The night before my dad’s heart attack was a night full of foreshadowing.
When I moved away from home, I naturally missed my dad from time to time. I couldn’t fall asleep without a tv show that reminded me of him playing in the background. Typically anything with Tim Allen, as he’s always reminded me of my dad. In North Carolina I was on a real Last Man Standing kick. Dad is every bit Mike Baxter. So from time to time I’d call him and then watch my shows until I fell asleep, and the homesick feeling would be settled until the next day.
The night before my dad’s heart attack I was missing him fiercely. Odd because we are only a distance of about 30 miles away now as opposed to over 2,000 miles like the years before.
Still, I was missing him. And it was late, so I didn’t call figuring I’d wake him, or he was probably at work, or had work early, or was just coming home from work.
“That man is going to work himself to death,” I thought. Randomly.
I couldn’t sleep. I was tossing and turning all night and just could not get comfortable. I had to turn on Hulu. Since I was missing papa, I narrowed my choices to Last Man Standing, Home Improvement, and 7th Heaven (not Tim Allen of course, but a show dad and I used to watch together religiously. Pun intended). I decided to start on one of the later seasons instead of watching from the beginning of the series. I pressed play. It was the season following Eric’s heart attack. Randomly.
“What if papa were to have a heart attack?” I wondered to myself. Randomly.
I watched my show, finally started to feel drowsy, and I clearly remember thinking right before falling into sleep: “I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a real miracle.” Yes, randomly.
Early the next morning, my mom burst into my room. She was on the phone. Her voice in a panic. “Gosh, who died?” I wondered. She handed me the phone. “It’s your sister. Your dad had a heart attack.”
I grabbed the phone and jumped out of bed, “what happened? what do I do?”
“Dad just had a massive heart attack. We’re on the way to the hospital,” my sister Jenni answered through near hysterical tears.
“Ok, I’m on my way.” We hung up. I looked for pants and a hoodie in the giant pile of never-hung-or-folded-laundry on my floor.
Why the fuck don’t I ever put away my laundry? I could be on my way right now if I would just put my pants in the drawer like a normal person.
Then I realized I had no idea where “on my way” even was. Where is dad going? What is happening? Dad is ok. He has to be ok. The kids. The kids have school. I can’t take them to school. I have to go see dad. But they have to go to school. The boys have doctor appointments today. I have to take them to the doctor. Jenni. Jenni’s wedding is next week. Dad has to be there. This is too much for her to handle right now. This is too much for all of us to handle right now. Where are my fucking pants? Where am I going?
Dad’s ok. I said to myself over and over. Dad is ok.
“He’s going to UC Davis,” mom relayed to me.
Shit. That’s where they go when it’s really serious.
I rushed to UC Davis, right through the doors of the emergency room, and as calmly as possible asked security, “Is my dad here? I think I’m in the right place.”
“We don’t have anyone here by that name…” they started.
Shit. I’m at the wrong hospital.
“…but that doesn’t mean he isn’t here. How old is he?”
I gave his information. The security guard at the desk leaned back to ask another guard “is that the DOA?”
DOA? My heart sank. Chills spread through my spine, but my neck became hot.
Until I realized Mr. Security had actually said DOE.
Doe. John Doe.
“Sometimes they list a fake name so they can bypass registration and get the patient in sooner. The info matches so we think it’s the same guy. Go ahead to the waiting room and we’ll have the social worker come out and talk to you.”
I sat alone, waiting. Dad was the one who typically gave updates on family members in matters like this. I subconsciously waited for him to update me on his own condition. I sat staring at my fingers. Staring at my phone. I sent my best friends updates of what was going on, and they left work immediately to be by our side. Soon family started filling the waiting room. We met with the social worker who walked us to the cath lab waiting room. As we were walking down the hall, a nurse ran by yelling “WE NEED YOU! HE’S DYING!” and she slid through a door. “That’s the cath lab,” the social worker said nervously, nodding towards the same door the nurse had just entered.
He’s not dying. Dad is ok. Dad is ok.
We were in the waiting room for hours. More family and friends crowded the room, and we met each other with hugs and deep sighs. We sat quietly. We told jokes to keep the mood light. Every now and then some of us would silently break down in tears. We had coffee. We discussed politics and vacations. Some of us stress-eating, while others couldn’t eat at all. We waited and waited and waited. Until finally the doctor came in to give us an update.
“It’s a miracle he’s even still with us,” The doctor said in closing. It turns out dad had gone into cardiac arrest twice. He was dead for 20 minutes before they were able to bring him back.
Hmmm. I witnessed a real miracle.
My dad has always been great at dad-isms. When I was 7 years old, getting frustrated at my math homework, dad would calm me down. “How do you eat an elephant?” he’d ask. “I don’t knoooooow,” I’d whine.
“One bite at a time. Now how do you do your math?”
“I don’t know.”
“One column at a time.”
How do you eat an elephant? became our victory cry. Any time I felt stuck, there was dad in the back of my mind. No longer a question. Now a declaration: Eat the elephant!
After more hours of waiting, we were finally allowed to visit dad in ICU, two at a time. I walked back to the room with my boyfriend Brandon, the mantra repeating in my head.
How do you eat an elephant?
To the beat of the heart monitor:
One breath at a time.
One heartbeat at a time.
Eat the elephant, dad.
“Dad, it’s Turtle,” I whispered quietly into his ear, hoping his nickname for me would trigger some response. A squeeze of the hand. A flicker of the eyelids.
Nothing. No response at all. I wanted to cry seeing him that way. There, but not there. I was quietly losing hope.
“You have to speak louder than that,” Brandon said. “Let him know you’re here. Louder so he can hear you.”
“DAD IT’S TURTLE!” I yelled, a bit uncomfortably. I’ve always been afraid of my own voice.
But it worked. His eyes shot open. He was awake!
“I love you, papa,” I said, trying hard to hold back tears. The tubes in his mouth made it difficult for him to communicate. He mouthed “I love you too” and then he got the idea to communicate by spelling words on my hand with his finger.
He asked for the time. He asked about my sister. At one point we switched to pointing at letters on a piece of paper, and he was able to spell out “no phone or charger.” We all had a good laugh at that one.
He lamented that he was probably a no call no show at work.
“You’re going to work yourself to death,” I wanted to say. Though it seemed inappropriate now.
A little more than a week later, I sat next to dad at my sister’s wedding. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that the day could have been so different. I might have been sitting next to a rose, or a picture of him, or some other trinket used to memorialize him.
My sisters and I shared the father-daughter dance. We held tightly to dad and to each other, knowing now more than ever the importance of moments like that.
While going over the events that had transpired, we talked about how great he was at communicating to us without words. His expressive facial reactions. The writing on our hands with his finger.
“That was really smart,” I said to dad. “I was amazed when you did that.”
“Well, we adapt and overcome,” Dad answered. And I was grateful for the chance to be blessed with another dad-ism. Another mantra. Another victory cry.
We adapt and overcome, one bite at a time.