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.