Fathers Aren't Supposed to Die
The phone call comes with a ring of camouflage–could be the dry cleaners, could be the finance department trying to verify something on your expense report, could be the security guard downstairs notifying you that your takeout order has arrived.
One, two, three rings . . . catch it just before the voice mail picks up. It's either a bad connection or the voice is . . . “It's me, your brother Bill.”
Even though he only lives 20 miles away, I haven't seen my older brother Bill in years. Families drift apart for no good reason. But it's not about that. “Dad is in the hospital and he didn't want to tell everybody and everything was supposed to be okay but now . . . bleeding . . . in the brain . . . he can't talk . . . ”
The hospital is an hour away and as I'm driving I can hear my father's voice. Now that someone has told me he can't talk, I can hear everything he ever said. It's coming in ridiculous sound bites. “If you can touch it, you can catch it,” he'd say every time a football skipped off the tip of my fingers. He is framed in the doorway to his bathroom 30 years ago. I am curled upon the end of his bed and he is flapping a Reader's Digest under his armpits to dry a fresh coat of Mennen.
“It's the perfect size for this,” he grins.
I have screwed up big time, and he has only one thing to say: “Terry, why can't you just do what you're supposed to do?”
This ride up the highway is much too easy. I know I am driving in that space between bad and worse news. I want the traffic to jam up, I want to see brake lights, I want a milk tanker to jackknife spilling a river of white that will tie us all up for hours. I want the whole world to be in collusion with my trepidation. But there's no stopping this. I'm being carried along like debris in a flood . . . going, going, gone, gone, gone.
And the flow quickens at the hospital. Wrought-iron security gates surround this urban medical center on Florida's east coast but it is as welcoming as a theme park castle. Bold signs pave the way, arrows can't be missed, smiling security guards in golf carts offer rides from the parking lot.
I walk rigidly, still trying to slow things down, but the big doors slide open while I'm 10 paces away, pulling me through, and the receptionist hands off a visitor's badge as if it's the baton in a relay race.
My stride doesn't break until I reach his doorway. The moment I see him lying there my eyes avert to the TV high above him, tuned to one of those networks that specialize in syndicated oldies. “McCloud” is on.
I go to his side and his head turns but his stare is blank. I don't know what to say. The last time we talked we didn't talk. It was Merry Christmas/Happy New Year/See you later. So I think of the time before, when he called me out of nowhere to come up and see some senior PGA golf tournament near his condo. My interest in golf is zero, but it was a beautiful day and when I arrived I saw Chi Chi Rodriguez in a blazing red shirt, chasing another player across the green and jabbing his putter like a sword. My father bought me a lemonade and then asked me if I would like a pretzel.
“Terry, would you like a pretzel?”
“Yes, Daddy, I would like a pretzel.”
I am sure it was unintentional, but the outing reminded me that although our contact of late has been nothing more than feeble phone calls and holiday hugs, we had a past and it was filled with glorious days like this.
I recall cutting across to the 18th hole late in the day and having to walk through a pile of gravel. Both of us were unsteady, and I wanted to use it as an excuse to reach out and grab his hand, as if we needed an excuse to hold hands. But I didn't do it.
I look down at his bed now. He looks so helpless. What a horrible excuse. I grab his hand. His hand squeezes back, but I'm not sure if it's a reflex or he knows I'm here.
I'm here, Dad.
“You're here,” a voice behind me says. It is my brother Bill, and he is trembling.
“He was set to come home Friday. He was set to come home Friday,” Bill keeps repeating as if he wants to drill it into my mind as deeply as it is embedded in his.
“What the hell happened? How long has he been here?” I ask.
The details he gives me are brief and convoluted. Dad had been having bad headaches, then his voice started to slur a bit. “He couldn't remember the PIN number for his ATM card,” Bill says.
“He couldn't remember his PIN number?” I repeat, as if that is the most telling symptom, as if that is how they knew something was really wrong. He'd walked into the hospital a few days earlier. They found a subdural hematoma–blood between the brain and the skull. He went into surgery, the neurologist drained it and that was that.
“He was sitting up and eating steak the next day,” Bill says. Dad had called my mother, who is unable to get out because of her own failing health, at home.
“I miss you so much,” my father told her.
Why didn't you guys tell me he was in the hospital?
“You know Dad,” Bill says. “He didn't want to make a big deal out of it. He just asked me to drive him.”
My father rises from the bed in the grip of a seizure. His eyes are flickering, his limbs flailing. The nurse, a big blond guy named Andy wearing deep purple scrubs, says they've been giving him medication for the seizures but it's not working. We ask what is happening but all he says is: “I don't know. The doctor is supposed to call in a couple of minutes.”
A doctor's minute, it turns out, is the antithesis of the New York minute. Time is racing by. My oldest brother, Danny, arrives. He doesn't waste time asking any of the questions I did–what happened, why wasn't I told? He just goes right to my father's side and begins working on him like a therapeutic Tony Little.
“Okay, guy, we can get through this. Can you move your arms and legs? Let's do it!” Huge chunks of time are just dropping away now. I look up and “Quincy” is on.
We take turns holding his hand . . . (The doctor will be with you in a couple of minutes) . . . we're getting a bit delirious ourselves.
“I'm going to get something to eat,” Danny says. “You want something?”
“Anything's okay,” I say.
Another seizure comes and I grip my father's arm tightly. We are arm wrestling. Even though this is when he seems most far away, it is also when he seems most alive. His blue eyes are glazed but at least they are open. His face warps into every expression I've ever known. Danny's back. “I'm telling you, even when Dad gets better I'm still coming back to the hospital for these Danishes,” he says wiping his mouth. “This is the best Danish I've ever gotten out of a vending machine.”
Andy pops in, leaves, and then pops right back. “Oh, the doctor will be with you in a couple of minutes,” he says.
The doctor is with us.
“The CAT scan is showing some gunk on the outside of the brain,” he says.
“What do you mean, gunk?” I ask, assuming he's trying to simplify it for us.
“You know, gunk,” he says. He explains little more than that our father is getting worse and we need to sign for another surgery immediately.
After signing, we move to three chairs outside the operating room and sit silently for a short eternity, until the doctor comes out and stops short in front of us. The surgical mask still hanging off his lower lip, he tells us our father survived the procedure and now we'll just have to see. We don't know what questions to ask and he's not giving up much more.
What are his chances?
“Some patients surprise me,” he says.
Is that what it's going to take? My brothers look at each other. How far is the distance between a surprise and a miracle? The more questions we ask, the more steps backward the doctor takes. Then he cocks his head and tells a story about another patient who had “gunk” on the brain. “And after I removed it he was fine,” he says. “Then, a day later, the brain collapsed like Jell-O.”
The doctor flips his wrist to look at a watch that isn't there, puts the mask back in place and quickly leaves. Back in the direction only he's allowed to go.
Danny squeezes my knee, and we all rise and walk up the corridor toward the lobby. “There it is, F4,” Danny says, pointing at the Danish as we pass the vending machines. Outside the ICU, there is a large group of about 30 people holding vigil for a preacher who was in a car accident. A matronly woman is leading them in song. Her church-grown voice is sweet and it is a graceful hymn. The others join in a chorus of Heaven's virtues and what a beautiful place it must be. They sound so strong.
We feel so weak. The electric doors swish open, and we are out into the night. We break off to go to our cars.
Danny stops, turns and says: “Why did he have to tell us that Jell-O story?”
“I don't know,” I say. “People–people tell stories.” And we just stand there for what seems like a doctor's minute. The whole day is crashing around us.
“Is tomorrow Friday?” Bill says. “He was supposed to go home on Friday.”
Nothing's changed. He just lies there.
Everything's changed. No one goes to work, no one goes to the store, no one makes any plans other than to be at our father's bedside. We've become hospital rats. By Day 2, we know where the best soda machine is (it has Fresca). By Day 3, we're no longer using the pay phone but making free calls from deep inside nursing station B2. By Day 4, we know who the good nurses are (they're so much smarter here in ICU) and the bad (here comes the witch). By Day 5, Bill somehow knows what kind of car every doctor drives–the neurosurgeon has a Cadillac Seville, the cardiologist a classic Corvette, the internist a GMC Yukon. “But I think it's his wife's,” Bill says. He's got an eye for that kind of thing. By Day 6, we know orderlies' hobbies. Gerard flies those radio-controlled airplanes. The big ones.
We know all this but we know no more about my father's condition. After the surgery, it was all about the swelling going down.
“The brain has been through two surgeries within a week,” the doctor said. “Once the swelling goes down we'll see where we're at.” Well, the swelling must have gone down by now but we don't see a thing. Bill has been personalizing the room, bringing in photos and hanging up an article from a Valley Stream, N.Y., newspaper that recently chronicled my father's feats during World War II. I remember him writing me a brief note to tell me about it. “I guess I'm a part of history now,” he said.
There's a photo of 24-year-old Daniel Lawrence Shine in a cool fur-collared bomber jacket. Bill has marked details in the story with a yellow highlighter . . . “hit with anti-aircraft fire over Cologne, Germany. Both Mr. Shine and his bombardier were wounded. Mr. Shine dropped the injured bombardier out the escape hatch before the plane exploded and then experienced a two and a half mile free fall–”
“Is that your father? It doesn't look like him,” a nurse says.
Fifty years will do that to you. To add to his resume, I explain that he has five sons–Danny, Bill, Terry, Chris and Peter–in that order. Only the four of us have been at the hospital because Peter, the youngest, still lives in New York, where we were all raised. “Looks like your father was quite a hero,” the nurse says, tracing her rubber-gloved finger across the yellow highlights detailing how he was awarded the Silver Star for valor. When we were growing up there was a flag on a pole in the center of our neighborhood, and our family was in charge of raising and lowering it on holidays. I can recall night coming and my brother Chris and I fighting to see who would unhook the flag and then struggling with the cold metal clasps. We bunched it up in our arms and returned to the house, where we stretched the banner the length of our living room as our father guided us through the motions of folding Old Glory military-style. Shake it out, half, half again, triangle, step, triangle, step, ti ghter, tighter until no red, no blood, is showing. Just the bright blue and the glow of the stars. The perfect triangle. All of these recollections are flowing
back now. We're not sure but we think he can hear us, so we circle around the bed and exchange stories.
Remember the time Dad did this, remember the time he did that? “Hey, Dad, remember that one?” Bill says. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't. Maybe he can hear us, maybe he can't. No one's able to tell us for sure, so we're coming up with our own answers. He can hear us. He remembers.
What it Takes When I arrive the doctor is already gathering the rest of my family into a small room off the main nurse's station. Earlier, she had the neurosurgeon call to tell me my father “just doesn't have what it takes” to pull through this. Now, even from a distance I can see she's loaded up on ammunition to convince us of whatever it is this time. There are nursing supervisors, social workers, a chaplain.
“Does anyone have a problem with implementing the living will?” she immediately says.
I say something about how, after several weeks, our hope has turned to selfishness. We're keeping him alive for ourselves, but he's suffering. When it comes to Bill, I'm afraid the acceptance will take a dive, but he rambles something about watching TV with Dad at the time of Nixon's death and how they talked about how he didn't have to prolong his dying because he had a living will.
“Nixon had a living will?” someone says. “Do we have to talk about Nixon?” I say. “This is hard for me,” Bill continues. “But I don't want to see him go on like this. He wouldn't want this. He was a good person, you know. He always made sure everybody in the family was taken care of, everybody had food and a place to stay no matter what.”
This is more than the doctors want to hear, but it's not more than we want to hear. We know all the ups and downs we've had over the years, we know all about the no-matter-whats and how our father never forgot that these boyish men were his children. No matter what.
“He was a good dad,” Bill says, his voice trembling like that first day at the hospital. We sit there quietly. Even the doctor, who's always in a rush, just sits there.
The chaplain mentions he's a war veteran like my father. Bill tells him that Dad recently talked about wanting to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
“Oh, sh–,” I accidentally say. This is news to me. Are we really gonna have to go to Virginia and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the whole bit? That place is a field trip, not a resting place. It's a tourist attraction. They don't let just anybody in there, do they?
“No, they don't,” Bill says.
I think about leaving the beeper home during this morning jog through my neighborhood, but the doctor had told us someone has to carry it at all times. “There will be questions that have to be answered immediately, things you'll need to know right way,” she said.
But all the questions have been answered now, and there is only one thing left to know. Only one beep remains.
Old people are supposed to die, I said in a whisper of resignation two nights ago. “Yeah, but fathers aren't,” Bill responded. I know what he is saying but I think I am on the brink of acceptance. The day is bright, almost a white light, and I squint as a school bus holds me back from crossing the first main street off my block. A dog gives chase and I pick up the pace. There is freedom in my steps today, and I think it is because I'm okay with it. There are a lot of days in a long life and on one of them you must die.
I keep going over my father's life in my head. So much good, so little bad. And the sheer length of it. He's lived through the '20s, the '30s, the '40s, the '50s, the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, the '90s. . . . Man, when you think about it that way. Of course, there are the almosts that will haunt me. He's so close to a lot of milestones. I can hear myself in the future saying that he almost made it to 80 years of age, almost reached 50 years of marriage, almost . . . almost lived forever.
One more day for him is one more day for us. But these aren't days anymore. These are slabs of time that we stand in while he waits for God to come. The drugs are doing the work now. He's in the comfort zone. And, even if we are never quite sure of the doctors' intentions, I truly believe we have done everything we can.
Avoiding the sprinklers on the corner of Ocean Avenue, I go wide. I'm running through the checklist in my head. Everyone has been able to tell him they love him and his eyes have miraculously returned the sentiment. Arlington and all its glory are set to come. I weave around another loose dog and wonder when this pager will vibrate, when will we actually confront it and will the acceptance I feel now really hold up? I don't want to wait. I am ready now.
“Goodbye, Dad,” I say aloud as I try to sprint the last quarter-mile. “You were a good dad.”
The Snap of a Flag
The news does not come with a beep, but rather a gentle phone call from Hospice in the middle of the night, and we are all still in a daze as we ride in this dark limousine. The guard at the gate salutes us through and everything appears in slow motion as we turn to the rows of evenly erected headstones stretching to the horizon at every turn. We are in awe of our invitation to Arlington, of our loss equaling this honor.
The odd February sun is strong, but the day is still founded in the cold. I finally get to wear the $150 leather jacket that has hung in my Florida closet indefinitely, and it's at my father's funeral.
We are led to a central building where we go through sort of a debriefing, meeting the principals–a military chaplain, a civilian priest with an Irish accent and a governmental family liaison who tells us how to get parking passes for when we return to visit the grave site. There's a glass-walled waiting area at the front of the building for the family and it is there we meet two gentlemen who have been asked by their parents to attend the service. Their folks were unable to make the trip so they have been sent as representatives. One is a Georgetown professor and the son of a close cousin of my father's and the other is the son of a boyhood friend we'd often heard Dad refer to as Punter.
“Oh, no, is that the hearse?” Peter says, moving toward the large windows. “Look at it. It looks like something the Blues Brothers would show up in.”
The one saving grace is the horses. The liaison explains to us that the casket will be transferred from the hearse to the carriage and then there will be about a quarter of a mile procession. We can either walk behind the caisson or ride in the limo. We conjure images of Princess Di's kids gracefully following their mother's procession, of John John saluting in shorty pants, and there is no doubt that we will be hoofing it.
“Who will we be presenting the flag to?” the liaison asks.
“To Danny,” I say. “He's the eldest.”
At the transfer location we stop counting how many soldiers have assembled after about 50. We need this, a tribute of majestic proportions–wintergreen rolling hills and the Washington Monument across the river, aimed like a missile toward the heavens. The transfer from the hearse to the carriage is tedious and regimented as a band plays from a strategic position on the horizon, its muffled drums demanding attention. Our eyes focus on the gold stripes running straight up the soldiers' pant legs and the white-gloved fingers that inch the flag-draped casket into place. Being here in the land of heroes and patriots seems to be lifting us above the constant misery. As the horse-drawn carriage rolls and the soldiers' calculated movements of respect unfold before us, it seems to be taking some of the pain away. Words like duty and honor are not falling on our usual cynical ears. They are elevating our father's memory.
I recall the words of the foolish doctor who enters someone's life in the final stages; runs the tests, checks the charts four minutes a day and then says something like . . . Your father just doesn't have what it takes.
He has no idea. These men do. With our mishmash of clothing we look like refugees at the end of a military parade as we try to walk in sync with the honor guard. We watch for the salutes to signal the placing of our hands over our hearts. We are absorbing every nuance, soaking in every detail and sound: the click of military shoes on blacktop, the snort of the lead horse, the short barks of the commanding officer. When they lift the flag up off the casket to prepare for burial, the soldiers on each side hold it flat and extend it like a net that could catch someone falling from the sky. It catches us as their grips tighten and the ritual of folding the banner begins. We can almost feel our own hands pulling up the slack.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the flag of the United States of America,” the lead soldier announces. “This is the flag of our country–the flag that unites us all.”
Step forward and cut it in half. . . shake it out and half again . . . Snap it.
“Many Americans–both humble and great–have lived, served and died for the sake of this noble emblem–a symbol of the life we live in freedom and democracy. All soldiers aspire to conduct themselves according to its virtues–DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY–asking only to be remembered for the sacrifices they have made for the betterment of this land.
Triangle, fold, step, triangle again, step, closer and closer, tighter and tighter. . . .
“As we honor this flag today, we also pay tribute to the life, legacy and honorable service of Daniel L. Shine, Second Lieutenant, United States Army.
Tighter, tighter . . . until no red, no blood is showing. Just the bright blue and the glow of the stars. . . .
“May his soul find eternal rest and peace with Almighty God, and may the God in whom we trust continue to bless this majestic land we proudly call the United States of America.”
The perfect triangle.
As they lay it in Danny's lap we are all trembling, our grips loosened and limp from anything but this end we now stand in. A plane thrusts up overhead, an unplanned but fitting tribute. Our ears are tuned back to the sounds: the engines roaring, the commander shouting above the rumble, the rifles cracking the morning, the spent casings dropping to the ground. We are listening. We are sober. We are proud. For the moment we are refreshed in the way a smack in the face stands you straight up and awakens you to the significance, the importance, of a particular event.
As we return to the limo and drift out of the cemetery I start to observe the individual names on the generic stones. They no longer look like a monotonous row upon row of white tabs. I even notice that the lines are not as symmetrical as I thought, some stones are crooked, a little off-kilter, time has settled some deeper, shifted some to the left, tipped some to the right. The stones all seem to be fighting for individuality . . . and winning.
It takes an eternity for the tail end of this long vehicle to pass through the exit gates and I wonder where we are headed now. My brothers and I reunited in death, our mother alone and our father gone, gone, gone.
Both humble and great.
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard