Sunday, August 30, 2009

August 30, 1990

I'd set my alarm clock early, because I knew that it was going to be a long day. My father had had a heart attack two weeks before and had undergone quadruple bypass surgery a few days later. He'd been in the hospital for two weeks now and things weren't going well.

As I packed my bag for a visit, I was listening to the radio. A song that had been popular that summer, "Way Down Now," by World Party, was playing and I was absent-mindedly singing along:

Won't you show me something true today
C'mon and show me anything but this

I didn't know the half of it.


August of 1990 had already been a very eventful month. Jill and I had been edging ever closer to marriage and we were very excited about it. We'd been ring shopping earlier in the summer and I finally had managed to squirrel away enough money to get the ring. I'd placed the ring on Jill's finger 3 weeks before, on a flight from Chicago to Minneapolis. As soon as we got off the plane, Jill's mother noticed the ring and leaped into action. By the time the weekend had concluded, we'd already had a line on the church and the reception hall.

A week later the call had come from my brother that Dad had a heart attack. Jill and I were on our way to Appleton the next day. My brother had told me that although he'd had the heart attack, he was okay and that the prognosis was good. Still, we decided to find out for ourselves.

My brother's report had been accurate. Dad seemed fine when I talked to him on the phone. Jill was delighted to show her future father-in-law the ring. When we walked into Dad's hospital room, he seemed in good spirits. Jill smiled when she saw him.

"You know, when a couple gets married, it's the father of the bride who's supposed to have the heart attack, especially when he thinks about the bill," Jill said.

My dad laughed out loud. "Tell your father I had the heart attack in solidarity with him," he said. While Dad was still in the hospital and surgery awaited, it seemed like the worst was over, so we returned to Chicago and our lives after the weekend.


The surgery was going to be tricky -- a quadruple bypass. The prognosis was good, though -- we had been assured that as many as 90-95% of people who had the surgery were able to get out of the hospital within weeks and resume a normal life. The odds seemed good.

But things had not gotten much better. The surgery turned out to be complicated and complications from surgery began almost immediately. After another week, my brother had called again and told me I should come home.

I didn't own a car, so the trip home was complicated. I climbed aboard an Amtrak train at Union Station and rode it to Milwaukee. I met my sister at the station and we drove the two hours back to Theda Clark Regional Medical Center in Neenah, the hosptial where my dad was being treated.

As we drove, we talked about everything except the problems Dad was having. My sister had attended a concert at Alpine Valley over the weekend, a concert that ended in tragedy when Stevie Ray Vaughan and members of Eric Clapton's road crew were killed in a helicopter crash. Vaughan had performed there that night with Clapton and Robert Cray and my sister had felt that Stevie Ray had blown everyone else off the stage.

"It was an unbelievable concert, Mark," she said. "But I can't believe that he died. You just don't know what's going to happen, do you?"

I thought about that. I knew what she meant. But there was a long silence.

By the time we got to the hospital, things were seeming pretty dicey. Dad had been in intensive care for a few days and was drifting in and out of consciousness. We spent a lot of time sitting in an outside area overlooking the Fox River. At the time I was nearly a pack-a-day smoker and they weren't especially interested in having me pollute the waiting room. We weren't allowed to visit Dad; only my stepmother could go in. I could peek my head into his room, but I'm not sure he knew that I was there.

Dad's best friend was a pathologist named Charles Awen who lived in Oconto, Wisconsin, a small town about 70 miles north of Appleton. He wasn't involved in Dad's case but he'd been in to see Dad and I could tell that he was worried when I talked to him.

"I don't know, Mark. He doesn't look too good," Dr. Awen said. "The problem he's had is that he's been confined to bed for so long and he's had a lot of blood clots that have formed. He's at risk for a pulmonary embolism."

"Is there anything I can do, Dr. Awen?" I asked, even though I knew the answer.

"Not really. He's being treated for it now, but it's going to be tough."

Dr. Awen was right. It was going to be tough. By late afternoon all my siblings were at the hospital. We got a report from the doctor who was treating Dad. He told us he was cautiously optimistic. He also told us that we really didn't need to hang around the hospital, because there wasn't much we could do for him at this point. My brother Pat, who at the time lived in Milwaukee, asked if he thought Dad would make it through the night. The doctor seemed to think that wouldn't be a problem, so my brother returned to Milwaukee.

The rest of us went to George Webb, a classic U-shaped diner that is straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. We tucked into massive plates of greasy food and told bad jokes and laughed. It was an enormous release of tension. We had taken the medical staff's counsel to heart and were hopeful that maybe the storm would pass.

By 10 o'clock, we were all back at the big house on Railroad Street. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and laughter. So much so that I almost didn't hear the phone ring. But I did and I answered it. The voice on the other end was matter of fact and frankly a little chilling.

"This is Theda Clark. You need to get back down here. Things have taken a turn for the worse."

"We're on the way," I said. And we were.

We were there in 15 minutes. As Dr. Awen had feared, a large blood clot had broken free and had traveled to Dad's lungs. He was having difficulty breathing and needed emergency surgery. The doctor asked my stepmother if she would authorize it.

"Of course I do! What are the odds of success?"

"Not good," the doctor replied. "Less than 10%."

"Do it. We're going to the chapel to pray."

And we did. We prayed hard. I don't know that I'd ever prayed so hard in my life, before or since. We'd called my brother and he was tearing down U.S. 41 back to Neenah, hoping against hope that he could be there to help in some way, any way.

I know that God hears our prayers. And I know that God answers our prayers, too. But for whatever reason, the prayers weren't answered in the way we would have hoped. Dad passed away about a half hour after we'd arrived back at the hospital. When we went in to see him, we noticed that his fingers were clamped to the side rails of his hospital bed, as if he were fighting to the very end. He wasn't ready to leave, any more than we were ready to have him leave.

It had been 15 hours earlier, in my apartment in Chicago, that I'd heard the song that followed me like a nagging argument all day long.

Won't you show me something true today
C'mon and show me anything but this

19 years later, I still wish I'd been shown anything but this.


Night Writer said...

Ah, yes. Well done. Those anniversaries have a way of leaving their mark, don't they? It's good that you've written about it, 19 years later. I had the opportunity to write about my father's passing almost in real time through my blog in September and October of 2007, and the experience does give one a handle for expressing the sadness and a way of bonding with others in this all-too-human circumstance that is both strange and familiar.

Similarly, I once commemorated the 10th anniversary of my grandfather's death in a post entitled "Just Waiting". If you will indulge me, I think you'll understand the sentiments:

At the end we were just waiting for the practiced heart, which had betrayed him years before and now seemed to want to make amends, to finally lie back and take its rest.

Halfway across the country I listened and could still sense the beat. I also listened through the phone lines as his children gathered and told me of each regression that certainly had to be the last but wasn’t; his life force stretched as implausibly thin yet as miraculously effective as the fiberoptics that carried me into that room as they described sound and color.

Scarcely a week since I had been there to see for myself: told to hurry, and arriving to clasp the withered hand, to see the chalky color, to hear the faint voice, to kiss the papery skin, and to smell…to smell the rubber and the medicine and the institutional disinfectant…and that one scent that they seemed to want to cover up but I could still detect in the back of my throat as I stood at the bedside.

Just waiting, back at home, I stood by another bedside, listening to my wife breathe. Undressing, I fit myself in beside her, our heads touching, our arms around each other, and we talked about the great moments of one’s life — the excitement before a birthday, the joy before a wedding — and how those fall short of the momentous anticipation and anxiety of the days leading up to the birth of a child, of going to bed wondering if this will be the night that everything will change and we awaken to bring forth a new life, at once shuddering in both the hope and the dread of the joy that would be set before us and the trial to be endured. We spoke also of the hope we have in Christ, and of the days leading up to the joy/dread in some distant but nearing future when we go to bed wondering if that will be the night that everything will change and we awaken into new life.

I traced the warm, round firmness of her hip with my hand and sniffed as her hair brushed under my nose, her skin smooth and her lips soft. Still touching, we lay in our temporary cocoon and I remembered that some song describes time as a willow tree, bending over to reach the water, but I knew that the songwriter was wrong. We are the willows, and Time is the river, and we bend and it just goes on, but in that moment we laughed and I said “Naked I came into this bed, and naked shall I go out!”

And from down the hallway came the sound of the telephone. Ringing.

Marge said...

That night is why I generally won't make telephone calls after 9:00 P.M. If my phone rings after 9:00, I feel that old familiar panic for just a split second.

19 years. In some ways, a lifetime or two... and in other ways, just like yesterday. I miss Dad every day.

NW, your "Just Waiting" post is powerful stuff. Thanks for sharing it.

Mr. D said...


Thank you for sharing "Just Waiting." It does get to the heart of the matter.


I know. I still worry a little when I hear the phone at night. Caller ID helps a little, I guess. But it's the memory that lingers. And I still think about Dad (and Mom) every day.

Leo Pusateri said...

Great post. And your "Just Waiting" piece was wonderfully done, John.

Having just lost my father a year and a half ago, I identified with much of what you both posted.

BTW--I was also in the Milwaukee area the day of the fateful helicopter crash that killed Vaughan. Strange how our experiences are often intertwined.