Twenty-two years ago today, Mom, Jim and I were gathered in a cramped hotel room across the street from the VA hospital in Charleston.
It was 2 days after a massive nor’easter had blown up the coast, knocking out power and closing bridge traffic, one day after we’d gotten the call from the hospital that Dad had coded. They’d revived him and he was now on a respirator in ICU. He wasn’t responding to any stimuli, wasn’t breathing on his own.
It was about nine hours after we’d been accosted by a somewhat less-than-properly-socialized doctor who wanted us to decide to take Dad off life support, nine hours after I saw my mom become speechless for the first time, and eight hours and 58 minutes after I’d done something I’d never done before then: yell at an authority figure.
Our brother, Tom, wasn’t with us, and we were not about to make a decision without making sure ALL of us had a chance to process and have their say. But in those pre-cell-phone days, “getting in touch with Tom” while he was camping in Florida consisted of us leaving messages with all his friends in Chapel Hill and praying he would call one of them.
Doc wasn’t happy about the delay, so I told him to shut up, we would let him know when and if we made a decision, and until we did that, they were to give Dad the best care they were capable of rendering. To his credit, he realized what he’d done and stammered out an apology.
Miraculously, Tom DID call one of those friends, and we spent a good 30 minutes on the phone with him. Mom decided we would try to get some sleep, then get up in the morning and walk over to the hospital to tell them they could remove the respirator.
Dad had other plans.
We got a call sometime before 5 AM on March 16, 1993, from the ICU nurse – his organs were shutting down. We rushed across the street, arriving just in time to say goodbye.
He waited until all of his kids could have a say, and then he saved us the anguish of making a decision.
I had a dream about him last night – this larger than life, Hemingway-esque man with whom I associate just about everything that was amazing in my childhood, as well as most of the awful. In this dream, he wanted to get dressed up in costume to go see a large mansion the owners were selling in some fantastic period-drama marketing campaign. “Why not?” he’d asked me.
I realized this morning when I woke up that this was his biggest gift to me – every time I consider doing something that scares me and entices me at the same time, and every time I ask myself somewhat defiantly “Why the hell not?” – that’s Dad.