A memoir piece about my father's death.
| My father—my feelings for this man have never been easy to explain. At best, a swirl of contradictory emotions: love, hate, admiration, shame… One part drawn to the man that I knew as Daddy. One part resentful and angry, repelled by the alcohol.
I really don’t want to paint a picture of an evil monster. In fact, I cannot name a single person who did not like my father: drunk or sober. He simply never met a stranger. I can remember pulling into a gas station and watching him jump out to chat with the attendant like some long-lost friend. Later, when I would ask who the man was, he would tell me, “I don’t know. Just some guy.”
At times, Dad was full of life and mischief. I always loved watching Gilligan’s Island with him. We would lay at opposite ends of the couch and I would just wait. The attack always began with a little poke here or there. At first, I would try to ignore him, but it was never long before a full-scale assault was launched. Then I would be giggling and squirming to evade the fiendish toes that both tickled and pinched. In that moment, he was my daddy—the man that I loved.
Then there was the man that I admired. Whether fact or fiction, I managed to build a romantic image of my father, the World War II hero. This was the man to be proud of—the man I could brag about. I also thought that my father, though lacking an education, was a genius. He could tear down an engine and put it completely back together again; he could fix absolutely everything.
Then, there was the dark side consumed by alcohol. This was the man that I resented. Oh, to the outside world, my father was a “happy drunk,” the life of the party! But afterward, the brooding, angry silence would build until the inevitable explosion: the angry words, the doors kicked in, the walls punched.
I honestly don’t ever remember my father laying a finger on my mother, but the veiled threat was always there—an anger barely leashed. I can actually remember hiding with my mom in a cornfield late one night. I’ve never been sure if she was afraid of my father or just so furious that she wanted him to think that we had left. It didn’t really matter. I was so scared, but there was a part of me that was excited to see her finally take action. She had threatened to divorce him countless times. And countless times I had wished she would.
The next morning was always the same. It was like an angry balloon that had burst: flat, deflated, empty. There was always more brooding silence. My father would go for days without speaking to anyone. I can still see him sitting on the cement wall outside his shop, a cigarette drooped between his fingers as he stared out into space—silent. His only response when asked a question was a grunt or a clipped word.
The pattern was always the same. Only the length of the dry spells ever varied. After recovering from each binge, my father would "quit drinking.” I never knew how long this would last; I only knew that it would not. Sometimes I would come home to find the honkey-tonk music blaring or a six-pack in the fridge. Either way, my stomach would clinch, and I would fight to hold the tears at bay. I never cried in front of him. This was the man that I was ashamed of—the man I hated.
Then on December 30, 1986, I learned that I would never have to endure the next round—ever again. I was 17 and a junior in high school. At about 6:15 A.M. my mother shoved open my door.
“Patty! Get up quick. Your dad’s sick.” I stumbled out of bed, a sleep-induced fog clouding my brain. I yanked on some clothes and stepped into the living room. My father was sitting on the couch, a cigarette in his hand. He kept rubbing and shaking his left arm, pausing to reach up and rub his neck. Ice ran through my veins as I realized something was very, very wrong.
“Dad?” I looked at Mom. “Do you want me to run to Sandy’s and call an ambulance?” We had no telephone, so I knew our choices were limited. I either had to drive him to a hospital, or I would have to run to the neighbor to call for help.
“No! Nobody’s goin’ anywhere. I just need to rest for a few minutes.” Though I knew time was critical, I still sat down on a chair and anxiously waited. I kept sneaking looks at my mother, silently begging her for permission to disobey. Why I needed this permission I do not know; I only know that I was frozen there, perhaps conditioned by years of obedience.
Twenty minutes must have passed before I finally received the nod. I bolted from the chair and flew out the door. To my horror, three inches of new snow covered the ground. My feet never slowed as my mind calculated how quickly an ambulance could reach us. Under good conditions, we were at least 15 minutes from town and 30 minutes from the nearest hospital. The snow would double that.
In less than a minute, I was pounding on our neighbor’s door. The instant it opened, I burst into tears gasping for breath, sobbing, trying to explain.
“Call an ambulance! My dad’s having a heart attack!” Sandy's eyes widened in horror, and she reached out to pull me in. I wanted to bolt, desperate to get back, but Sandy convinced me that I needed to wait until 911 had been called.
“Yes, we need an ambulance. 3009 Camden Sugar Valley Road. My neighbor is having a heart attack,” she paused as she listened to the dispatcher. “He’s 66..… He’s complaining that his chest and arm are hurting.….Patty, is he conscious?”
“YES! He’s still conscious.”
“Yes, he is…. Okay, thank you!” Sandy hung up the phone and turned back to me, “They’re on their way!” That was all I needed. I pivoted and bolted back out the door the way I had come. Then, I was crashing back into my living room where I was met with a new horror. My father lay collapsed on the couch, not moving.
“What happened?” I asked turning to my mother who was still sitting in the chair, exactly where I had left her.
“He went to the bathroom. Said he was going to shave, but then he came back out here and just flipped back on the couch,” at this my mother burst into tears.
“How long ago, Mom? I told the ambulance he was conscious!” I was already frantically trying to find a pulse. I had taken a CPR course the year before, but I just couldn’t seem to process anything.
“I don’t know,” my mom hiccuped. “Maybe a couple minutes ago.”
“Okay, help me get him on the floor. I need to see if he’s breathing and if he has a pulse.” Mom pulled an old quilt onto the floor and the two of us gently lifted my father. I could hear a gurgling sound as I bent over him. How long would the ambulance be? I felt for a pulse, desperately hoping. Nothing—no breathing, no pulse.
“I can’t find a pulse! Mom, can you find a pulse?” I was torn with indecision. I knew I needed to do something, but what? Chest compressions? Rescue breathing? Everything hinged on finding a pulse. Mom reached out and grasped my father’s wrist.
“Yes, there’s a pulse,” she stated after a short pause.
“Are you sure?” I wanted to believe her… I didn’t believe her... I needed to believe her... I didn’t know what to do.
“Yes, Now! I said there’s a pulse, and there’s a pulse. I could feel it.” She grabbed his wrist once again to prove her point. I have never been able to argue with my mother and never have I wanted to less. So though I did not, in my heart of hearts, believe her, I latched onto the faint hope that she was right.
“Okay, what now?” I thought. “Mouth-to-mouth? I know he’s not breathing.” I slipped my hand under my dad’s neck and elevated his chin to open his airway better. I will never forget that moment when I placed my mouth gently over his. I could taste the cigarettes mixed with vomit. My stomach rolled. I wanted to throw up, but I knew that I needed to breathe for him. I pressed my lips down onto his and gently blew. His chest rose, but then the gurgling sound returned—the death rattle as air escaped back out of his lungs combining with more vomit. I gagged. Turning him onto his side and using my finger, I cleared his mouth and airways. Then, I rolled him back and continued to breath life into him.
It was almost 30 minutes before I heard the distant wail of an ambulance. I had my mother turn on the porch light and flag down the driver. As the medics burst through the door, I gave one last breath. I jumped up and backed away, staring in horror. Quickly, as they began chest compressions, the medics asked a million questions. I just continued to stare. At some point, one of the medics must have been concerned that I was going into shock, because she suddenly found things for me to do. Could I carry a case to the ambulance, and could I hold the door for them?
Soon they had my father loaded onto the ambulance, and I was told they were headed for Reid Memorial, the nearest hospital. My mother was allowed to ride shotgun, and I was left to contact the family as the ambulance took off into the white wall of snow. When I finally arrived at the hospital, I was told what I already knew. My father was dead on arrival.
I lost it! I began sobbing, no longer able to control my emotions or thoughts. I began hyperventilating, and, concerned about my asthma, my family admitted me to the emergency room. I cried until I was numb… completely numb. I spent the next three days on valium and in a fog.
I could tell you about that first night back at the house, about being asked to sleep with my mother and laying my head on my father’s pillow, about the funeral, about being told over and over again that I had to be strong for my mother, and about how I wondered who would be strong for me. I could tell you about those things, but in so many ways I was only an observer. I’m not sure that I experienced any of it. I was too numb.
For two years, I smothered the grief, the anger and, yes, the guilt way-down deep in my soul. I discovered, though, that the grieving process is relentless. Just when I would think I was fine, something would trigger an eruption.
This past December my father has been gone 20 years. I’ve lived a lifetime in those 20 years – a lifetime learning to forgive. I’ve forgiven my father for being an alcoholic; he was human. I’ve forgiven my mother for not leaving him, for claiming to feel a pulse, for forcing me take charge both during and after my father’s death; she was human. But most of all, I’ve forgiven myself for choosing to believe there was a pulse; I was 17—a kid. As an objective adult looking back, I can see that it is extremely unlikely that my father would have survived, even if I had performed the chest compressions. It is the “What if I had…” that I have had to forgive. In its place, I have learned to remind myself that I am a survivor and that I am strong. “What if’s” and second-guessing will only drive you insane. Acceptance and forgiveness will make you stronger.
My Father & Me