When my father died, it was from a heart attack. But it was not sudden. He had been running like he did every morning. He was an avid runner. He ran most mornings for at least 5 miles. He ate right, didn't drink, didn't smoke, but one morning, his body decided to betray him.
He was in the gym when it happened, running on the treadmill. He would set it on 8 miles per hour and just go. His eyes would glaze over and for that time he would disappear into his mind, his brilliant mind. I often wonder if he would think about work, or family. Or maybe running was his way to reconnect with his childhood and he was, for that time, a kid again, running through the streets of University City.
It was just him and his trainer, John, in the gym that morning. And since it was so early, the gym wasn't technically open. His trainer was sitting at his desk, drinking his protein shake when he heard the treadmill turn off. This was the usual sign that it was time to come out and train. He walked out of his office, and saw my father crawling on the ground. He was on all fours. John approached my dad, and put a hand on his back.
"You ok, Mitch?"
My dad collapsed. John recognized the signs of a heart attack. He dialed 911 and began performing CPR. The problem arose, however, that since the gym was located in the same building as a bank, for security reasons the building had to remain locked while the bank was closed. So while dad was lying on the floor, his body denying blood to his brain, John had to divide his time between performing CPR and running upstairs to see if the paramedics had arrived in order to let them in. Maybe if John had been able to give non-stop CPR things would have been different, but I could make myself crazy with hypothetical situations.
When the paramedics did finally arrive, they took my dad to the hospital. I imagine John called my mom and told her what happened. I imagine mom called my sister and passed along the news. I imagine these things, because while all of this was happening, I was home in bed: warm, comfortable, and frankly, pretty naive.
It was the ringing of the phone that coaxed me out of my sleep. I was somewhat out of it when I woke up because the afternoon before, all four of my impacted wisdom teeth had been surgically removed and I was full of pain killers; I still wonder whether the drugs were a blessing or a curse.
As I reached for the phone, I looked at the clock and realized it was about 7 in the morning. I thought briefly about why my mom hadn't answered the phone. She was always very considerate about not letting it ring if someone was sleeping. I toyed, briefly, with the idea of answering it in an annoyed voice and saying "Who died?" I am not sure why I had the impulse. I guess I thought it would be funny. Maybe it was something I saw on television or in a movie. Regardless, I am glad that I fought the impulse.
"Tommy it's Circe," my sister is the only one who calls me Tommy. "Dad's had a heart attack. He's at the hospital. Mom's already there. I'm at the airport and I'm taking the next flight home. This is serious Tommy. You need to get to the hospital."
I don't remember getting ready or if I ate anything. I don't remember driving to the Hospital. There are chunks missing from the following days and weeks (and years) but the parts that remain are morbidly vivid.
When I arrived I was taken to a waiting room. The first memory I have of the hospital is this room. It had green tile walls and floors and the kinds of chairs that have the itchy fabric and foam stuffing that you can only seem to find in hospital waiting rooms. I felt I was in a room whose components were designed to be either easily disinfected or easily disposed of.
I wasn't there long when a nurse came out. Or maybe I had been there for a while. It could have been hours. I don't know if it was the drugs or a biological response to pain and trauma, but time was fluid: undulating like the ocean. When the wave would crest my consciousness would float into the air dissipating into space. At the crest of the wave there was nothing: no thought, no memory, no pain: oblivion. But in the valley is where my conscious would coalesce. In the valley is where the fog of pain, memory, experience, and time all came crashing back together sublimating into a frigid solid. In the valley, I remember; I remember pain, and sadness, and denial. I remember the nurse coming into the green tile room. I was in the valley when she told me they were moving my father and that he had been stabilized. I was in the valley when I heard her tell me that I could see him if I wanted.
I followed her out of the green tile room and through some double doors: hospital doors. You never think of them that way until you realize that the only time you see doors of this kind are in hospitals. Doors that allow three humans to pass side by side: two upright and one lying down. She led me into another sterile hallway, but this one was cream colored. In retrospect it was far more calming to me than the green room I had come from. Color theory says that green is supposed to offer harmony, and positivity, and reassurance. But maybe if your father is dying in the next room, the psychological properties of colors don't work as they are supposed to.
I met my father as he was coming through of another set of doors. Or rather, I met my father's body: he was gone. His body was alive, mind you. His traiterous heart was once again pumping blood, he was sweating, his eyes were rolling around in their sockets, but his brain had stopped functioning in the way it was supposed to.
Once when I was about 12, I accidentally killed a chipmunk with a rock. My friends and I were screwing around and there was one of these little critters (we called the "chiselers") on the other side of a fence. I picked up a rock, and threw it almost straight up into the air. I watched the arc of the rock, and I watched the path of the chiseler, and when I realized that the two were on a collision course, my heart sank into my stomach. I watched as my projectile, my weapon, drop expertly and directly onto the chiseler's head. The rock, being the same size as the head of the "Chip and Dale" look alike, did not kill it instantly. Instead, the chiseler spasmed. His little body contorted and snapped with convulsions. Some part of his little brain told him there was safety in his hole, and by instinct, despite the fact that his little body was fighting him, he tried like hell to get home. He would scramble for the opening, only to have his body violently clench and send him off course. This continued for what felt like eternity. I watched in horror and shame and guilt as blood started coming out of his mouth. I watched this whole grim ballet for what could only have been a few minutes, but in the trough of the wave, time is no longer absolute. In the trough, time bases itself on the detailed perception of experience and pain. The more details, the more experience, the more pain, the longer it lasts. Watching the chiseler die lasted a long time.
Thankfully, my father's body had not decided to send him into convulsion, but his eyes were the same as the chiseler's. They were rolling around. They were pained. But they were empty. He couldn't look at me. He wouldn't make eye contact or acknowledge me.
He smelled different. He didn't smell like my dad. I never even thought of my dad having a smell until that moment. I knew right then my dad was gone. Even though at the time, I had no idea what was coming, looking back, I knew deep down inside that he was never going to return to us.
The wave rose...and it carried me with it. I rode the wave higher and higher. Time, memory, and pain disappearing into the ether. Time stopped and so did my memories.
I slide down the backside of the wave, back into memories, into a trough, and I'm working on a jigsaw puzzle in a waiting room. This room is upstairs from where I had been and there is light streaming through the windows. The light, along with the earth tones, and soft materials, affords a far more relaxing experience than the green room. This room is designed for a group to spend serious time in. My dad's trainer is sitting with me.
"Tom, I am so sorry." "Good, John, because it's all your fault." I was being funny but he looked really hurt. I see now that he assigned himself a good deal of blame but at the time, I just thought he was offering platitudes. I swallowed a pain killer although I don't remember my gums hurting, and looked back to the puzzle that was nearing completion. Almost as if I was in a bad novel, the puzzle was missing a piece.
The wave carried me back up and my memories disappear. There is nothing here. Sweet comfortable nothing. And then I slide back down. I'm in my father's room in the ICU.
"If your father wakes up, of which there is very little chance, he will have about 10% of his mental faculties left. He will be able to cry, he will be able to laugh. But that will be it." This is the neurologist who had my dad as a patient. He grinds his knuckles into my father's chest to show a complete lack of reaction to pain. He runs a stick across his foot to show no reflex.
Up the wave and down the back. The waiting room with my mom and sister:
"Your father and I wrote living wills a couple months ago...he doesn't want to be kept on life support. We have a decision to make."
Up and down. Back in his room:
My mom is crying as she holds his hand. She tries to climb into bed with him. I hate her for being melodramatic.
Up and down.
We're in a different room now. We are no longer in the ICU. This room is smaller with a door and no windows to the hall. "We've removed the breathing tube. If I sense any discomfort I am going to put your father on morphine." he pauses briefly, "He looks uncomfortable." I have never appreciated a doctor so much.
Up and down.
"I can push this button every five minutes and it will give him 5 mg of morphine. The doctor says he's on enough morphine to tranquilize an elephant." My mom, sitting at his side, is pushing the button every few seconds so that there is no chance she might miss his dose. Like clockwork, every five minutes the machine to his left emits a beep and a hiss as more opiates are fed into his IV tube.
Up and down.
My father's breathing is labored. The air rattles wetly in his chest. His eyes are closed and I wonder if he can dream. Even imagery would be nice. I hope he isn't just in blackness. The rattling sound is the pneumonia growing in his lungs. "Tom you can leave if you want to." I leave. I wish I had stayed.
Up and down.
I am at my cousin's house when my phone rings...I walk out onto the porch. My sister tells me that dad has died. I don't know what to do. I call my best friend and tell him to tell our friends. It's the only thing I can think of. I go back inside the house. I sit down at the table. And feel nothing.
I felt nothing for a long time.
My dad's funeral was a who's who of St. Louis. Hundreds of people crowded into the Ethical Society for a standing room production of "Saying Goodbye."
His best friend spoke. His brother spoke. My mom's cousin spoke. I spoke.
Everyone was amazed at how brave I was. They kept telling me how much strength and character I had.
The truth is, that it's easy to be brave when you are feeling nothing. Some part of my brain had completely disconnected. I was excited to see all my friends that came into town for the funeral. I had a great time hanging out and catching up.
I accepted apologies with an expression I assumed was befitting of the bereaved.
Denial is a term that comes to mind.
I went back to college two weeks later to begin my sophomore year. I was early, but I had to leave town. If I had stayed there, I was going to have to deal with the fact that my father was gone. If I went back to school I could pretend nothing had happened.
But it's like they say, when you run from your problems, they'll be wherever you go, waiting for you to get there.
I ran for years. I ran to New York. I ran to Europe. I ran to Los Angeles. I ran to Kansas. Never allowing my grief to fully play itself out, I just kept on moving. For a while there, I discovered that drugs and alcohol could help me keep my position on the wave. Riding way up high where emotion and memory couldn't affect me. But that just created other problems. And on the backslide of the artificial wave, the trough is far more painful.
So now, after running for so long, I have stopped. And I have turned around. These days, I have a family of my own and I need to be present. Running is not an option anymore and I have to deal with my demons. My grief comes to me on a consistent, yet unpredictable basis. I grieve in little spurts over minutia. I grieve at commercials and movies. I grieve at situations. Little outpourings of emotion escape from me when I don't want them to: like a boiler venting steam.
I look at my son and I fear that one day, he will have to run. I look at my boy, and I am terrified to leave him the way my dad left me: with a gaping wound and no idea how to heal it.
And then I see my son. And I realize the hole has been filled. The gaping wound that could not be healed with women or booze or running, has been filled with life. All the pain, and all the fear, all the misery and sorrow is still there, but that dense void in my heart is gone. The hollow emptiness that tortured me and pursued me across oceans has vanished. My son is the knight by my side that helped me to defeat that dragon. My tiny savior in diapers. With his mighty sword he yells "DADA, TRUCK!" and all my sadness turns to joy.
Being a father has been the best thing that has ever happened to me. It has given me hope. It has given me strength. And it has given me room to breath and the strength to let the waves wash over me. I no longer have to ride the waves. I don't have to hide in their peaks only to be found naked in their valleys. Now I can close my eyes, hold my arms out, and let the water come and go.
Now that I can see my pain, and feel my sorrow, I am able to address it in bigger and bigger chunks. Now, for the first time in fifteen years, I find myself able to say:
I miss you, dad.
Thank you, son.
Happy father's day.