We were in the vehicle on the interstate traveling to see my dad for his birthday and to have a family dinner when my sister called to say she thought he was having a heart attack and was taking him to the hospital. Other than a handful of colds through his seventy plus years and one case of food poisoning, my dad had been the ultimate mind-over-matter-vitamin and herb-man. I often wondered if he really had the mind-over-matter power, if he could will his heart to heal.
Though dad never said it, I know he must have thought me and my two brothers and sister were wimps for our bouts with mumps, chicken pox, flu, and the worst of all, allergies. We often took stuff we didn’t know we were taking to avoid a doctor’s bill, and to this day, we all believe in a concoction for chest colds called Numol, a mixture of natural oils that had a medicinal smell that was once made in Atlanta and has since long faded from the market. The last place we could get it was Pic-N-Save, a chain drug and department store that finally closed when all the new on-every-corner-drug- stores appeared. It seemed ten times as strong as Vicks’ VapoRub.
Three years ago, me and my dad had about a quarter inch left between us and I mentioned to a family friend who worked at a local family-owned pharmacy that I felt a cold coming on and would probably use the last of the Numol I’d been saving for years. She was astounded I knew what Numol was and said she could compound some for me. I was elated and knew I would have enough bottles made to give every one of my family members one for Christmas. They weren’t quite as excited about it as I had been, especially as a Christmas gift.
We were about twenty-five miles away and I heard my wife on her cell: “Yes, oh no. You’re going to the hospital? Is he okay? Did the ambulance come?” My own heart was pounding. I looked at her and she mouthed “Your dad.” I know tears welled in my eyes, but I tried to hide it, and I turned on the hazard lights and increased speed. She convinced me I didn’t need to speed or have the hazard lights on, that he was fully conscious, just in pain. When we exited the interstate, I couldn’t go to the hospital. I wasn’t ready. I don’t avoid confrontation. I simply wasn’t ready to deal with the fact that my dad might be dying, so we stopped by a store to pick up some items we needed. When we got to the hospital, my dad lay in a hospital bed with monitors and an IV. He was jovial, said he felt fine and thought he’d be leaving shortly. I later learned that what they give those who are suffering heart attacks actually opens the blood vessels and alleviates pain. Mom smiled and shook her head indicating he wasn’t leaving. My sister told me in the waiting room that preliminary tests indicated he was in the process of having a massive heart attack and they wanted to run further tests to which he would not consent, maintaining it was under control. My mother signed the papers for the hospital and he was angry with her.
Upstairs on the cardiac unit, he underwent additional tests, all of which took longer than we were told, so we naturally worried. The doctor called us in and told us he’d had a massive heart attack, there was damage, and there was considerable blockage. He needed bypass surgery the next day. Dad told the doctor he had something at home that might take care of the blockage, and the doctor smiled and told him that the only thing that was going to keep him alive was having the surgery. Dad said he’d think about it.
My wife and kids left to go home, and I stayed with my mom and sister in the waiting room until visiting hours were over. Mom seemed frailer than I had noticed, and her hands shook. She had a special cushion she carried around that helped with the back pain she experienced on a daily basis, pain left over from botched surgery. I drove her home, and we got up early, drank coffee, and went back to the hospital to learn if there were new developments. My sister met us there, and I figured she would have made a great investigative reporter. She had called folks all over town to see who’d had heart surgery, who had performed the surgery, who was good and who was not. She learned one doctor was known to drink and one had a bad track record. She learned two were top-notch, and by the time we arrived, she already learned that at least one of them was available for dad’s surgery.
Mom visited first and took about twenty minutes. When she came out, she was crying and mumbled he’d agreed to the surgery. My sister and I visited with him next. She tried to be strong, to keep her sense of humor, but she couldn’t do it. I told him all would go well, that his other sons were coming and would be here when he awoke. Quite frankly, I didn’t know if he’d wake or not. One of the nurses, a friend I’d known in high school reassured me, telling me he was an excellent candidate, which sounded like he was applying for a job. They wheeled his bed out of the room and down a different corridor, and I’m sure he was nervous and scared. I’d had surgery twice myself (not as serious as dad’s), and each time I was a nervous wreck. On the second surgery, I begged them to knock me out simply because I kept thinking the worse and thought I’d have a heart attack.
Once we were in the waiting room, there wasn’t much to do. I began working on my laptop as did my sister. One of our brothers showed and visited with others in the waiting room, including a distantly related family from mom’s side. An hour or so into the surgery, several people from dad’s church and family friends showed up to keep us company. We had to recount the story – how dad was actually at the funeral home working when he had his heart attack (a job he’d taken after he retired from the automobile dealership because he got to visit people and socialize). He was too sick to drive the hearse and so rather than go to the hospital, a half-block from the funeral home (which would be the window view for any patient on the right side of the hospital), he decided to go home and try and rest, hoping the nausea, the pain, the numbness would all come to an end. When he finally decided to let my sister drive him, he waited for another thirty minutes on my mom to “fix” her hair, put on some make-up, and get dressed. All agreed it was a miracle he wasn’t dead. I noted to myself had he gone earlier he might not have to have the by-pass surgery.
The waiting room was cramped and I looked at my mom who was clearly not as nervous and my sister said she’d taken several Valium. In fact, she didn’t look much there at all. I wondered if she was hallucinating as she was focused on a Monet on the wall, a late impressionistic piece from his garden at Giverny. I recalled a similar painting I focused on when I had my wisdom teeth removed over twenty-five years ago, and I still remembered after being medicated the sensation of flowing into the wheat field on the wall where I ran and laughed and played until they shook me awake after the surgery, a mouth full of gauze, lips and cheeks swollen and bruised, but light as balloons like the lyrics from a Pink Floyd song.
The phone rang and one of our distant relatives answered it. He called for my mother, “It’s for you,” and she asked who it was. When he told her it was her mother, I half-smiled and laughed and looked at my sister who was doing the same. Mom, in her drug induced state, gripped the chair rails to help pull herself up to take the call. My sister shook her head, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. “Mom,” I said, and she turned toward me and said, “Yes?” “Don’t answer it,” I said, laughing. She looked at me as if I was crazy and kept moving. “No, honey, you must have the wrong number,” she told the woman on the other end of the line. Then, she shuffled back to her chair. My brother even looked over at us as if he didn’t understand why my mom would answer a phone call from her mother, who had been deceased for over five years.
Shortly after, one of the assistants to the surgeon came out and told us all was going well, but they had to do six by-passes instead of four and it would take longer than anticipated. We were all shocked, and I could tell by the looks on others’ faces that they hadn’t heard of anyone having six by-passes before. In fact, one of my dad’s friends had undergone by-pass surgery and offered us an account, which, of course, none of us wanted to hear.
At some point, the surgeon came out and told us all went well. They didn’t have any trouble restarting his heart. The fact that they had actually stopped his heart had somehow eluded me earlier. They told us not to be afraid when we go in to visit, that he would look rather traumatized with a taped tube in his throat, more monitors, and IVs. He didn’t seem that bad off when I glanced in on him after a while. I was just relieved – relieved he was still tough and could survive it all, relieved that he would be around a little longer. I was even more relieved that night when they took the tube out, he was awake and sitting up in his bed. He stayed for about a week at the hospital before going home, and it took a few weeks for him to get back to his normal routine of helping bury those who didn’t make it.