How do you say goodbye to a legend?
My dad’s last heart attack differed from the others. At first, I thought he was having a panic attack, which would have been reasonable under the circumstances. The day before the attack, he was looking around on the Internet and came across a message board where a man posted that he was looking for his father. The man turned out to be my father’s long-lost son. The news both excited and terrified my father, and he called me immediately asking what he should do.
I’d heard about the son before. My mother was mad at my dad when I was five and told me of the boy’s existence.
“He just got up and walked out on his wife and his little boy,” she confided in me, forgetting she was also there when it happened. My parents had an affair. When my mom got pregnant with me, the two of them ran off to Hawaii telling nobody ahead of time. My mom couldn’t exactly wash her hands of the whole thing.
I heard the story a million times growing up, each time told by my mom trying to make me change my opinion about my dad. Not once was I having it, though. I saw my father through the eyes of a little girl long after my childhood passed. He was a gentle giant, my best friend, the funniest and wisest man on Earth. He always wore his heart on his sleeve. I never had to guess how he felt about me. He loved me unconditionally.
Because my dad was so nervous, I offered to write to my father’s son, my older brother. His name was Bill, just like my dad, and he wanted to call me immediately. Over the phone, I told Bill that his father had seen the message. Bill wanted to fly out to Florida and meet us in person. When I called my dad back to give him the news, he told me he’d been having chest pains all afternoon. I told him to call 911, and I’d meet him at the hospital.
The news upon arrival was bad. Not only was my father having a massive heart attack, but the doctors wanted to perform open heart surgery right away. Already under major stress at that moment, my dad freaked out.
“No, I have things I have to take care of. I can’t stay here right now!”
I put my hand over his, the same way he once did to me. “This is an emergency, Dad. Let them do it.”
My father agreed to go through with the surgery. I called his son Bill and let him know. Bill wanted to fly out even sooner just in case something worse happened. I didn’t want to discourage him, but I wasn’t sure my father could handle the stress of reuniting with his abandoned son on top of his operation. I tried to talk to my dad about it when I went back to his room so I could get his thoughts. Unfortunately, by the time his surgery was over, they had given him so much medication he wasn’t coherent. I decided it could wait until the morning.
When I returned to the hospital the next day, my father was still in the recovery room along with several other patients. I spotted him sitting in a wheelchair in the corner and made my way over. If he was sitting up, he couldn’t be doing too badly. That was my thought, but when I looked into my father’s eyes, I noticed he wasn’t there.
“My wife is here,” my father shouted out loud. “Are you my wife?”
I looked briefly around the room in search of a nurse. My dad grew more agitated by the second, yelling that his wife was here to take him home.
“No Dad, it’s me, Glenna.”
“MY WIFE IS HERE!” He was attracting attention now. One nurse saw me looking confused and pulled me aside to talk.
“Your dad is having cognitive issues related to the anesthesia,” she explained. “We have him sitting up because the doctor found a blood clot in his leg, and they don’t want it to travel.”
As much as I would have liked to be calm about it, the whole episode really upset me. My dad thought I was his estranged wife, my mother, the woman who was so mean to him when I was a kid. I’m sure that the fact I looked like her didn’t make it any easier. I cut my visit short so my father would calm down, but the scene rolled around in my head for the rest of the day. My father looked small and meek and afraid. I’d only ever seen him as tough and brave, even as a grown woman. When the parent became the child and the roles were reversed, it left me feeling a little jaded and lost.
I went back to the hospital later that night before visiting hours ended. The night-shift nurse told me to stay in a small waiting room until she talked to the doctor. Even though it was getting late, I could hear people shuffling and yelling and emergency buzzers everywhere. I could have sworn they were going off every five minutes. Why wouldn’t they let me see my father?
The doctor came in about half an hour later and explained everything. The blood clot in my father’s leg moved to his heart, causing him to go into cardiac arrest multiple times. The hospital didn’t have a “do not resuscitate” order for him, so they kept using CPR and paddles to bring him back to life.
“All those alarm buzzers I heard, were they for my dad?” I asked through tears. The doctor nodded his head and put an arm around me, then asked me to sign the DNR order to not revive him. It was my final gift to my father, letting him go at peace rather than yanked violently back into life over and over again. After all my dad had done for me, it was the least I could do for him.
The doctor then took me to my dad’s hospital bed. My father looked peaceful laying there and almost stoic. Of course, he was always a strong man, but on his face I saw the dignity of a dying man ready to take a deep breath in a new world. I sat in a chair next to his bed, trying to keep my composure as I held the hand of the most awesome dad on the planet.
When my dad used to sing “Rock-A-Bye-Baby” at bedtime, he’d rock me in his arms whether I was age one or eleven. Every time he got to the “down will come” part, he’d lean close and whisper “What’s your name again?” We’d both dissolve into a fit of giggles. We played Black Jack, drank root beer and ate stick pretzels for hours on the weekends we spent together.
We had deep conversations about life, loss, and regret. He never lied to me once about himself or his mistakes, even when it would have made him look better. It was the type of father he was. He made being kind and generous seem so easy, especially having a childhood where his own parents beat and ridiculed him. My dad was determined to break the cycle back in the days where it merely got passed down through generations. I loved him for it.
I stayed next to my dad throughout the night, sometimes resting my head on the edge of his bed when I felt sleepy. When the nurse asked me if I was all right, I lied and said yes knowing nothing would ever be all right again. I was losing my biggest supporter and my greatest hero at the same time. Who would love me more than anything after he was gone?
My husband came at first light and sent me home to get some sleep. I made him promise that he wouldn’t leave my dad to die alone. There was nothing worse I could think of than my dad passing without somebody by his side. My husband was right when he said I seemed exhausted. Maybe I’d think more clearly in a few hours.
As soon as I got home, the phone was ringing. It was my husband calling to tell me that my dad had passed away. Even today, I believed my father waited to die until I left the building. It was as if he knew I would have been even more devastated by that moment than by losing him. He didn’t want me to be there. I believe that with my whole heart, and it brings me great peace.
My half-brother flew out anyway, even though our father died before he could get to us. Bill was a great comfort to me in my grief, but I felt the weight of his still hungry heart for a father’s love. I had pictures and videos and writings of our father. He had the memory of his dad standing and waving in the doorway as he headed out for elementary school, not knowing it would be the last time they ever saw each other. There was too much pain at the surface for our relationship to continue, but for the short time I had a brother I got a sense of what having one felt like. It would have been wonderful.
My children were too young to remember my father. I try to keep his memory alive, but they react to my stories as if I was talking about a stranger. It breaks my heart they will never know his grace and kindness. He made me feel as if I was the most special person in the entire world.
Even though I wish the circumstances of his death were different, I’ll continue to celebrate the life he lived in the way I treat my own kids. Maybe they’re too old now, but I still think I would slay “Rock-A-Bye-Baby” if they just gave me the chance.