Thursday, August 30, 2007

The worst day of the year, 17th Anniversary Edition

Seventeen years have passed, but I remember it like yesterday. It was a very long day - I left my apartment in Oak Park, Illinois and took the El to Union Station, where I caught the Amtrak to Milwaukee. My sister met me there and we traveled north to Neenah, Wisconsin, to the Theda Clark Regional Medical Center. She recounted her attendance at the fateful concert at Alpine Valley that had taken place earlier that week. She'd seen Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, guitar heroes all. That night the helicopter carrying Stevie Ray and members of Clapton's road crew slammed into a hillside, killing all aboard and adding Vaughan's name to the roster of rock legends who perished in the Upper Midwest.

It was a beautiful late summer day, sunny and a bit hot, but comfortable enough. My father had been transferred to Theda Clark from St. Elizabeth's in Appleton following quadruple bypass surgery. He had a heart attack two weeks prior and was not really getting better even after the surgery. The doctors explained the dilemma: since Dad had not been able to get up and around, he was in danger of suffering from a pulmonary embolism. While drugs were available to break the clots, they might jeopardize healing from the surgery he'd recently undertaken. Dad was caught between Scylla and Charybdis, as the Police once sang.

We were now there, all six of us. I, the eldest, newly engaged, had been the last to arrive. Two of the siblings were still in high school. And we waited. The doctors and nurses would come and go, bringing periodic reports, decidedly non-committal in tone. My dad's best friend, himself a doctor, came by and told us that he didn't like what he'd seen. The longer we waited, the better it might be, but a pulmonary embolism is a serious problem and it could happen at any time.

As night fell, we left the hospital to get something to eat. We headed to the Appleton outpost of George Webb, the legendary greasy spoon that was a Wisconsin tradition, with locations seemingly on every street corner in Milwaukee. We tucked into massive plates of grease and tried to forget, if only for a moment. With visiting hours over, we headed home, hopeful that the silence was golden and that maybe, just maybe, things would turn out. One of my brothers returned to his home in Milwaukee, hoping that maybe he'd not need to return that night.

Around 10:20, the phone rang. I picked up the call. The nurse said that Dad wasn't doing too well and that we should come back to the hospital. "We're on the way," I replied, without inflection. We piled into a few cars and headed back to Theda Clark. Once we got there, the news was grim. A clot had formed and had traveled to Dad's lungs - a pulmonary embolism. The only hope was surgery, and the odds weren't good. Could someone give us permission to perform it? My stepmother said, yes, yes, please perform the surgery.

We headed for the chapel and prayed. Meanwhile, my brother sped back from Milwaukee, hoping to arrive in time to provide his support and prayers. But the odds were against us and eventually the news was bad. At 11:50 p.m., Dad was gone.

So many things have happened since that day, 17 long years ago. I married my fiancee and we've had a wonderful marriage that has produced two beautiful children. My siblings have long since entered adulthood and two of them are now parents as well. We've had tremendous fun and more than a few heartaches since that day. We lost our stepmother 8 years later and our mother two years after that, both victims of their 40+ year addictions to cigarettes. Those days were horribly sad, too, but likely inevitable.

The sense I've always had was that Dad wasn't ready to go. On his deathbed, he was gripping the railings, as if fighting to keep himself from leaving. He knew, I'm guessing, that he was leaving way too soon, and fought like hell to stay, even if Heaven beckoned. I can only hope that they have wonderful windows in Heaven, because I'd want him to know how wonderful his grandchildren are, that the young lady he admired has turned out to be a fantastic wife, mother and daughter-in-law, and that his boy is proud to be his son. Seventeen years on, even as I shed a tear or two, I trust he does know these things.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'd heard the lyrics below many times before I really listened. Substitute August for September, and these lyrics sum up my feelings very well.

"Wake Me Up When September Ends"
Green Day

Summer has come and passed
The innocent can never last
wake me up when September ends

like my fathers come to pass
seven years has gone so fast
wake me up when September ends

here comes the rain again
falling from the stars
drenched in my pain again
becoming who we are

as my memory rests
but never forgets what I lost
wake me up when September ends

summer has come and passed
the innocent can never last
wake me up when September ends

ring out the bells again
like we did when spring began
wake me up when September ends

here comes the rain again
falling from the stars
drenched in my pain again
becoming who we are

as my memory rests
but never forgets what I lost
wake me up when September ends

Summer has come and passed
The innocent can never last
wake me up when September ends

like my father's come to pass
twenty years has gone so fast
wake me up when September ends
wake me up when September ends
wake me up when September ends

Prayers of comfort and remembrance for everyone in our family today.

Marge

Mark said...

Hey Marge,

Indeed, that song is spot-on. And I've even heard of Green Day, which is highly unusual for any band that came to prominence after, say, 1987 or so.

September tends to get a bad rap in songs, anyway - I think Earth Wind & Fire is the only band that gave a shout-out to what is usually one of the best months of the year.

Anonymous said...

Never too late for a prayer or two for your father, Mark. I always appreciated him and enjoyed his company. Even the times when he was, ahem, a bit upset with us. Painting the garage with "No Smoking" signs may be a fun memory now, but it MOST CERTAINLY was not all those years ago. Good grief that was more than 35 years ago. Lost youth, lost innocence and, unfortunately, a lost father. Here's one to Ed and to his great children, including MBF for all-time.

Uncle Ben said...

Your worst day was my parents' best. They celebrated 38 years of marriage yesterday. My best to you and your family.

Mark said...

Congrats to your parents, Ben - 38 years of marriage is a marvelous accomplishment. It's also a helpful reminder that, even as I relive the sadness of the day, there will be great joy elsewhere.

Best,
Mark