffee then began the walk across town to the hospital.
My father and I spent an hour and a half together that morning. I alternated between sitting in a chair by the side of his bed where I would hold his hand, and standing at the foot of his bed, massaging his cold feet, hoping against hope that these motionless feet that were already starting to swell from his paralysis would suddenly begin transmitting messages back to his brain that I was touching him. He continued to talk about the sales he had been working on and how I could help him close them, but never did we talk about exactly how bad his trauma was, or what had happened. Once I had to have him sign some forms for the hospital to release him to the air ambulance service and for them to release MRIs to me. Not until I picked up copies of the MRIs that the air ambulance would need to transport him to the States was I able to see the hell that had been unleashed inside his body when the SUV struck him as he walked across the street two blocks from his apartment. I knew what had happened only from the accounts of the emergency room staff and the police officers from whom I had retrieved my father’s personal belongings, which, evidently, had sprayed from his pockets like water from a sprinkler head. My father did not remember anything.
As had happened since my arrival in Dubai, my father drifted in and out of sleep during the hour and a half that I was there, and eventually fell sound asleep. And as had happened the other days during my time in Dubai, I sat and just watched him for twenty minutes, thankful that my father was still alive.
The hospital staff was very patient with me, and often allowed me to extend my visiting hours a little longer than the typically restricted Intensive Care Unit hours. Eventually, the simple need for food moved me to leave my father’s side.
Knowing that he and I were going to be going back to the States together relieved many of the anxieties I had been having since my arrival in Dubai. That this day was Thanksgiving, and that I was hungry, that it was lunch time, and that during my years of growing up Thanksgiving “dinner” was always served around 2PM, inspired me to go to the local market (a form of a grocery store) to see what kind of Thanksgiving surrogate I could find.
The market had a single serving, pre-cooked chicken, which was more than sufficient for me. I wasn’t exactly in the mood to sit alone in my father’s sparsely adorned apartment at that moment, so I found a seat in the public seating area that was on one side of the market for people to sit and eat.
As I opened the chicken, I prayed…sort of. I’m not particularly religious, so I think the more appropriate description would be to say I contemplated. I contemplated how my father had been living this life here in this strange country for so long, so separated from the friends and family back in the States. I contemplated how I was a new father, with an almost eight week-old baby boy at home who was already 30% older than when I had left for Dubai. I contemplated the uncertainty that now lay before my mother, and the rest of the family. I contemplated how successful the surgery could possibly be for my father, understanding that the odds were against his ever being able to walk again. I contemplated how my son (and now sons) would never know the ambulatory man I knew growing up; they would never walk with him on a beach, or have him show them how to throw a curve ball. I contemplated all of my anger, and sadness, and fear, surrounding all that had just happened, and all that was about to be.
And through all of it, I was thankful that at that time of my life, at that very moment, I had been able to spend at least some of it with my father.