Tuesday, November 06, 2007

almost

When I first decided to do NaBloPoMo this year, I didn't have much of a plan for how I would actually fulfill the daily posting requirement. A few days later, having already fallen off the wagon, it occurred to me that I should really be writing more about my family. Not the writing I often do, where I bitch about various extended family members who themselves bitch about me, but documenting stories of the people and memories I cherish.

My father almost died this year. It sounds so melodramatic to phrase his illness, subsequent surgery and post-surgery complications like this. He would never use these words to describe his encounters with medicine over the last twelve months. I have never used them when talking about his health with him or another family member, despite being there for the especially painful aftermath.

Being in the thick of it, focusing on trying to stay positive and celebrating that he was getting the royal treatment at a great hospital, kept all of us from acknowledging the reality of the situation. It took a close family friend squeezing my hand several weeks after his surgery, her eyes swimming with maternal tears as she said "You know your father almost died, right?" for me to realize, oh, wow. Dad did almost die. And I was in no way ready to say goodbye to him.

My memory of the weeks leading up to his surgery last December is fuzzy at best, but I remember feeling spectacularly guilty that he was dealing with this alone. I remember my irrational, unhelpful anger at my mother for not being able to leave her new job to be with him, at my sister's school for having the nerve to give her finals right as he was dealing with the possibility that his heart would give out at any moment. My fury at my own work for keeping me chained to a desk in Washington as Dad sat a dark, empty house in Michigan, a malfunctioning time bomb ticking in his chest. I pictured him sitting quietly with our elderly family cat curled up in his lap, the two of them bathed in the tinny blue glow of Law and Order reruns, trying not to think about the life-saving surgery that kept being postponed and falling asleep alone on the sofa, and my own heart broke.

The surgery was a success and he began healing faster than anyone expected. Dad was determined to be the valedictorian of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and would push himself to walk extra laps past the nurses' station and the courtyard. If other people recovered in five days, he would do it in three. He surprised everyone by coming home several days earlier than expected with a clean bill of health and very positive prognosis. Our immediate family spent a perfect Christmas together at our cabin, the women of the family eating and drinking Dad's share of the holiday feast and all of us stinking up the joint in our grungy pajamas as we watched endless DVDs and played Operation, congratulating ourselves on our gallows humor. We split off at the New Year to our four separate homes, Dad going back downstate to camp out in our old house with his aunt and uncle until he was safe to be alone.

Dad was pan-frying pork chops in vinegar when he got the first pangs. He wrote them off as more soreness from the incision and didn't tell his aunt and uncle something was wrong. Less than a day later he was doubled over, practically hallucinating from the pain. In not wanting to make a big deal and worry his family, he ignored what turned out to be a major abscess on his gallbladder. By the time he told his aunt and uncle, the infection had destroyed his gallbladder and was starting to attack his other internal organs. Dad was in so much pain his uncle decided they shouldn't wait for an ambulance. Somehow they loaded him into the back of the car and set off for the hospital, but Dad was so out of it he couldn't give them directions and, being from out of state, they had no idea where to go.

Luckily, they drove by a police car. When they told the officer what was going on he told them to follow him. The cops put on their sirens and escorted them to the nearest hospital, speeding through the streets of downtown Lansing. When they got to the ER, Dad couldn't sit or stand up, much less get out of the car. They managed to get him inside, where he blacked out from the pain. He only dimly remembers being told he needed emergency surgery to remove his gallbladder or any of the 48 hours that followed. He did tell me several weeks later that he remembered thinking this was it. He said he was in no way ready to go because his family wasn't with him, but that he knew he was loved.

Even then, I don't know if I got how bad it was. I read back over the various blog posts I wrote during those weeks about returning to Michigan to take care of him as he recovered from his second surgery, and I'm embarrassed at how little they have to do with him. By focusing on the details of the HR paperwork to take advantage of the Family Medical Leave Act, or venting my feelings on friends and strangers, I put off acknowledging the fact that my father almost died and I wasn't there with him. That for how close my family is, how much we genuinely enjoy one another's company and value each other, however generous we are with our phone calls and "I love yous" and advice, one of us almost died and the rest of us were too busy with life to be there when it happened. By focusing on the obnoxious, irrelevant minutiae of the situation I wrote myself a free pass for this unforgivable truth.

Of course, he would never in a million years hold this against me or any other member of our family. He says he now looks back on the whole thing as a learning experience, something that has taught him that he's not Superman and that he needs to pay attention to his limits. He still works way too hard and holds himself to impossible standards, but he's also more attuned to his priorities. After he recovered from the gallbladder surgery he started making inroads to repair major rifts in our extended family, efforts that have already begun to pay off in emailed family legends and wedding invitations from long-lost cousins. It would be a stretch to say that he's grateful for the experience, but he's certainly handled his dalliance with mortality with more grace and diginity than most people would.

Thinking of where he and our family are this holiday season, versus where we were a year ago, I feel much like I do when I walk by the White House or Capitol. Having lived in DC during September 11, I'm acutely aware of the sacrifice of people of United Flight 93. Today when I walk by the White House or Capitol I can't help but think "there but for the grace of God...," and it's the same with Dad. Had he stayed with the first cardiologist who told him he needed more exercise, had he not had the Mick Jagger of cardiothoracic surgeons, had he waited even an hour longer to tell his aunt and uncle he was in pain, had that police car not been there to escort them to the hospital... these few small decisions and coincidences are why he is still here today.

Much as I am with the sacrifice of the passengers of United 93, I find myself knocked over with gratitude for whatever force in the universe allowed that period to unfold as it did. I am humbled by a chain of events that I don't understand. I am overwhelmed with love for my father and my family. To say that I will never again take them for granted would be unrealistically Pollyanna-ish of me, but to this day, I remain enthralled by my capacity to love them ferociously and endlessly, without condition or hesitation.

And in my own myopic, navel-gazing way, I am thankful for the reminder that they will not be here forever and that there are only so many days to tell people that they are loved.