This was my dad, but not really. It is a great picture of him, because he appears to be toasting with somebody behind the lens – with you. But he never really liked to drink, so it doesn’t really depict the real him that whose of us who remember him knew.
My dad had a heart attack on his 69th birthday – October 5, 2016, after spending the afternoon and evening in the hot sun putting all the plants and patio furniture inside and putting up hurricane shutters in anticipation of the dud that was Hurricane Matthew. My mom called me at 10:45 that night to advise that my old man had been taken to the hospital via ambulance. By the time I arrived at the hospital, he was out of the cath lab, freshly stented, a 100% occlusion busted, and a couple other occlusions needing to be monitored. He was in bed, looked reasonably himself, and was exquisitely pissed that he had actually had a real bona fide heart attack, despite his never having smoked, lack of interest in drinking, and relatively steady exercise throughout his life. He stayed in the hospital for monitoring for four days. I received this news and his recuperation with some kind of magical optimism. My dad was immortal to me. This was a hiccup in the overall timeline of his approaching senescence – one that would be spent relaxing with his granddaughter for whom his sun more or less rose and set. I still have a clear mental image of her growing taller and him growing older and a little slower, at a series of lovely bookstores.
When my mom called at 2:45 am exactly a week later, her voice was garbled and choked and I could hear a lot of activity in the background as paramedics worked to restore his heart function. I could literally hear the paddles zapping after a technician calmly stated “clear” and I could hear the police officer asking my mother to please go ahead and sit down. Although I drove to the hospital repeating to myself over and over that nothing was wrong, this was another hiccup in the gig, that my mom was exaggerating, my old man was already gone. As I later learned, he was likely already gone before his body thumped into the wall and slid to the floor of the bedroom he shared with my mom. But I drove with the same sense of easy purpose to the hospital as a week earlier – almost smiling that luck with these matters was always on my side. I had, after all, made it 36 years with a deep dread of losing one of my parents, but never personally experiencing such a piercing loss.
He had come over to my place a day earlier with my mom to hang out with the baby for a couple hours while I worked and my husband shopped for the week’s groceries. He sent me a text of himself sitting on my couch with the girl in his lap – “Peppa watching!” Watching her favorite cartoon. She adored him and was never crabby in his company. Tranquil. As he left in high spirits later that evening, I told him to please get home safely and he paused as if to ask what was amiss. I leaned into my hug with him and said in a low voice, as if joking, “just don’t have another heart attack and die.” I remember his face at the elevator looking askew at me like had I really just asked him that? The comment was heavier than intended and seemed to hit him hard.
I got to the hospital just as my mom was taking a seat in the ER waiting room – a separate ambulance had driven her in, because she was on the verge of passing out. As I walked up and waved to her, a nurse motioned us to the back, and my mom and I ambled, zombielike, behind her as she looked for a “room” that was not occupied. None of the rooms we looked into had actual patients. They contained couches and computers.
We were sat in a room with computer terminals as a tired ER doctor sat down and asked us what happened. My mom recounted the events: he had a decent night, watched baseball until late, climbed the stairs as usual and got into bed. Sometime in the middle of the night, he moved around, as if getting up to use the bathroom, and collapsed against the wall. After this brief window of hope – the doctor is taking a history – the doctor shook his head and told us there was nothing that could be done, and a rush of blood up to my ears covered up the sounds of my mother sobbing. After providing additional detail, we were allowed to visit my old man, lying in a separate room on a gurney, with a tube sticking uncomfortably out of his mouth, but otherwise looking as he always did. My mom wept some more and hugged him desprearately, while I paced around the room and occasionally made a grab for one of his hairy hands. He literally looked like he could smirk or wink – this was a great ruse!
What happened next was my leaving the room briefly to call my aunt – the first of two of the most horrifying calls I have made in my life. I told her “I am sorry to wake you. My dad has died.” And I remember being cut off as she literally screamed “no” into the phone in a tone of voice I have never heard from anybody. I tried my godfather, my old man’s business parter for the past 42 years, but his phone was off for the night.
I called my husband and merely said “baby, he’s dead.” He later told me he hung up, went and got the baby out of her bed, and she slept in our bed for the rest of the night. I texted my best friend, with whom I had allowed relations to become strained over stupid politics, that my father died, that he died at home.
I drove my mom home. We lay in their bed – I was on the side my dad had occupied, alive, until a few hours earlier, but neither of us slept. This lasted all of an hour – me silently weeping, getting tired of the burned feeling around my eyes from the tears and wiping, until I could take no more, and began to organize the huge pile of books they had moved around a few weeks earlier to install new flooring in the house. The sweating and exertion felt good and appropriate. I would fix what I could in increments until I could figure out how to fix larger problems.
I received a call from my best friend and, for the first time, adopted my “closure story” – that he went out like a champ, at the top of his game, no convalescence of expectations, likely unaware that his hour had come. It felt as good coming out of my mouth as it did hollow, because his hero story did nothing to bring him back. My dad had told me when he heard I was fighting with my best friend, to please remember all that she’d done for me and to get over politics. He was proud of me, but my principles were sort of pointless in the face of a real, concrete friendship.
The next call I made was to my godfather. He answered and I told him straight off, “my dad died.” The second most horrifying call of my life, as he began to openly and audibly weep on the phone. I could hear my godmother in the background screaming. What a fucking mess. Again, I told the hero story. A death better than his hero, Steve McQueen’s.
I went about my chores for the day in a fog. Practicalities needed to be considered. Things needed to be done. My mother needed to be helped and looked after. I needed to eat, and then to violently shit every calorie that I ate. I needed to pretend to be okay for the baby. I needed to organize and manage initial steps toward typing up his loose ends. I needed to repeat to myself all day and ad nauseum in the coming days: “is not there,” “will not take your calls,” “did not get your texts,” “won’t reply to your emails,” “is dead,” “is not coming back anymore,” and the like. I needed to convince myself and also to somehow hold myself together.
We catapaulted towards the funeral. I am an only child. My mom is strong and wonderful, but also in need of a firm support system. I hardened into the best rock I could be. Amazingly, I did not wig out. I only really lost it, and continue to lose it, on my drives home from work as I turn through streets he likely drove on earlier in the month, as he was getting from place to place and planning an October vacation with my mom to New York to celebrate his birthday.
A week of unimaginable stress ensued with funeral events and friends and relatives and baby-managing. Respect and gratitude for all who made it out to suffer alongside us with the loss. A big push to not screw anything up. Letting go alone in the car. Saltwater marks on all my pairs of sunglasses.
As painful as this experience has been, it has made me closer to him, as I finally understand in first-person the “red line” I spoke about at the funeral, which is drawn in a person’s life when they first experience real, terrible, personal loss. He experienced it as a child when his mother became ill and then died, and then again when his father put him on a plane for Miami to be free and make a new life, starting at age 12, in a different country with a different language, on his own. What a terrible red line to have been drawn so soon in his life! And he went with it, got an education, started a business, and always seemed to me to be in control, a little over-protective, but contented with what he had accomplished and that he made a good life for my mother and I. Who would dare to lose it in the face of his steady efforts to keep everything together, tranquil, contented.
What a massive shame for him to not get to spend his golden years with his granddaughter. In hindsight, they had almost too good of a thing together.
Between my two parents, I am most like my father in temperament. His loss has already made me an infinitely better, more grateful parent. I have been sitting heavily in his bones, so to speak, since October 12, 2016.