You never expect it although nothing in life comes with more certainty.
I joked with my dad that night as I drove him to urgent care, asking him why he picked the coldest night of the year to not feel so great. A closed sign on the door made me turn to him and say, “How bad are you? Should we go to the ER?”
“Nah. Let’s find another urgent care place.”
“What exactly are your symptoms?” I asked him.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I’m just not right.”
He didn’t look just not right; he looked just wrong. I drove him to the emergency room.
Chest pains I told the lady behind the desk. I said it to rush their response time. I said it because he looked weak. I said it because deep down perhaps I knew.
He joked with the nurses. He joked with the doctor. Stop joking, I thought, or they won’t be thorough. They’ll think you’re fine.
But the tests weren’t a joke. The results didn’t make anyone laugh.
Can’t be my heart he kept saying. No one in my family had heart issues. They all died of cancer. Maybe they didn’t live long enough because of the cancer for anyone to know they had heart issues.
This came from out of nowhere he said. It’s been building for a while they told him.
Blindsided. All of us. Even him. Especially him. I’ve always taken care of everyone he said. Who’s going to take care of everyone? You’re not going anywhere I told him. Not now. Not yet.
And my brother and I talked to the doctor and my brother remained calm and something inside me just broke and something inside me twisted and something inside me that for three years since my son’s accident held the floodwaters at bay became unplugged and every emotion rushed out, poured out, and I was reliving three years ago with my son but it was three years later now with my daddy and I couldn’t keep anything in check. I couldn’t keep anything under control.
And I rubbed his forehead and I held his hand and I held up his head so he could sip some water. And I stared at the monitors that I knew so well and I watched his vitals make a slight comeback. And I screamed at a nurse for her incompetence and I took turns with my brother trying to make him laugh, trying to make him smile.
And I washed his hair and I helped him walk down the hall when he was given the ok to stand. And I reassured my mom that everything was alright and my brother reassured me.
There is no option I said later when the doctors gave us options. There is no option. He needs the surgery. Because he acted like he was 60, and looked no older than 70, everyone forgot that he was 86. Even us. Have the surgery, Dad, we told him because they told us there was over a ninety-five percent chance of success. They told us without it that there would be a ten percent chance he’d make it past the next six months. My father was a gambler – he always loved to go to the nearby casino and play craps. He read books on craps and studied the odds. “Ninety-five percent success rate? You bet those odds all day long, Dad,” said my brother.
“What choice do I have?” he asked. “I’ll have the surgery. And I want to have it done here in Wilkes-Barre.”
And we all gathered together that morning of, and we all joked around as families do. My brain-injured son sat in his wheelchair; my daughters sat on the foot of the hospital bed, one being calm and one being funny, coming in scrubs and donning surgical gloves, just to make us all laugh. We stripped him of his jewelry. My mother, one hand on her cane, the other shaking as she held his wedding band, terror in her voice as she asked, almost pleading, “You’ll wear this again, won’t you?”
I took his cross and put it around my neck, the gold mixing with my silver, a combination I’d never do, and now won’t do without.
We waited in the waiting room for the three long hours, but my mom waited at home because, at 88, she was too weak and her health was too poor to wait in that hospital. We nervously joked and we nervously laughed and we waited and we waited. My oldest did some yoga poses and my youngest played on her phone. My son had long gone by then, being given a reprieve from the wait, needing his own care. When the doctor told us all was well and my dad was in recovery, my brother left to pick my mom up from her nearby house and when we were able, we all rushed to see him in the recovery area. I held his hand and I shushed the others. I was so experienced in this role, the only one who knew hospitals and recoveries and the searing pain of seeing your loved one attached to breathing tubes and wires and monitors and bells and whistles. I took charge and after a while I kicked them all out, with the promise that I, too, would go right home and rest. But I didn’t. I stayed until after midnight. Until his blood pressure stabilized. Until I made sure that those on duty knew the worth of this man to his family, to me, and would take the very best care of him. I held his hand until 1:00 AM.
“He wants me to turn on CNBC,” my brother told me on the phone the next morning, around 7:00. “He’s in a lot of pain, but he wants to watch the stock market.”
I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I smiled. That was Dad. He’ll be just fine. We all suffered through years of having to be quiet and listen to the news and the stock market reports. In the car, in the family room. My son, when he relearned how to speak after his accident, always brought a smile to my dad’s face when he’d greet my dad with “Hi, Pappou. How’re your stocks doing?” The market and my dad were one; when I heard stock market, even after I moved out of the house, I smelled my dad’s aftershave. I pictured the man who had shaped my life, who told me from a very young age that I could be whatever I wanted to be and I could accomplish whatever I decided to accomplish. The man who was my safety net even in this fifth decade of my life. The man who always said everything will be fine…don’t you worry about that. The man who gave me confidence and wisdom and a smile and story after story and unconditional love, the special love only given to daddy’s little girl.
I pictured this very successful businessman at his desk, in the office in his house, with the yellow sheets of lined paper and the green accounting tablets, long before computers were introduced into his world and long after. Writing down the numbers. Adding the profits or subtracting the loss. He always had a smile on his face, either way. This was his game. This was his talent. We of course all complained when forced to listen to the business news, but on that morning I was thrilled at this normalcy. I told my brother I’d be in in in a while after I had arranged care for my son. I got to the hospital around lunchtime to relieve him and my daughter and mother. “His smile was biggest when he saw you,” my daughter told me later. “He knew you’d know what to do. He was so happy to see you.”
But he was in such pain. So much pain that he told my brother that if he had known the pain would have been so bad, he’d never have had the surgery. Did you tell him a few days of pain is worth living at least 10 years more, I snapped. Did you tell him that?
“Do you want a popsicle, Daddy?” I asked him that day after what minutes before the doctors had told us was a very successful open heart surgery, and that the pain was to be expected. I had just sent my brother home with my mother, right after the doctors had left, telling him that Mom didn’t need to sit there any longer, that I’d stay through the afternoon and he could relieve me later that evening. “The nurse said you could have a popsicle.” He nodded yes and I ran out to the nurses’ station to ask for one. The nurse behind the desk unwrapped an orange ice pop on a single stick and handed it to me to give to him.
“Here, Daddy,” I said as I put it toward his mouth. “Take some of this and your mouth won’t be so dry.”
Instead of licking it, he bit into it from the top, making me wince at the thought of the cold hitting his teeth. A piece fell down and landed on my hand. I licked it off my finger, tasting long-ago summers, the covered back porch on the beach house; kids running up the steps shrieking, kicking up sand. It was sugary sweet, but not my favorite flavor. More the flavor of baby aspirin, not citrus as orange suggests, and I wondered briefly as the cold ice hit my tongue, why they called it orange-flavored; oranges never tasted that flavor. Maybe orange was named for the color, but then why not purple flavored, instead of grape; why not red and not cherry?
I gave him another bite, but this time he had trouble getting a piece off because he was too close to the stick. “Maybe you should hold it, Daddy. Maybe it would be easier if you fed yourself.” But at that instance something happened, something that the doctors told me later I didn’t see, but I knew I saw because I was there and they were not. I was there, holding his hand and holding the orange popsicle. I watched as his eyes shut and then flew open, almost in terror; I watched as his hand couldn’t find his mouth, and I listened as his words slurred all together. I glanced over at the monitors he was plugged into, the monitors that I knew so well, the monitors that turned you from a living person to just a machine with numbers, and I watched as the numbers fell. I watched as his blood pressure rapidly dropped from 110 to 80 to 40 and I screamed to the nurse whose back was to us, who was too involved in whatever it was she was doing, I screamed something is wrong, something is very wrong, and she turned and she kicked me out so I wouldn’t be in the way, so I wouldn’t see, and someone else led me outside the unit into the empty waiting room, but not until after I heard the call. Not until after I heard Code Blue.
And waiting in that waiting room, for a while all by myself, shaking with fear and with pain and wondering what do I do now, what do I do without my daddy, I bit my nail, the nail of the finger that had caught the orange popsicle, and it no longer tasted of summer and beaches. It no longer tasted of baby aspirin. It tasted of death.
Nicholas J. Pyros
July 14, 1928 – February 24, 2015