Every story has a starting point. An event that will potentially set the direction of your future. For me, that day was August 27, of 2007.
This was the day I went from being a fatherless daughter to a future caregiver of a failing father.
I had just finished nursing my one-month-old daughter. I slipped her into her crib to take full advantage of the milk coma she was high on. Moving into my bathroom, I began cleaning. Her sisters had been napping for over an hour. I was on borrowed time.
Simultaneously, my phone rang flashing my sister’s name and I heard my husband’s truck pull into the back drive.
My husband had no reason to come home early. My sister had no reason to call in the middle of her workday. The feeling of dread was instant.
My dad had collapsed while mowing grass and was being life-flighted to St. Vincent’s.
My mom, being a mama bear even in the midst of tragedy, called my husband and asked him to go home so I wouldn’t be alone. My sister, needing the support only a sibling can give in this circumstance, reached out to the one person that could balance her fear.
Unfortunately, she called the wrong sibling.
I couldn’t breath.
It wasn’t the sudden cardiac arrest that rocked me. I wasn’t able to comprehend the magnitude of that diagnosis fast enough in my shock. It was the flight to St. V’s that left me decimated.
This was bad.
A ride on a medical chopper was reserved for the screwed. At that time, a chopper taking you St. Vincent’s was for the big boy screwed.
My dad was going to die and I was four-hours away.
If you’ve ever packed your kids for a vacation you realize how much they own you. It’s a three-day washing, organizing, and packing extravaganza just to visit family for a long weekend. With a teenager, two toddlers, and a newborn, leaving our house to go the store took two hours of preparation and twenty minutes of positive affirmations to get out the door.
That day we were packed and out the door in forty-five minutes.
My husband drove while I sobbed. (I took the occasional break to pacify kids so we didn’t lose our minds.)
We dumped our brood on my in-laws and made it to the hospital before dark. My sister, her husband, and my mom sat by dad’s bed looking as beat down as I felt.
Dad looked so different. My huge, larger-than-life father looked fragile. In his glory days of college basketball he stood 6’5’’. Looking at him in that moment, I couldn’t see that man anymore.
The tubes blocked his grin. The IV sticks had already begun bruising his arms. The ventilator made his chest rise and fall unnaturally. His closed lids hid his dancing, mischievous, blue eyes.
Although I was a nurse, I touched him with the fear of a rookie. What if I hurt him? What if I mess something up and set off alarms?
My mom sat vacant. The sight scared me almost as much as my dad. She couldn’t carry us. Our husbands’ stood by our sides. Her’s was dying. She had the most to lose and we were going to have to rally.
The ICU Doc explained that dad’s heart had been down for at least eight minutes. Eight minutes or more of no oxygen. He explained what that looked like for his body. For his brain. He explained the odds of any kind of recovery for this type of cardiac event. The odds would be a challenge on a surgical table. When happening out in the field, the odds were bleak. He ended his time with us telling us to eat and get some rest. Removing a vent should never be decided with a tired body and empty stomach.
I’m not sure what I did more of that night. Cry, sleep, or pump breast milk to prepare my daughter for the next day. I certainly didn’t want to eat. My stomach couldn’t have handled broth at that point. A rare occurrence for me.
If you ever find me searching for something, it’s not my appetite.
That night I did come to realize why God doesn’t want us to know the future. It’s abusive. We will all face the death of a loved one. At times, for various reasons, we will be able to narrow down such an event. To know the day, almost the hour that it will happen is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. To know that when you wake you will watch your mother sign a piece of paper that makes your dad’s death official is a special kind of hell.
We picked up my mom the next morning. Though still riddled with shock, she discussed logistics. We needed to get my dad’s truck home. We needed to call a few people and let them know what happened. We needed to… get ready for the storm.
We beat my sister to the hospital. The moment visiting hours were official, we hit the button for the automatic door to await her arrival by his bed.
I stopped cold.
A bellow, like the rebel cry of a Scottish warrior, erupted.
I grabbed my husband’s arm to steady myself. “That’s. My. Dad!”
I knew that specific use of son-of-a-bitch anywhere.
Like my kids when there’s an opportunity to press an elevator button, we took off to my dad’s bed. There he was, wild, swinging at the nurses trying to control him.
With gusto, he had removed himself from the pesky life support.
The second he heard my voice he stopped. My mom hung back distraught and overwhelmed. My dad studied me for several seconds. He knew me. I mattered, but he had no idea how or why.
“Connie?” he asked sounding like a pirate. My mom’s name. The only name he could conjure. He instantly settled down allowing the nurses to correct the mess he had made.
He was in and out of consciousness the entire day. Each time waking with a vengeance. We were allowed to take turns sitting with him in spite of the strict visiting hours. They had no hope of controlling him without one of us there.
When faced with taking a left-hook in the jaw, 9 times out of 10, the nurse is going to pick protecting her moneymaker over the rules.
No matter who was there, they were “Connie”. My sister. My husband. My brother-in-law. The housekeeper. We were all Connie to him.
That evening we brought his oldest grandson up to see him. He was the only one old enough to be allowed in ICU. When we walked in the nurse asked my dad if he knew who was visiting him.
With more passion than necessary, he responded, “Hell yes I know! That’s my grandson.”
(Proof positive, once you’re a grandparent, your kids play second fiddle.)
The list of things he would never do again was lengthy. After feeding him one week after the incident, I got sick in the bathroom. I couldn’t bare to see him like this. He wouldn’t want to live like this. I would find a way to mourn his death. I couldn’t mourn him while looking in his eyes.
The next day when I arrived he was feeding himself. So shocked by the hug God had just given me, I pointed out the obvious to my dad.
“I’m hungry,” he deadpanned. “Do you want some… Connie?” he asked.
He had no memory of not being able to feed himself. When he saw that chocolate pudding, he remembered where it went and how heavenly it would taste.
Yet, I was still Connie.
So started the rapid, odds-defying recovery my dad underwent. After multiple surgeries, addressing the many problems with his heart, they gave him five years.
They bought him time. They bought us all time.
That was ten years ago.
My dad has certainly taught me one thing. When in life, or death, screw the odds.