Around 11:30 on the evening of Sunday, July 8th my Dad woke up with severe pain in the right side of his chest. He yelled and cried so loudly my mom had no choice but to call an ambulance to take him to the ER. The paramedics arrived quickly, and as they examined him he appealed to God for relief. "FATHER!" He yelled, "FATHER, HELP ME!!!" While following the ambulance in her car, my mom called me 5 times. I was, of course, sleeping. When I didn't answer the 5th time, she texted me, and for some reason the text woke me up. When I saw 5 missed calls from her, my heart stopped. I looked at the text message, a simple, "Dad in Hospital," and started to weep even as I called her back.
To say I love my Dad is an understatement. Or at least it doesn't adequately describe the visceral need I have for him to be alive in the world. He no longer supports me financially, and I rarely heed his advice. But being able to call him, to hear his voice, to yell about politics (and I mean YELL), to be asked how I am in his dad voice, to be given advice I will probably ignore, to be sung to on my birthday--how can I do without these things? To say I fear my Dad's death is also an understatement. The idea
of his passing has been a constant presence in my body for the entirity of
my adult life. It oftentimes takes possession of my ability to sleep and
breath. Sometimes his death is
everywhere, other times it is just a tiny spot at the base of my left lung, but it
is never gone.
I stayed awake all night that Sunday, as did my 6 siblings--a cross-country vigil. All day Monday, since he still had no diagnosis, it felt to us all as though he could die at any moment. After spending the day unable to function, I decided to fly home. By the time I boarded the plane on Tuesday morning we knew he wasn't going to die anytime soon (well, from this ailment at least), but still... I just needed to see him.
His chest pains, it turned out, were the result of a series of blood clots in his lungs. Apart from the memory of the pain, a daily medication, and a newly discovered awareness of his own mortality, he walked away relatively unscathed. But the reality is had those clots traveled to his brain or his heart, he could've died and the text message from my mom would've brought infinitely worse news.
After his diagnosis, he had to stay in the hospital until his blood was no longer at risk for clotting. My brother, Allan, who lives an hour and a half drive from my parents' home, had stayed the night with Dad on Monday but had to leave Tuesday morning to start his summer courses. My mom, currently unemployed, had a job interview on Wednesday afternoon, so it fell to me to sleep in the hospital on Tuesday night.
My dad fell asleep at 8pm, like he usually does, but woke up at 11:00 squirming. His C-Pap machine along with his denturelessness made him difficult to understand when I asked what was wrong. "I'm cold. I'm so cold." I rang the nurses button. "My chest hurts," is what I believe he said. "Like Sunday. Like on Sunday." That I heard clearly. He was shivering violently and grasping his chest, his face so pained. I stood next to his bed terrified and helpless. I kept asking him again and again if he was all right, desperate for him to not be dying right in front of me. The nurse, a wonderful man named Eric, came in. He gave Dad a heated blanket and a pain pill, and my dad stopped shivering relatively quickly. Eric sat with me making small talk for almost 30 minutes, even after Dad was asleep. He would joke the next day that Dad had, "scared [me] half to death!" At which my dad would laugh, grab my hand, and cry a little.
Dad would stay in the hospital a full week, the entire time I was in Dallas. Every moment that was not spent showering at home, sleeping at home, or eating dinner, was spent in the hospital room with him. Luckily, it was not all life and death. I watched a lot of True Blood, read Clash of Kings, and met a plethora of my dad's friends from church. I heard the story of Sunday night so many times I had it memorized. I had to help my dad in the bathroom and saw more of his genitalia than I ever thought possible. I could tell he was a little ashamed, so I would make constant testicle jokes. I even composed a song, accompanied by my signature shoulder shrug dance. It would make him laugh every time. We got into a huge fight when my mom and I told him we were not going to stay in the hospital with him the last two nights because even experiencing what feels like the brink of death can't keep a De Laurell fight from escalating. At one point I yelled at him, "It's really hard to feel sorry for you when you feel so fucking sorry for yourself!" Not my proudest moment.
He was released Sunday, July 15th, and on Monday was already doing the grocery shopping at Costco. He is feeling recovered, or at least as much as a person can when he thought his life was about to end.
So many have shared with me that the day you realize your parents are vulnerable is a sad, hard day. And it is, but for so many more reasons than I thought. When I was a child I thought my parents omnipotent, immortal beings, and I knew that someday I would grow up to be just like them. I too could be whatever I wanted, live however I wanted, do anything and everything. I knew that life was long, and my place in the world would be lofty and strong.
So inside my father's mortality, inside the anticipated pain of his death, inside the absence of his voice and his presence, is my own death, and the death of all things. Solid, sure, inevitable. The delicacy of life and the precariousness of my place in the world has become the undeniable truth.
I keep looking back to how I felt after my brother Mark died, trying to remember how long it took me to feel like myself, to feel normal. I never did. I will never be able to go back to how I was before that. And this. Thank God my father is still alive, not only alive, but well and full of gratitude for his life and his loved ones. I have gratitude as well, but I also have this new thing. The weighted stone in my stomach, that taste of death, of my dad's, of my own.
How do I move forward from this?
I don't ask expecting an answer. I ask because it repeats in my mind over and over and over. I ask because, though I don't expect an answer, I want one. And I want the answer to be, "No one you love will ever die." I feel like a child in the middle of an aisle at Toys R Us flailing on the floor about a Barbie my parents will not buy me. Except I am 30. Except I am working so hard to contain the flailing, to not want the stupid Barbie, to be an adult, to be all right. But I'm not. I'm not all right.
That first night Dad spent in the emergency room, he learned the names and countries of origin of all his
nurses. Apparently his favorite nurse was named Rose, a Haitian woman who helped my dad practice his French. He also blessed some of the aides and called the rest
of the hospital workers his "angels." When I spoke to him that Monday morning, I told
him how wonderful that was and he said, "It's important to be
kind." He also told me his 5th floor room must be where the furniture was stored because it was so quiet. I asked him if he liked it,
and he said, "Oh, yes. Very quiet. I love it." Then he told me God heard his cry for help and saved his life. Maybe He did.