May 7, 2018 / Creative Writing
Rita Willett remembers the old Saint Louis City Hospital and realizes that some things really haven’t changed.
February 27, 2018
The dotted lines on the road merged as I drove faster, an NPR report on the collapse of the mining middle class in Australia babbling against the walls of my SUV that seemed oddly connected to the collapse that left my dad dying in a hospital in Hanford, California, while I was five hours south trying to reach him before it happened. It wasn’t like I was trying to listen to the story. But this is the alchemy shock: the fear swallows everything else around it, prompting you to see everything as connected. Fear makes the details of the known fit the story of the unknown—in this case whether or not I’d see my father alive again—so that story feels less overwhelming.
As I drove, I prayed the only words that made sense: “It’s not time, God. It’s not time.” I repeated the words over and over, silently and aloud, willing myself to take up the faith they implied. Maybe I couldn’t draw it up from within. Maybe the mere repetition was all I could do. But I kept praying. That’s the illogical logic of faith: I don’t have enough on my own, but I might, if I press into my lack, touch a source that warrants the pressing.
But that’s not what I was thinking as I sped toward my sister’s house to meet her and my brother—rushing in from Phoenix—and drive immediately north to the hospital where they’d taken Dad after he fell apart. Instead, I prayed, “It’s not time it’s not time it’s not time it’s not time.”
And now to break a cardinal rule of compelling writing: Dad didn’t die.
I know, I know. The uplift, the happy ending, the miraculous intervention, the afterglow of faith rewarded—I’ve trampled it all. Sorry. This just ain’t that story. Not this time. It’s not that those elements aren’t present in the most mundane and mysterious details but that this is a story about the living, not the dead.
Here’s what happened. A stealth gall bladder infection swelled a plum-sized organ to the size of a softball and then pressed against Dad’s liver. This development might have killed him eventually on its own, but the infection, made particularly nasty by the blood thinners he takes to manage arrhythmia and thicker-than-normal lung tissue constricting every heartbeat, smeared large portions of the gall bladder black with necrotic tissue. And then it blew a hole in the organ’s wall, spilling infected ooze into Dad’s abdomen and demanding emergency surgery. That’s when things got downright terrifying.
All of this happened before my midnight drive, before Mom called, her voice like metal wire pulled so tight it verged on giving way, and said, “You need to come up right now.”
I haven’t been the same since that call.
I’ve dealt with death’s reality, lost those close to me, grieved in the pew and on the barstool. A parent at their end, though, is a very different loss. No matter how long you have to prepare, the death of your mother or father is seismic. In college, a close friend’s father dropped dead of a massive coronary. There was no warning, just breakfast on a Sunday morning followed by the irrevocable shattering of a family. Another friend’s father lost a protracted battle with cancer that was anything but sudden. It did, however, cause a similar rupture.
We are reminded, often, that our time is a flicker. A picture of a child drowned while fleeing a civil war in a place we’ll never visit tops our newsfeed. A coworker breaks down because he has no one to help bear his loss. A student withdraws in the final week of the semester with nothing but that most sterile descriptor: loss in the family. We are always one degree of separation from death’s inevitability.
“You need to come up right now,” said Mom, and so I drove and prayed and labored against the increasingly vivid inventions of my fiction-writing mind, imagining what might be happening in that hospital while the distance between us shrank more slowly than felt fair.
My father. The man whose life most directly formed my idea of who I might become. The man I remember the way I hope my children will remember me. The man whose advice I still seek. The man my children call Bampa and race to hug. The man who served others his whole life through sermons and directing the food bank and sitting in hospitals with families in the position we now found ourselves.
Somewhere on the road, a thought occurred to me. I was writing a eulogy for my father. Then the drive ended and we found him in the ICU, weak but still with us. At the sight of him, I tucked away the partially formed accounting of his life I’d been sketching in my head, scolding myself for entertaining those thoughts in the first place. Putting it away was such a relief, a feeling I couldn’t put words to for some time, not until I wrote this next line: we should write eulogies for the living.
Nothing could have prepared me for finding my father unconscious and intubated, and yet the scene was all too familiar. The hospital reveal is one of the most prefigured moments in our collective consciousness. It’s the end of every soap opera storyline, the point of every newscast, the setting of every medical drama.
The result? There is no way to see your father resting on that fault line without it feeling as familiar as breath and as foreign as breathing. Maybe that’s why the ventilator feels more emblematic of this fault line between life and death than any other medical apparatus.
“Man, someone needs to comb his hair.”
These, sadly, are the first words I could form as I stood looking at him when I finally reached his hospital room. It feels even more vapid in print than when I said it at the time. Maybe I couldn’t take in the rest of him, and his hair—matted, sticking out at odd angles, an oily dark gray that seemed unfamiliar—said enough. Dad was tore up, even in the most everyday ways.
And he wasn’t the only one looking rough. A bit later his surgeon, Dr. Resne-something-Russian, edged into the room and watched silently while a nurse checked vitals and changed a catheter bag. The doctor’s face was a billboard for exhaustion and, in maybe the most disconcerting realization I’ve ever had about a medical professional, fear.
“What happened?” I asked after introducing myself.
“I really don’t know.”
These were not the words I wanted to hear. I needed the fear I saw in his eyes to be of the manageable, known variety rather than the erratic and unknown.
“What does that mean?”
He looked back at my father and ran his hand over his stubbled jaw before responding. “We hadn’t even started yet. It just went.”
The conversation stopped there. It wasn’t until months later that my father’s cardiologist helped make the sequence slightly clearer. Agitated and exhausted after days of intense pain and a few rapid transfusions to clear the blood thinners from his system, Dad was taken into the operating room late in the evening. He was nervous, even after prayer with Mom and the anesthesiologist, but this was nothing out of the ordinary for someone headed into an emergency surgery. The surgical team scrubbed in, prepped the room, and gave Dad a sedative before the anesthetic. That’s an important preposition there. Before. They hadn’t even given him the hard stuff when Dad, who thankfully remembers none of this, went off the rails.
Modern medical science offers us more information than we’ve ever had about the human body. My dad’s pacemaker, which can be reset via Wi-Fi and has a processor chip more powerful than my first computer, would later tell us that his heart rate hit 400 beats per minute in that operating room. It hit 400 before any major drugs were administered, before the scalpel left the tray, before the doctor got anywhere near the infection that was quite literally killing him.
This is what freaked out Dr. R. He couldn’t tell me why Dad’s heart almost exploded in his chest.
My father’s eyes are a fantastically light blue, except in those first moments of consciousness when, I swear, they reflected the muted gray of a stormy sea. He gestured for someone to yank the tube from his throat, something that wouldn’t happen for several more frustrated and frustrating hours, and then he faded back into sleep, only to jolt awake every so often, as if confirming he was still here. The second time he woke up, I was standing next to him.
“Hey, if you want to get us all together, there are easier ways,” I said quietly, leaning over and giving him an uncharacteristic kiss on the forehead.
Dad nodded, stuck his index finger in the air, and started drawing. His hand shook like he had some form of palsy, so it took a beat to figure out he was spelling something.
Of course, Dad’s sense of humor recovered first. I said the word aloud, and he nodded before passing out from the effort. It was twenty minutes before he woke again.
And that’s how it went for the next few hours—eyes, questions, gestures, jokes, nods, uncontrollable dozing. In the early afternoon, they finally took him off the ventilator. After coughing for several minutes, his first two words were ice chips. Those were also his fourteenth and fifteenth, nineteenth and twentieth, and twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth words. To say he was frustrated at how long it took to get a cup of crushed ice would be an injustice to the notion of frustration. It was almost funny, but then he couldn’t find the strength to lift the spoon to his mouth and it was anything but. I fed Dad a spoon of ice chips, and he nodded his thanks, tears in his eyes. I had to look away.
This was a man who had worked with his hands his whole life, who played offensive line at just 165 pounds, who pulled me up off the floor and spun me around in circles when I blocked the final shot in a high-school playoff game. This was the man who officiated my wedding and performed his father’s funeral.
After spooning another scoop of ice into his mouth, I headed to the hotel for a nap. The three hours of sleep I’d gotten in the previous forty-eight just couldn’t hold me upright anymore, and I collapsed on the bed fully clothed. I didn’t move for two hours.
I’ve thought a lot about eulogies since Dad’s Episode. That’s what we call it, the Episode. With a capital E. I’m not sure how else to refer to it—saying infection only gets at part of the story, and it wasn’t really a heart attack. It wasn’t a surgical mishap or an instance of malpractice. It just was. The technical term, I guess, might be hypertachycardia, as tachycardia occurs when a resting heart rate exceeds a normal threshold, which for anyone over age fifteen is 100 beats per minute, and Dad quadrupled that with a rate so fast it feels fictional to talk about. So, I call it the Episode, the cliffhanger season finale that leaves the show’s main character on the brink only to allow for a miraculous recovery in the fall.
The Episode. If only that were accurate. Call cut. Roll back the cameras. Drop the lights. Stand and take a bow while the studio audience applauds and then head to the craft services table or dressing room. It’s shocking—when we let it be—how easily we can slide into thinking of the people in our lives the way we do our favorite actors, as if they only exist when they’re performing their part in our scene, when we’re in the same room or their voices are audible. And then, our shared episode ends, and we remember to think about them again when regularly scheduled programming brings them back to mind.
It gnaws at me that it took a capital-E Episode to remind me I am prone to this clichéd forgetfulness for people I love. So, I’ve started “writing” eulogies for the people who haven’t left me yet in how I talk to them and the value I place on the time we have together. Sometimes I share my thoughts with these people without saying that the words are inspired by the thought of their memorial service, or maybe the thought of my own. If my father’s Episode has inspired anything in me, it’s this: I will not wait until my friends and family are incapable of hearing what they mean to me before I say it. I guess you could say this is my dad’s eulogy. Or that I’ve been more consciously writing his eulogy in the words we’ve spoken since his Episode. Or that maybe the best part of my eulogy for Dad is the way all of this reminded me to follow his lead in my relationships with my children, relationships that were dying because of my busyness and absence.
My father, it seems, isn’t the only one of us who had a near-death experience. Mine just wouldn’t make sense to me until I got past his.
In the days after Dad’s crash, recovery came in fits and starts. Shortly after the doctors inserted a tube into his side to drain bags (plural) of black sludge from his abdomen, the pain receded enough that he could joke about how the hospital’s cable plan did not have the football games he wanted to watch.
“Someone needs to send a note to the front desk about that,” he said through his usual grin.
It took a few more days, after my siblings and I had to leave, before they could finally remove his infected gall bladder. The swollen organ (I’ve seen pictures, unfortunately) looked as though it were coated in charcoal, indicating that the infection wasn’t recent and explaining Dad’s extreme exhaustion in the preceding months. We thought it was his heart, but we should have been aiming lower. On that score, the doctor provided another bit of curious information. Dad’s gall bladder was pressed against his liver when it ruptured and the resulting spill would have done permanent damage to it had not a flap of fat covered the exact spot where it split open, staunching the poison’s flow.
Dad’s heart issues are, ironically, the other reason he survived. According to his cardiologist, the only reason the surgeon could pump in enough medication to slow his runaway heart was his pacemaker, which would not allow his pulse to bottom out. Without that, the drugs would have swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. I’m fairly certain it’s the first time Dad has been thankful for the thing.
The fact that my father’s Episode was followed by a second season of life is a blessing my children received in a way I did not when I was a child. I can’t recall meeting my Grandpa Jack, but I’m told we’d have gotten along well. A quiet man who built airplanes for Northrop, he once let my brother eat an entire box of ice cream sandwiches while they watched the Dodgers on TV. When opera music came on, he’d silence his hearing aid and pretend to listen. All of these are other people’s memories of him. I have none of my own because my mother’s father died of a heart attack shortly after my birthday. Mom was thirty.
Over the years, I’ve collected stories about Jack from anyone who would tell them to me, but the number I have is small. I think I was trying to make a person out of them all but only ended up with a scrapbook, and a small one at that. The Hendricks women are tough. They hold their stories and losses close to themselves. But now, I wonder what Mom’s eulogy for Grandpa Jack was like and what parts of it he got to hear before he died.
I have three children. In the three years before Dad’s Episode, I’d seen them only occasionally, it seemed, as I worked to establish myself in two new careers. I tried not to be the father who dropped in after they fell asleep, kissed them on the forehead in a way that never interrupted their dreams, and left again before spending any meaningful time together. And yet, that’s exactly what I’d become when Dad collapsed.
After he stabilized, my siblings and I headed home to our jobs and families, knowing that there was always the chance that we would need to return later. On the long drive south from the hospital, we siphoned off our collective tension by quoting the Saturday Night Live skits of our youth and swapping stories about the challenges of the coming school year. Education is, after all, the family business. In all of this, we were wrestling with the knowledge that Dad had not yet recovered enough for us to feel safe. We did this, each in our own way, staring out at the same road we’d followed in the opposite direction with opposite emotions just a few days earlier.
The details of that trip are a jumble in my head now—except for one. We stopped for a comfort lunch at In-N-Out, and the line was out the front door. We slumped in our booth and stared at the order numbers on our receipts while they built our burgers. What I remember most is how old I felt, or maybe more accurately, how acute the passage of time felt in that moment. We’re long past young, the three of us, but the exhaustion and realization we were wading through made the weight of those years painfully evident.
In that wordless space, I pictured my children coming to a hospital bed to see me. I imagined my daughter, who came into our family after she lost her biological mother; my middle son who is the most emotionally sensitive and empathetic child I know; and my youngest who plays the independent clown role more than he lives it. I watched grown-up versions of the three of them answer the same call I had and rush hundreds of miles to be there for me.
As I pictured them watching from across the room, I wondered what their eulogies for me would say. I was convinced that they would probably talk about a dad who was funny and demanding and said he loved them and wasn’t there all that much. In short, it felt hollow compared to how I remember my father. The scene multiplied my sadness and stuck in my side like a blade.
For the next couple months, I kept cycling back to that dull ache, exacerbated by the stress of another unmanageable semester. Meanwhile, there was middle school for one, first grade for another, and an explosion of talkativeness for the baby boy, all while I was somewhere else. At the same time, Dad was improving. He smiled more and laughed a lot and seemed, well, like the guy who took on projects in the garage for fun and filled in for his pastor from time to time. But as happy as I wanted to be, the inverse trajectories of our lives as fathers illuminated a need to help my children write better eulogies for me.
For Christmas that year, I bought notebooks for the older two. Inside the front covers, I made lists of events and experiences for each of them to look forward to individually, things we would do together over the course of the next year ranging from coffee dates to movies to cooking dinners with me. And after each, I asked them to write about what we did. And while those notebooks didn’t get filled—what child has the capacity for soothing their parent’s fear about a legacy still in progress?—our conversations have changed. I want them to be able to look back from time to time, not merely at videos or pictures but at their own thoughts about the time we spent. I do keep a journal of my own, mostly because I want to trap our time together in amber and hold onto the moments I know are already sliding away from us. I want what I think my dad wanted when we were kids: to be present in more than just spirit while there’s still the chance.
Michael Dean Clark
Michael Dean Clark is writer of fiction and literary nonfiction whose work has appeared in places like Hoosier Lit, Angel City Review, Pleiades, Relief, and others. Formerly an award-winning journalist, he is also the coeditor of the books Creative Writing in the Digital Age and Creative Writing Innovations. Follow him on Twitter at @MDeanClark and check out his blog at writingaftersunsets.wordpress.com.