I stumbled from the hospital that morning, my mind numb and bewildered. The first thing I noticed was how absolutely gorgeous the day was.
It was an unseasonably nice October day, and was what you would probably consider the perfect weather. The blistering summer was slowly giving way to winter in a rare example of fall weather in Oklahoma. It was early in the morning, the sun just having rose, and as the bleak night was chased away birds had begun to tweet out their songs.
It was so beautiful and yet so utterly wrong.
Popular media has prepared us for days like this day and they are overcast, rain cascading from the heavens as the world ceases turning and mourns your loss with you; soft and dramatic music swells from the background, not happy bird song.
Yet, the world did just that: it kept turning. People greeted me with smiles at the grocery store and gas station we stopped at, blissfully unaware that my world had completely shattered. I faked a smile, even then aware of social conventions somehow, because what could I tell them? What could I say that wouldn’t end in awkward silence? Yet somehow it also did not feel right for them to not acknowledge the one and only fact that I could focus on; the immutable truth that threatened to consume me entirely.
My father was dead.
It was a normal Wednesday on September 20th , 2017, only punctuated by the fact that Dad was undergoing a textbook procedure to repair some blockage in his heart. Of course, anytime someone goes in to work on your heart it is serious, but he had undergone procedures like this before and came out the other side fine. In fact the doctors assured us this would be that entirely, a simple three to six hour procedure that would vastly improve his quality of life and stop the chest pains he had been experiencing.
I was told at the time that this sort of procedure is done hundreds of times in a week at this hospital, and that survival rate of something like this is up in the 98% range. People told me that my anxiety that I’m cursed with was not truly justified, that everything would be just fine. My father suffers from the same anxiety, so the night before instead of going to his house to make him feel like he was doomed,I simply had a video call with him and my kids to wish him well.
I didn’t know that this meager exchange would be the last time I would ever speak to my Dad.
The day of the surgery three to six hours turned into nearly twelve my father was on the operating table. The doctors said he would be ok, and that though he was still critical, he had made it through the worst. Come the next morning my father was up and already fighting his breathing tube, stubborn old man that he was, talking to the nurses like any other day.
We rejoiced. Just like every time any of our family had gone through something bad he had come out the other side, perhaps with a longer recovery ahead of him, but in health.
That was before the heart attack. Somehow, in an ICU at a heart hospital surrounded by “professionals”, they let my father have a heart attack and lie there un-diagnosed for hours doing irreparable damage to his heart tissue. They rallied to save him, I was called from work on that day and told my father could die and to get there immediately. My poor mother signed off on the order to have him taken to the heart cath lab in a desperate bid to save his life, warned that he might not survive the trip.
My Dad proved he was too tough to be taken down by this: he survived the trip to the cath lab and the following lengthy procedure, in which the nurses and doctors ignored us as we questioned if he lived. Finally they let us know he was fine, that he was being taken back to his room.
Moments later we had to rush back to the cath lab waiting room as my mother returned to my father’s room to find it empty, nobody telling us anything. Panicked she discovered that they had placed the wrong size tube in his heart and he was bleeding internally. They got him back, put him through another procedure and had taken him back to the room.
The doctors again told us he had a long road to recovery and was critical, but would very likely survive; that they had repaired everything that was wrong. I had thought that was the worst day of my life, but I would be proven to be ultimately mistaken.
Dad was in a medically induced coma, they couldn’t remove him in fear of taxing his heart. Everyday my mother sat with him, everyday assured he was making small recoveries. A simple squeeze of a hand became a miracle, the errant blink of an eye a beacon of hope. All we could do was wait and believe he would be ok.
That following Friday, on the 27th of September, 2017, hopes were high. I visited my Dad after work with my younger brother and his eyes were half lidded, certainly alarming at any other time, but immensely relieving in those times. He squeezed my hand, he nodded when I asked if he could hear me, shook his head when I insisted on staying with him. My father couldn’t speak as the tube was down his throat, but he had told me in no uncertain terms he was going to make it.
I told him I loved him, let my kids talk to him through the phone to tell him the same, finally relieved that he was going to pull through and then we left to go on about our weekend. If I had only known those are the last words he might hear from me I would have lingered all night, hoping to drag out every minute.
My wife and mother went to him the next day, and he wasn’t quite as responsive as he had been the day before, the nurse saying he was just exhausted from trying so much to show us he was doing better. After all, the amount of trauma he had been through was significant. I was told to stay home, and spend time with my children, so I did just that. We had a special day trip out and about to some of our favorite spots, on an adventure the kids said. They had been through Hell also in the last few days, though of course the youngest didn’t understand it quite as much, and it was a nice break from the hospital: not a place for younger children to be sure.
The cellphone on my wife’s side of the bed vibrated in the middle of the night, or early morning, however you would prefer. It was around 3 or 4 AM, the exact time escaping me for obvious reasons. How I heard it I still don’t know, I usually wouldn’t hear a phone on vibrate in a dead sleep, but somehow I knew and tapped my wife.
I still flinch when the phone rings or vibrates late at night, an errant late night Twitter notification will send a horrible dropping feeling to my stomach to this day. It was my grandmother on the line about Dad, and we knew right away it was bleak.
Hospitals don’t call you at 4AM in the morning to give you good news.
Grabbing her keys my wife left in one car to gather my mother up, who was sleeping soundly and unable to be wakened by the phone; having exhausted her reserves of energy by spending every waking moment on pins and needles. I gathered my children, trying to assure them things would be ok and help them to get dressed, but my twelve year old knew what a frantic father in the middle of the night meant in the context of the last hellish weeks. He broke down then and there and I held him, no words escaping my lips. What could I say?
When we arrived at the hospital there were no words of hope, a Chaplain was already waiting for us and ushered us into a room that every square inch of was unknowingly being burned deep into my memory. I have the worst of faltering memories, but even as I write this I can close my eyes and tell you where every tissue box and lamp was. It was simply a waiting game at this time as my older brother made a desperate drive from Oklahoma City, my father still struggling to cling to life.
A horrible white hot rage filled me, the like of which I had never felt before. I’m not sure why, or who exactly I was angry with, but I left the room and apparently made my way to my car, though I do not remember it. Once inside I screamed and destroyed anything within arm’s reach, not caring that some of those things were valued possessions. Once the rage was gone I was left with only emptiness and sorrow and somehow I found the rage a better companion.
In no uncertain terms they let us know he was going to die and that even if they kept him alive he would be a vegetable the rest of the days due to extensive heart and brain damage. My mother signed the order to not resuscitate, because my father would have been horrified to live in that state.
To the end my father fought on, determined to wait until his eldest arrived before letting go.
The remaining moments were a blur of ridiculous prayer and pain. My son almost had to be sedated, as a child with some chemical issues he has a hard time making friends or people understanding him, and his grandfather was not only his grandpa, but his best friend. Seeing my child in pain like that, a pain echoed deeply in me, just hurt all the worse.
Eventually three men stood over the corpse of my father, and whatever we had become in the years since, again we were just children and brothers, ripped asunder by the loss of the man who had made us what we were. It tore us apart individually in that moment, but somehow also brought us together as siblings.
The next week was a numb, yet somehow simultaneously pain filled blur. We buried my father to the sound of bugles and guns being fired, as he was honored by the military for his service. I watched my mother shatter as they handed her the flag, knowing that even in the depth of my despair that it could not match her own. I could only watch her suffer and hold her up, while she in turn held me up.
I didn’t realize before then that I was so sheltered in life from true hurt, because like any individual who has never truly felt misery, I felt that the small inconveniences I’d experienced in my life were some sort of cross to bear. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the utter lack of hope I would feel, and still feel to this day.
I’ve spent a long time trying to make sense of how and what I feel, my anxiety takes a good amount of the blame for that. I cannot let something be until I understand why it is that way, and then ultimately, somehow fix it. If it is a medical issue I’m worried about I seek reassurance, if it is a financial thing I try to figure out where to get the money from to fix it, if it is a fight with someone I can’t let it go trying to salvage it until I usually make it worse, but here there was no fix. Nothing anybody could say could make it any better, there was no hope to be had here, just the idea that time would heal it eventually.
I have no faith, I do not believe in God, and so I am bereft of even that small satisfaction of believing my father is in a better place or that I shall ever see him again. What is humanity without hope? It is the only way we can muddle on through this existence, the idea that tomorrow will be a little better than today.
I do not know where to go confronted by my own morality and the death of a man I thought was invincible, though logic would dictate otherwise.
How then do I carry on? There are days I smile and laugh, but a lot of the time it is that same fake face I allowed myself to bear the day of his death, in some random gas station, to a complete stranger. Genuine happiness can still be found, however always tinged by sorrow in his death.
I’d like to end you on an inspiring note here, something uplifting: an assurance that all will be ok. I cannot find it within me at this moment to do so, to wear that mask while also laying myself bear for my writing.
The real me, without the mask, is often the one sobbing in his bedroom into a pillow, hoping his family won’t hear, trying to make it through this horrible storm of emotions.