My parents had been fairly healthy octogenarians, but I knew the situation could change very quickly.
It was something I carried around with me in the back of my mind, waiting for that day when the infirmities of a parent’s old age crash the consciousness and spread all types of emotions throughout the body.
On the Friday of Labor Day weekend, my mother phoned me and told me my father had not made it home after going on a routine errand to the post office.
“Go outside your home and see if he’s outside on the street,” she nervously asked. “Maybe he got disoriented and went to your house.”
I sprinted to the front door, opened it, quickly brushed aside the palm tree leaves, and looked up and down the street in front of my house. But, unsurprisingly, there was no trace of my father’s Mazda CX-5. My wishful thinking that this matter would get resolved easily had just been shattered. I told my wife I was going to drive around and look for my father. My voice was softer and higher pitched. I was obviously scared.
I then racked my brain. I had no idea where he would have gone. The route home was simple and direct. The roads outside of Mercedes, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, were not heavily travelled, and all he had to do was drive east on Interstate 2, turn left on Mile 2 East, and drive about three miles before he reached home. If he had missed the turn he would be on his way to Corpus Christi, or if he had headed too far south he would be in Santa Maria or Progreso, on the border with Mexico. Over here, on the Texas side, it was relatively safe, but on the Mexican side, things could change quickly.
I didn’t know where to go first so I drove to the nearest, largest parking lot I could find at my local Walmart. Maybe my father had driven to the parking lot to rest. I didn’t see him, but I did notice a local police officer in his unit keeping tabs on the Walmart. I asked him to keep a lookout for an elderly man. Next, I drove to the post office in Mercedes, but didn’t have any luck. I then drove to the parking lot of a bank. I glanced around and noticed the drainage ditch directly in front of me. I put my head against the steering wheel and stretched out my arms. I was tempted to get out of the car and examine the ditch.
No, he’s not in there, I thought to myself. It’s a football Friday night at six o’clock. Surely someone would have seen him if his vehicle had veered off into the ditch. I moved my head back and forth quickly, trying to shake off all these negative thoughts. Just then my phone rang. It was one of my father’s neighbors.
“The City of Hidalgo police department has your dad,” the neighbor said. “They found my phone number written on a paper in his wallet, so they called me. They stopped him at the bridge. He was trying to get into Mexico. Go over to Hidalgo and pick him up.”
I phoned the police department. The dispatcher assured me my dad was okay, but an ambulance was taking him to the hospital to get checked out. He was a little out of sorts.
I wondered what “a little out of sorts meant.” He had probably forgotten to take his diabetes medication, I thought.
I met him at the emergency room at the hospital. My niece, a medical doctor, was already with him. She asked him if he was feeling hot.
“No,” he lied, even though his temperature had just been measured at 102.7.
Well, maybe he wasn’t telling a lie, I thought to myself. He might be so disoriented and feverish that he doesn’t even know what he’s feeling. This thought even scared me more.
The room soon bustled with activity as nurses came in and out of the room to draw blood, urine and examine him. At one point a middle-aged, male nurse came in with an enormous x-ray machine and pointed it at his chest.
“Respira,” he said in Spanish.
My dad breathed in and out heavily.
“He knows Engiish,” my niece told him.
“Otro vez, respira,” the nurse ordered, ignoring her.
These nurses were set in their ways of doing things. Most people at this hospital spoke Spanish so that’s the language he was going to speak.
My sister and brother-in-law soon arrived. They had gone to pick up the car at the bridge.
“They said we couldn’t leave the car there,” she explained. “It was in the way and blocking traffic going into Mexico. He was in the wrong lane. He was in the pre-paid lane to go over the bridge. When they started asking him questions and asked for his identification, he gave them his credit card. And I’m figuring maybe this is when they knew something was wrong. Could you imagine what might have happened if they hadn’t stopped him.”
All the different scenarios I played out in my head did not end well. He had travelled over 30 miles west and was across the bridge from Reynosa, Mexico, a much more dangerous place to be than I had originally imagined.
“They asked us if he knew his way around Mexico,” my brother-in-law chimed into the conversation.
My father had not spent much time in Mexico since the 1950s and 60s. He knew no one anymore. His relatives had long scattered. Many of them immigrated to the United States. He would have been lost forever. And my sister and I knew it.
It turned out that my dad had a severe bacterial infection that had turned into septicemia, otherwise known to lay people as blood poisoning. The hospital pumped him full of antibiotics. After about four days in the hospital the doctors released him on the condition that he would take his antibiotic intravenously for a few more days at home.
Later, my father told me he did not remember anything that happened after the officers placed him in the squad car. He told me the customs agents had asked him why he was going into Mexico, to which he responded, “I’m not going to Mexico. I’m trying to get back home to Mercedes. I don’t know what happened. I was just following the flow of cars.” It just so happened that after a long week, and on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, the long line of vehicles was going across to Mexico. Many of these people worked along the border in the United States and were headed home or were just going to visit relatives.
That particular Friday was a harrowing day for our family. But it was just another day at the Hidalgo-Reynosa International bridge for these customs and border patrol agents. These agents had saved my father’s life by keeping him out of Mexico. They had been trained not only to keep drugs and illegal aliens out of this country, but also to notice the signs when someone was not well mentally. On that particular Friday, they protected my father from himself.