Thursday, December 07, 2006

Remembrance Day

Twelve years ago today my dad almost died. Staphylococcus or staph attacked his heart. I lived over three hours away and was a sophomore in college preparing for finals and dealing with some extreme drama with roommates and the random boy I was dating at the time. My mother tried to soften the blow and shield my siblings and I from the gravity of the situation by pushing it off as not a big deal. The problem was she forgot a conversation we had had with our home teacher when I was home over Thanksgiving wherein my dad commented that a staph infection would kill him because of his weak heart (a result of rheumatic fever when he was young).

Despite the twelve years between where I sit now and that Tuesday in early December when my aunt told me my dad was in the hospital, I have a vivid recollection of the sequence of events and many of the details. I was alarmed that my dad was at the hospital initially not just because of the normal connotations of hospitals but also due to the fact that my father never went to emergency rooms, doctor's offices or hospitals for any reason. My dad's answer to everything is elevate it, take an asprin/tylenol/excedrin/ibuprofren and ice or heat depending on the malady. He is tough and waits things out. Later I found out he tried that approach until he found himself lying flat on his back in his office trying to negotiate a deal with his business partners, to weak to even sit - then he went to the hospital. He had to insist that doctors ran certain tests because he feared it wasn't just the flu. It was too similar to the time before I was born when he had strep which had a similar attacking effect on his heart and he ended up in the hospital for 6 weeks. My mother had told me he went in for tests but I was surprised when he stayed and scared when she told me the result was staph. I feared he would die and I would never see him again.

In 1994 email was new and not so easily accessed. My parents had it and we used it with some regularity but I had to go to a computer lab on campus to use it. I don't believe the behemoth computer I fondly called my Tandy dump (it was actually called a Tandy DMP) with DOS bootup and green lettering was capable of email. And long distance cost a lot, as my father was happy to remind me. I used to frequent pay phones because there was some sort of cheap long distance availble from them. The lack of affordable and easy communication combined with my mother's fear of admitting to her children that their father might die, left me in the dark. The three and a half hour drive from home in 1994 felt further away than New York in 2006.

With roommate relationships extremely strained and a boyfriend who suddenly went MIA, I felt more alone than I had ever been before and rivals only the loneliness I experienced in a dysfunctional and damaging marriage. Outside my roommates I had a few friends but most of them were connected with the oddly absent boy. I was alone and I was scared. My normal coping mechanism was to retreat into myself and seek out a beautiful part of nature where I could think. I remember taking a long drive up Cedar Mountain and reaching a pullout. There was some snow and it was cold. I got out of the car and cried. I cried and asked God why. Then I prayed like I had never before prayed and like I have rarely prayed since. I do not recall making any sort of bargains or promises to God, I just remember begging to have something in my life improve and mostly to let my dad live.

After the drive, I returned to my apartment and decided to bake. I was supposed to be studying for finals but I decided to bake instead. I don't remember specifically what I baked but I know it was more than just a batch of cookies. I remember arranging my baked goods on small plates and delivering them to friends. Even though I needed and wanted to take, it felt good to give instead. Despite my aching need for support, I don't believe I shared with anyone what was really happening, why I was breaking inside.

The strained relationship I had with my roommates snapped. I became bitter over their seeming insensitivity toward my situation and they resented my moping and sulking. I don't think they understood what was happening with my dad and I resented that although I doubt I tried to explain. At one point they misjudged the cause of my depression and made an attempt to cheer me up with a card - they thought it was about the absentee boyfriend. At the last minute they convinced me to go to the school Christmas dance with the guy next door who also didn't have a date. I agreed because I needed so desparately to find a fit somewhere. The dance wasn't the right fit. My date barely spoke to me or even sat near me. The roommates were caught up with their own dates and I felt even more isolated. At another point during finals the roommates and the boys next door decided to go to Las Vegas for the night and coaxed me into going. I consented because I again wanted to fill the void by fitting in but I was miserable.

Meanwhile, on December 7, 1994, my dad had emergency open-heart surgery (I believe on the day of my bake-a-thon but I can't be sure). He had an aortic valve replacement. The doctors were not optimistic for his survival or necessarily his recovery. I was desperate to go home but stayed in school to finish finals because my mother kept down-playing it all.

My last night in Cedar City was a Friday night. A few days earlier my supposed-boyfriend had called, given some excuses about finals and invited me to a post-finals party at his house on Friday. I decided to go. I had found a new apartment and was packing my belongings for the move. I must have had a late final because my roommates had already left for the break and I was alone in an apartment that normally housed 6 girls. I was in such a depressed and defeated state that I decided not only to go to this party but to go and actually party. I had previously resisted all offers to drink and had passed along joints at parties I probably should not have attended but I was never really tempted by alcohol or drugs. That night I wanted to try anything or everything to cover up my pain. My dad had made it through the surgery but it wasn't over and I felt rejected and abandoned by everyone. I went with a plan to smother the pain.

My plan did not work. I was too timid to grab myself a drink - I had no idea what to select. Instead I danced. I flirted and danced with every guy there and at 19 that got me the attention I was craving. I wanted the boy to be jealous but I think he was too stoned and drunk to notice (great boyfriend, right?). Near the end of the evening one particular boy was paying me a lot of attention. We started talking and he asked for my number. He had to settle for giving me his because I no longer had one since I would be in a different apartment in January when I returned to school. He did. He was the only other sober person (or so he claimed) at the party. I gave him and his brother a ride home. His brother passed out in the back seat and tried to give me money - he thought I was a cab driver I guess. My one major temptation to drink and I ended up meeting the boy I later married instead. I sometimes wonder if the better choice would have been to drink . . .

When I finally made it home I spent hours at the hospital with my dad. He was changed. The high-energy unwavering strength of my dad had been with me for 19 years and there he was emaciated in a hospital bed with an ugly scar down the center of his chest and various tubes connecting him to monitors and IVs near the bed. I worked over the break as well. During the day I sat next to his bed talking to him and reading and just not daring to leave his side for fear he would not get better and I wouldn't see him again. During my hospital visits I noticed that he ticked. At first no one believed me but eventually everyone realized and a doctor confirmed that his artificial heart valve ticks. It reminds me of the crocodile in Peter Pan that swallowed a clock. It seemed so loud and abnormal then - now it is a familiar comforting sound that reminds me to cherish my dad.

It didn't feel much like Christmas. At my mom's request, my brothers tried to throw the lights in the trees out front but that is exactly how it looked - they were clumped up at the top somewhere in a wad with strands hanging awkwardly this way and that. I don't believe we even bought a tree until a few days before Christmas. I have no real recollection of anything but my dad finally coming home medical supplies in tow and the incredible fatigue my mother carried with her. My mom and I had handled things similiarly - crawling into ourselves and not allowing others to lend support. A nurse came regularly and eventually taught my needle-fearing mother how to give him medication through his Hickman line. My dad moved excrutiatingly slow but he was alive and he healed.

With the anniversary of his surgery on Pearl Harbor (now called Remembrance Day), it is easy to remember. I originally wrote the above post on December 7th but got busy and thought I would finish it later and never got the chance. What I wanted to comment on I guess is how grateful I am that my dad lived, that no matter our differences (and there are many) or our conflicting tempers, I am grateful to have him here. I don't know what kind of turn my life would have taken if 12 years ago his surgery had not been successful. In some ways I wonder if I would have ended up where I am today if I didn't have his support and encouragement. I'm grateful that I will never have to know that.


tiff said...

Wow. This stopped me in my tracks. Thank you for such a beautifully, open post. It's amazing to look back on these types of experiences. This felt therapeutic for me. I hope it was therapeutic for you, too. Take care.

Autumn said...

Excellent post. Sean's mom right now is waiting for a liver transplant and can barely move. It's so sad to see someone you love enduring such an awful trial.

Emily said...

Wow -- this is an amazing post. My dad had aortic valve replacement on December 6, 2006, and I felt like I was reading my experience through your post -- like your dad, mine was incredibly active and forceful before the surgery and it has been unbelievable and life-altering to see him so weak (in my case, he didn't wake up from the surgery for 8 days, the longest of my family's life). It's so therapeutic to read your post and know that other people have had this experience and survived, both physically and emotionally. Thank you for sharing.

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