When I took Introductory Spanish, one of the first vocabulary words I retained was “papa.” Papa means “potato” and, because potatoes are delicious, I remembered the name. However — etymology is funny sometimes — add an accent mark and you have “papá,” meaning “dad.”
I grew up in the southern US, very much a non-Spanish speaker. I called my father Papa but it wasn’t a celebration of a second language. Rather, it was something baby-me said that my folks encouraged, blissfully unaware that without the crucial accent mark I was basically calling my dad Mr. Potato Head.
By my junior year of college I had learned about this funny quirk, but Papa he had always been and so he would remain. He was Papa when I walked for graduation; Papa when I moved to Mexico to teach English; Papa when I returned home two years later to find him… very sick.
My father’s illness
While I’d been gone, my dad’s health had experienced a major turn for the worse. A string of unfortunate events left him with severe nerve damage in both legs. This brought on a host of related problems including weight gain and a diagnosis of congestive heart failure. (They couldn’t have given that condition a friendlier name?!) Of course the whole family was concerned, but with medicine and regular check-ups, life rolled along smoothly enough. I moved in with my boyfriend J and was thrilled that he and my dad really hit it off.
Then came the 2:00 a.m. phone call. My mom spoke in a tight, scared voice as she told me Papa was being airlifted from their small town to the capital city where I lived. His heart condition had triggered acute kidney failure and he was in and out of consciousness, rapidly sliding closer to death. There was a chance he could be saved by emergency treatment with specialists in my city, and so in the pitch black night he’d been loaded into a helicopter and rushed away, leaving my mom to follow in her car. Stuck interminable miles behind him, she asked me to meet my Papa at the hospital so he wouldn’t be alone.
I said yes and hung up in a daze. J found me curled on the stairs, half-heartedly crying but mostly just stunned. As he wiped away my tears, I felt myself moving from shock to distress to simmering frustration. I hate being helpless, and now one of my favorite people was scared and in danger and there was nothing I could do. I had started to pound the stairs with my fist when J abruptly jumped up and asked how much time there was to kill before the helicopter arrived. I told him I had an hour and, next thing I knew, he was out the front door with a shout of, “Be right back! I’m running to the store!”
I dragged myself upstairs to pack a bag. My thoughts were whirling in conflicted downward spirals; I had to be composed when I finally saw Papa. I had to be strong and smile and keep his spirits up. But my nerves were frayed and all I could think was that the next time I saw him might be the last. As I battled to get myself in a state of mind to handle the situation gracefully, J walked back in shouldering a huge sack of potatoes.
Yes, my husband walked in with a sack of potatoes
I watched in bewilderment as he retrieved a two-handed sword from under our bed. (Yeah, he collects those.) Then I followed him outside to the patio. As I huddled down in my fleece, standing in the chilly pool of light from our one outdoor bulb, he explained: “You need to hit things. Hard.”
Suddenly, I was in a batting stance engrained from eight years of softball. Suddenly, he was ripping open the bag of spuds and pitching a lumpy potato at my head. Suddenly, I was swinging away with the sword and slicing that massive potato clean through on my first try, transforming into A League of Their Own‘s Dottie Henson and Xena the Warrior Princess all at once.
It. Was. AWESOME.
For the next half hour I wailed on those potatoes. I carved; I diced; most of all, I didn’t have time to think or feel. I just defeated one potato after another as J tossed them my way. Somewhere in the middle of this bizarre exercise, my fear and anger were replaced with a sense of composed determination. I had taken on those papas, and I would take on this crisis with my Papa in just the same way.
Finally, with the sack empty and the yard littered with starchy debris, I got in the car and went to my dad’s side. As his gurney was rolled in, I had a few minutes to hold his hand and talk with him and we even managed some smiles.
Finally, with the sack empty and the yard littered with starchy debris, I got in the car and went to my dad’s side. As his gurney was rolled in, I had a few minutes to hold his hand and talk with him and we even managed some smiles. By the time he was taken away for treatment, I think we both felt much braver.
How’d it end up?
In the end, my father beat the odds. After several days his kidneys recovered and soon enough he was back home – not in perfect health, but alive. Since then, he’s danced with me at my wedding (yes, to the infinitely amazing J) and he and Mom have moved to my city to be closer to his doctors. Next weekend we have a father/daughter date to visit a shooting range together, and I plan on using potatoes for target practice.
The real story here, though, is not a celebration of my Papa surviving a near-death experience. Deeply grateful as I am for that, the life-affirming lesson I learned while sword-fighting potatoes in the dark was about the power the ridiculous has to buoy the human spirit. Sometimes, giving in to utter silliness at what seems like exactly the wrong moment is the perfect way to fight giving in to something darker.