Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Parent's Death

Two years ago today we got the call that you never want to receive.  My dad had a heart attack and was being flown by helicopter to a hospital two hours away from his home.  We didn’t know what was happening but my brothers and I immediately jumped on planes from our different corners of the country then drove a tortuous five hours to his hospital in a remote part of Kansas.   I remember that night, being forced to sit in the plane and then the car while wanting to do something, to see him, to help him.

Dad never liked doctors and trusted them even less when our mom died ten years before.  At 84, he was incredibly healthy for a man who smoked and liked to drink his beer and wine.   A case of polio when he was a young man gave him weakness in his leg, but he still got out in the yard every day to work on his lawn and garden.  When my son Ethan and I visited three months before, Dad happily participated in the Easter egg hunt albeit with a cane and we laughed together over the giant plate of ribs they served at the American Legion.  He seemed indestructible.

As we drove through that dark night, I thought about Mom.  Her death had been unexpected.  A routine procedure in the hospital was followed by negligent care, and ten days later she was gone.  It seemed so unreal that it was difficult to process emotionally.  My grief for Mom was like a gray blanket that enveloped everything I did over the following ten years.   When I got married and had a child, I longed for her to be there and felt myself reaching for the phone to call her with news.  She was my emotional anchor and I was lost without her.

When we reached the hospital in Kansas that night, we were able to see Dad before he went in for open-heart surgery.  The man who seemed indestructible was pale and shaken, but glad to see us.  After the operation, the surgeon gave us the good news that everything seemed to go well, but just as we finished making calls to other family members to share this, he called us back into the waiting room with bad news, that the damage was too severe.  By morning, Dad was gone.

The grief this time was not a gray blanket but a sharp knife to the heart. 

Two years later, I still feel its sting.  I keep the last picture I have of him, sitting at a picnic table counting Easter eggs with Ethan, on my desk at work.  It reminds me of the things we both loved – reading books, drinking wine while watching the sun set, playing cards until midnight, and engaging in conversations about politics, religion or culture.  You might not always agree with his opinion but he was a voracious reader and learner through all his years.

While Mom was my emotional anchor, Dad was my intellectual anchor and I will always be thankful for those memories of him.