Today marks a somber event, which I started recording in a series of posts in my blog-of-the-time, ten years ago today.
What follows is an excerpt from the first one:
A family friend picked me up and we started the trek back towards Fort Collins. We heard one last update as we sped off from KDEN that they had him out of surgery and were waiting to revive him. He said the doctor quoted her a “10% chance,” but then was honest with him and said “about a 1% chance.” I don’t know why they bother trying to quantify it below 50%; at that point, it’s all the same: “We don’t really know.” Or “We don’t really want to tell you.”
It was at this point that I finally got the full story: Dad had been packing things up with Mom this morning when he fell to the floor, complaining of pains in his leg; he thought he had pinched a nerve in his back. They waited a few minutes and then Mom asked if she should call an ambulance. To her surprise, he said yes.
Upon arriving at the hospital, an EKG was done to normal results. Next, a chest X-ray series was done, but he moved as X-rays pierced his body, requiring them to re-shoot them. They decided to do a CT scan instead. They rolled him over to radiology to get the series done. From what I understand, as soon as the tech finished the series, he noticed the tear in the aortic valve. Just as he went to call the doctors to get him into surgery immediately, Dad arrested on the table.
In front of Mom.
She was quickly pushed out of the way and they began working on him, trying to stabilize him. It didn’t work, so they put him on an artificial heart pump, and took him up surgery to repair the valve. He never woke up.
The doctor declared it all over an hour or so after the three hour surgery when they tried to warm his body back up and get his heart pumping again. In repairing the valve, they had won the battle… at the expense of the war.
By the time I got there, Mom had already been told. [Kennan] had gotten there, heard, and consoled her all while I was still on the highway, trying to get here.
I remember walking into the “conference room”, a mini-waiting room, really, and seeing [Kennan] and one of Mom’s friends surrounding her, her muffled wailing snapping me right back to when I first talked to her on the phone. She had mentioned that she had dyed her hair blond for a wedding a couple of weeks ago… but she looked older and more tired than I remember her, and at first glance, it looked like her hair had spontaneously turned a yellowish shade of gray… but gray to be sure. I sat down next to her and held her. I didn’t say anything.
Save for a family friend hugging me immediately upon seeing me, no one actually clarified that he had passed. I remember Mom saying something, and I asked “Is he here in the ICU, or?” and Mom said “He died,” spurring off more wailing. I felt so stupid for not figuring out what had happened.
Everyone left the conference room and it was just Mom and I for a few minutes. I didn’t say anything, save “He’s fine now” when Mom uttered “He was in so much pain” while fumbling with Kleenex. Again, I felt stupid not only for what I said, but for what I didn’t… or rather, not knowing what to say.
A “comfort counselor” then came in and introduced herself. She said she was sorry—something I’d hear numerous times again that night. Mom continued crying, and I must have had this really stoic, uncaring look about me; I remember staring off into space at nothing in particular, every muscle in my face as tense as it could be. Not a tear willing to show itself. The chaplain came soon after and said more sorries. I began to wonder if it was hard for the comfort counselor to do her job; I would think it would be difficult to muster up the energy to say all those sorries all the time and really mean it. I guess I was angry at the time… maybe because I felt like they were making me look stupid since I didn’t have anything meaningful to say.
Mom asked if she could see Dad one last time; they agreed, but warned her that he would still have the surgical tubes protruding… a requirement until the autopsy was completed, which we later found out it wouldn’t be… the cause of death was obvious. The surgical duty nurse came back and said they were ready. Mom lead the way… (seemingly) strong as always. I followed, and everyone came in trail of me.
Mom went in first, alone.
I can’t convey to you what it was like to stand outside the hospital curtain in the surgical ICU, listening to your mother cry in pain and just have to stand there and let it happen. After about five minutes, she beckoned us all in, and I again just stood next to her, hugging her, and remaining dumbfoundedly silent and “unemotionally” stoic.
I hadn’t seen, nor even really talked to Dad since October. It was so weird seeing him again like this. I know everyone says this, but it really is true: he looked like he was sleeping and I expected him to wake up at any moment and say “Well, what the hell are you doing here, Paul? Shouldn’t you be trying to graduate?”
His eyes were closed. There were stains of dried blood on the white, plastic body bag they had already put him in… and smears of pink on the cotton blankets. There was a large tube sticking out of his mouth, taped to his cheeks and accompanied by a smaller tube jutting out of his nose, tied off in a knot encrusted with a dull, rust colored blood.
They had cooled his body down for the surgery while he was on the heart pump, his body was artificially cold to the touch. Mom was holding his hand and I put my hand over both of theirs. And just stood there.
After Mom had said as many goodbyes as were healthy right then, we left the ER to make our way home. I planned to grab something to eat, my first meal of the day, excepting the bag of peanuts on the plane.
Mom got a cell call that was going to take a few minutes, so I asked to go back into the ER to have a few minutes alone with Dad. I went back into the empty surgery ICU and pulled the curtain behind me.
I squeezed his limp hand and looked at his peaceful face.
And began to cry.