Thursday, October 16, 2008

That's My Dad

My dad had a heart attack. It was six years ago, but sometimes it sticks in my brain like it just happened. Every now and again, something triggers the memories of that day, like a song or a movie, but other times it just pops into my brain like an uninvited cousin and her weird obnoxious son who doesn't wear shoes that you didn't invite in the first place.

Luckily, I guess, I just happened to be staying at my parent's house that night. My wife and I had just driven ten hours to get there. We were beat and already in bed, starting to drift of to sleepy-land. Mom yelled something down the stairs. I didn't hear her at first, but my wife made out the words "hospital" and "chest pains." I darted to the stairs, praising the people at Bayer for pounding their commercials into my head. "I'll be up in two seconds," I hollered back, "give him some aspirin." My wife was dressed and ready to go before I could even think about finding some pants.

Throughout my high school years, each and every morning, I felt like Gilligan. Why? Well, because every day, on his way out the door, my dad would stop in my room and wake me up with a gentle, "Hey, little buddy, it's time to get up." Like a stupid teenager, I made fun of
it, never doing it, but always wanting to respond with a "five more minutes, Skipper." Never to his face, that would hurt his feelings, but to my mom and my sister, the gloves were off. "Why in the world does he call me little buddy?" I'd complain. Finally, Mom snapped,
"He doesn't get to see much of you." With his ridiculous commute and long hours, she was right. "He asked me if he could be the one that wakes you up; it's important to him." I stopped mocking and complaining.

Mom wanted me to drive. I was calm and she was starting to panic. She must have told me thirty-seven times that I was driving, that she couldn't handle it, but when I ran back down to the basement to get something stupid like my wallet or cell phone or something I don't even remember what, using up precious time, she hopped in the driver's seat and started the car up. She never relinquished control, even though the whole way there she kept talking about pulling over and letting me take the wheel. It was a white knuckle ride the whole way, mom paying more attention to dad, asking him over and over and over how he was doing, how he felt, if he was okay. She was paying about as much attention to the road, the other cars, and those pesky little traffic laws as a hyperactive pre-teen does to his teacher when there's a bird outside the window. The exact same drive I took every day, from my parents house to my college (just a few miles past the hospital), was suddenly very different. I felt helpless. I wanted to be in that driver's seat.

I bought my first car without actually knowing how to drive it, I hadn't learned yet how to drive stick. Dad promised to teach me. My first manual transmission lesson, I sat down in my car. My dad showed me the gears, explained the clutch, and demonstrated how to shift. I
was ready to start. Shifting into reverse to back out, easing off the clutch, and slowly giving just a little gas, I stalled it. The car lurched forward a way I didn't know that cars could move.

"It's okay," Dad encouraged, "try again, you'll get the touch in no time."

Shift, ease, gas. Stall. Lurch.

"Don't get discouraged. Everyone has a hard time at first," Dad urged.

Shift. Ease. Gas. Stall. Lurch.


Shift. Ease. Gas. Stall. Lurch.

"Okay, maybe you should let me try it. You can watch and see what I do"

I jumped out of the car and my dad and I switched spots.

Shift. Ease. Gas. Stall. Lurch.

"It's okay, dad, don't get discouraged."

"What the heck is wrong here?" Dad questioned.

After about forty-five minutes of futzing (his word, not mine) around with that stupid little car, Dad was getting mighty irritated. With his foot on the clutch and the car in neutral, we started to roll backwards out of the driveway, but with some kind of Superdad lightening quick reaction power, he slammed the car into first gear, turned the key, popped the clutch, and jammed the gas pedal. I expected that the car would stall again, but it shot forward like a stallion with a horsefly hovering around his rear. I guess Dad wasn't expecting that either, because he'd nearly shot us right into the side of the garage.

Earlier that night, when my wife and I had first arrived, we all sat up in the living room talking, joking, laughing. One of the last things I remember Dad saying that night was reading aloud from one of those wacky t-shirt catalogs - "They say I have ADD, but I don't thi... Ooooo, look, a chicken." He, being the king of the short attention span, found that one hysterical. Still, looking back with that hindsight thing being what it is, he didn't seem himself at all that night.

Every family gathering, every neighborhood party, every barbecue, picnic, camp out, or conference, my dad is the one telling the jokes. He's always got a showstopper in his pocket. He thinks they're hilarious, and I haven't figured out if I'm the only one that finds him funny and everyone else is polite, or if he really is the laugh riot he believes he is. I really don't think it matters either way, he'll tell them anyway. My mom calls them groaners and asks people to
not encourage him, but he doesn't need encouragement, he just needs an audience. My childhood memories are polka dotted with occasions when he pulled out the big boy, his favorite, every time he told it, he'd start to snicker and giggle to himself before the punchline came. That laugh was infectious, soon everyone was hootin' and hollerin' and they had no idea why, which made it even funnier.

We arrived at the hospital, in one piece no less. My mom pulled up into the ambulance bay and I ran around to take over. I'd park the car while she walked dad in. By the time I got inside, they were all set up in their little curtain area. Dad was hooked up to about fifty-two machines, bleeps and blips and big red digital numbers and tubes and wires, like a whirlwind of chaotic confusion, going every which way. Mom, already teetering on the edge of full-blown-tizzyville, began to get me going. Each change on the readout screen sent me into high alert. My sister showed up in such a panic that the nurse threatened to remove her. It was those moments
that my admiration grew for two very brave people: My dad, who continued to joke around, his way of dealing with stress and an attempt to keep us all calm; and my wife, who's level head and medical background gave us all a voice of reason, patiently giving us a bleep/blip play by play in the compassionate way the doctors didn't have time for.

One particularly Barbie-ficated Christmas morning that I can still picture, my dad and my uncle, hip deep in Dreamhouse bits and magic kitchen pieces, exasperated, stressed, and laughing - each confusing step in the not-so-kid-simple instruction book causing them to survey the room full of pink chaos around them and shout that morning's sarcastic mantra, "Some Assembly Required." Some Assembly Required became a running gag for those two, a trailer hitch, steaks on the grill, a new bike, a crib for his grand-daughter, the finished basement they worked on... were all met with the same catch phrase, "Some Assembly Required."

After about half an hour lying in the emergency room, in the middle of a bad joke, his eyes rolled back in his head, eye-lids fluttering, chest convulsing, arms waving. My mom started
screaming, "Mike stop it. Mike, it's not funny, stop it." At first, we all thought the eye rolling and the convulsing was him goofing around. It took the blips and the bleeps, blippin' and bleepin' with no more rhyme or reason, just frantic, piercing bedlam, to make it real. Doctors and nurses and the like came rushing in there like a pack of malnourished rotwiellers pouncing on a McDLT.

Helpless. That's not a word I could have ever used to describe my dad, except once. When my sister was getting married, we had a bachelor party for my soon to be brother-in-law. The whole gang was going to play paintball, and, of course, Dad was invited. I don't recall if anyone expected him to take us up on the invite, but I distinctly remember thinking about a little revenge on the paintball field for a few unjustified groundings and the like. Teams that day were randomly selected, and of course, I was on the opposite side as my old man. Yes, I thought, a Mr. Burns style "excellent" playing in my brain. Now, this paintball course was out in the woods, densely forested, lots of shrubs and heavy brush covered the ground, and I was doing my best GI Joe maneuvers to sneakily get myself to the front line. There was a small, but incredibly muddy ravine, with a little creek meandering through it, dividing our side from theirs. When I got up there, I saw Dad. The man who represented strength, stability, courage, and honor to me, right there for me to shoot. Before I had a chance, he slipped and fell, sliding ten feet down the slippery slope, into the creek bed. The muck sucked his feet in and he couldn't seem to right himself. By then he was in his late fifties, so a fall like that wasn't a bounce back and keep running kind of fall. Hidden away in the bushes, I felt that moment of helplessness with him as he tried to get back up. My brain debated with itself for a half of a half of a second, wondering if I should help him, shoot him, or stay hidden and let him keep his pride. Before I could make a decision, a friend, one on Dad's team, bounded down the incline and pulled my pop out of the creek, helping him to the top of the slimey, rain-soaked ridge. Once he was safe, I popped out and shot them both. It was awesome.

The doctors needed room. The nurses, very fond of helping the doctors achieve that space, kicked us out. We were shooed away like cats drawn to the can opener. We wanted to stay, but we weren't wanted in return. I remember my sister bawling and holding my mom, then they
were gone. I know they didn't just vanish, but they were just gone. I tried to back away, I didn't want to be in the way, but my legs wouldn't cooperate. I recall, at least in my head, very calmly
saying, "That's my dad," and falling to the floor. My wife pulled me to my feet and dragged me out of there.

My dad has about a million stories about stupid, but incredibly funny things that he did as a kid. The idiotic trouble that a teenage boy and his friends can get into, that was passed down to me from him, only, I think he was worse than me. He grew up in a different state than we live in, moving away to get a fresh start in his twenties. My mom kept him here, which was good for me, but I've never gotten to see my dad in his element. One time, and one time only, have I ever seen him with his buddies. We visited some family, and made it a point to have breakfast with his pal, Bruce. That morning, I saw the ME in my dad, or the HIM in me. A different element, a different time and place, a different man. The waffles were just barely on this side of okay, but that breakfast changed everything. I suddenly understood who my dad was.

Out in the waiting room, totally unaware of what was going on back in curtain number three, we prayed. My mom begged us to take a knee with her and say some words. I don't remember what was said or how long we sat there, still in shock, I stared at the door back into the emergency room, hoping someone would come out soon and tell us what was happening. A nurse or an orderly or a receptionist, I don't know what she was, but she wore scrubs and looked official enough, she came over to us and sincerely apologized. "I'm sorry," two simple words,
two small, powerful words and that was it, that was her telling me my dad was gone. Her telling me that my kids would have no grandpa. That my mom was all alone. That I'd never hear those groaner jokes again.

My wife asked what happened and it turned out that Scrubbie the Tactless Buffoon was apologizing for us having to witness what we had. She had no more idea than we did what was going on back there. Totally out of control, I laid into her. How dare she come over here and say "sorry" to people in that situation, did she have no sense in her head. I went on for a while, probably making her cry, but definitely teaching her a valuable lesson. Later, I felt bad that I'd talked to her that way, but my mom, my sister, and my wife told me not to, she'd deserved it.

I saw my dad cry once. I was in college. He'd been laid off about a year earlier and had struggled a bit, trying his hand at sales. It was something he'd always wanted to give a shot, but it just wasn't working out. I'll never forget my mom's reaction to a few years of just not cutting it, "Your father really wants to try this. He thinks he'll do well because he's a people person, but he won't. He's too honest and kind. He's too good a man." One day he came home, I was walking into the garage as he was getting out of his car. He wasn't due home for hours, so I asked. My mom must have known already, cuz she was waiting in the doorway. He couldn't, or wouldn't, look at me. He had tears in his eyes. I looked to my mom, and she shooed me away. Letting Dad pass me, I left. He felt like a failure that day, like he'd let his family down. I had never been happier that he was my dad. I had never seen him as more of a man.

We waited forever. Tired of the waiting room, we wandered. The chapel, the gift shop, the vending machines, random hallways. Just waiting.

When my niece was born, my sister wasn't in great shape. There were complications, and I don't know if anybody ever explained them well enough to me for me to comprehend exactly what was going on. To this day, I don't know if my sister or her daughter were in danger, and to be honest, I don't really care. All that matters is they're both fine today. My sister, one of my best friends, still offering advice. My niece, who may possibly be the loudest human being on the planet - showing us all that evolution may very well make the microphone unnecessary - getting ready to celebrate birthday number four. The day she was born, the whole family was gathered at the hospital waiting, Dad more excited than anybody. We sat in a little area down the hall from my sister's room, and each and every time a doctor, someone who looked like a doctor, or anyone wearing white appeared in the hall, Dad stood up in anticipation. Finally, Emmy was born. You should have seen the look of incredible pride and unmeasurable joy on his face when he held her the first time.

Eventually, the doctor emerged. A man with posture so good that I have to interrupt this story to remark on the rigidness of his spine. You could have used his vertebrae to measure if you're hanging shelves straight, that's how good his posture was. Anyway, he, in a very professional and straight-forward way, let us know what was going on. I don't remember all the technical mumbo-jumbo, or which artery was all gunked up and which was one partially full o' goop, I only
remember him telling us that Dad was going to be okay. A simple angioplasty would lead to more waiting and worrying and praying and aimless hallway wandering, but he'd be alright. And he is.

That was the worst and the best day of my entire life. So many more memories have happened since. The zoo with his granddaughter. World travels with my mom. Enjoying his retirement by getting a job. Friends, family, the people who are glad he's still with us. More jokes, moments of him lost in his own little world like he tends to do, the stress and excitement of football Sundays, declining a second invite to play paintball, playing his guitar to watch Emmy dance, the tears in his eyes when he found out he'd be Grandpa squared. Strength. Courage. Hope. Love.

If this was his story, he'd tell you a joke. He'd probably tell the one about the little Native American boy. Back in the pre-PC days it was a joke about an Indian boy, but I'll play by the rules. The little boy was curious about something, so he went to ask his father. His father was the wisest and bravest in the whole tribe, so when the little fella wondered about anything, Dad had an answer. "Father, where do we get our names?" he asked.

"Well, son, when your sister was born, it was early morning. I held her in my arms, emerged from the tee pee and saw a running deer. Her name became Running Deer. When your brother was born, I emerged from the tee pee and saw a strong buffalo. That became his name. Often
times, we name our children after what we see in the moments after they're born. Why do you ask, Pooping Moose?"

That's my dad.

Sorry, I wasn't feeling funny today, but if you want, you can still vote for me for Humor Blogger of the Year by clicking here.


Chat Blanc said...

Awesome post! :)

PlainOleMike said...

chat - thanks.

Bee said...

Mike, that was an unbelievable post!

At the end you said you weren't feeling funny but your post had me both getting teary and laughing.