10 days ago my dad lived.
My dad, with his beautifully raspy voice, his strong, callused hands, his passion for this landscape and the creatures that exist here. My dad who loves unconditionally and laughs with a promise that things will be ok. My dad who’s given the shirt off his back, the boots from his feet and all his heart to those he loves or those who need him.
Our dad who knows things. Takes care of things.
Takes care of us.
The weather report warned us that the early January thaw was about to turn treacherous, sending snow blowing across slushy roads, turning them to ice and dropping the temperatures to dangerous lows. But it was warm that early Friday morning when Pops struggled to find the phone to make a call that would save his life.
That evening as Husband drove us home in that mild winter air I was uneasy. There was no reason for it really. We had just finished a nice dinner with my family, celebrating my mom and little sister’s birthday. We laughed. We ordered steak. We watched Little Man move from lap to lap around the table. And then we all said goodnight and happy birthday.
But on the road that night as the tires hummed along the highway I looked up at the stars with a lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach and asked my husband if he ever feels lonesome for something. Something he can’t describe.
He said he thought so. He said he understood. Then we pulled into the drive, trudged up the steps and tucked ourselves in safe and unaware that in a few short hours, at 2 a.m. the phone would ring in the darkness, threatening to change the comfortable and blessed life we take for granted.
The hours that followed are indescribable, a nightmare that threatened to paralyze me and send me gasping for air at the sound of my father’s voice asking for help and the sight of him lying helpless on the floor. But deep down under the fear that percolated and boiled up in my throat was an untried and reassuring belief that this was only an obstacle and not the end.
The stars spun in the warm January night and under those stars our neighbors responded to the call, loading up in the fire-trucks and an ambulance, asking their God for strength to make the miles in time to help a suffering friend laying too far from town, too far from help.
And so how do you thank that God for second chances? My dad looked up at me from the floor of the home where he raised three girls and loved one woman, the walls that absorbed the sound of a family’s laughter and arguments, the notes of his guitar, the smells of supper warming on the stove and a life well lived and he told me he was dying.
I held his hand, looked him in the eye and without a waver, without a tear, I said no. No, you are not.
But he was. I didn’t believe it then. I didn’t know it then, but he was.
That big strong heart of his, the one that taught us – showed us – compassion and patience, bravery and tenderness, was torn and leaking and poisoning his body.
And with each passing minute, each hour it took to load him in the ambulance, to get him to town, to test, to poke and prod and diagnose and medicate, to plead with the nurses and doctor, to fight to make him comfortable, to hold his hand and ask him where it hurt, where is it…what is it…what can we do…do something…help him…the odds fell quickly and silently away from his favor.
“Dissection of the Aorta,” the doctor said. “We’re calling an airplane. There’s no time to talk now…”
My mother’s hand went to her mouth. My sisters gasped. The temperature dropped outside where the wind blew chilled rain across the plains and I ran out there to stand in it, to come to grips with the idea that we might go on living in this world without my dad.
But I could not accept it. This wasn’t our story.
I pushed down the fear and walked back inside where we hugged him goodbye for now.
“See you in the big town,” I said.
“Are you sure you want to drive those roads? The weather’s getting bad,” he told us. “I’ll be ok, really. You don’t have to come all that way.”
Just like dad to worry about us.
Silent and shaken we crawled in the pickup, 180 miles of daunting highway stretching before us under the darkening and freezing winter skies.
And up in those skies they flew him, my dad, on the wings of the plane and some merciful angels, to get to where he was going in time to be saved.
Who am I to give words to the feeling of moving through those miles in the dark, uncertain and silent, mind wandering to a future you can only will and pray for. Who am I to tell you how my stomach knotted with each ring of the phone, what it was like to watch my mother and sisters suffer with worry? Who am I to describe the relief we felt when we got word he made it to the hospital where staff and surgeon were waiting to perform one of the most difficult procedures of their careers?
How can I tell you what those hours were like, waiting with my family while my father was in another room with his chest cut open, his big, strong heart exposed and open to the uncertain world?
How can I describe what it meant to us that you drove all those miles behind us in the storm, neighbor, to sit with us and ease the silence while we waited hours for news of his life as the earth froze over?
What words do I use to thank the doctor who walked into that waiting room with news that he saved him? The nurses who cared for him? The family and friends who sent prayers and positive thoughts into the universe, begging for mercy for a man we still need with us here, while all around the world people with much better odds of living were being taken up into those spinning stars.
Ten days ago my dad lived. The earth froze solid while he slept. 60 below zero the weatherman said and we were frozen too with fear of the unknown. We touched his hand while he slept and told him we loved him.
Two days after that he breathed on his own and the air warmed up enough to let the snow fall. In the dark of the night we took turns sitting with him in that room in that city full of lights and unfamiliar noises as he healed, passing one another’s footprints in the snow on our way back and forth from the hotel to his bedside.
Twelve hours later he was walking down the hall of that hospital aware of his mortality, grateful for his saviors, both unseen and on this earth, and planning his escape back to the ranch where there is so much more work to be done, more people to love and more life to be lived.
“I almost died,” he said as the drugs wore off and he came back to us.
“But you didn’t dad. I told you you wouldn’t,” I said.
“You know why I didn’t?”
“Because I’m a son-of-a-bitch.”
Maybe not a son-of-a-bitch, but the strongest man I know. How comforting that his sense of humor was so quick to reappear.
And with each passing day that laughter eased our worries, the temperature warmed and the earth thawed out as we all learned to breathe again.
Our dad is a miracle. Doctors and nurses got word of his survival and recovery and stopped by to see him, to tell him he’s an anomaly.
I could tell you the odds. I knew them all along, but it doesn’t matter now. He was meant to stay with us.
Because ten days ago, in a world that worked to freeze up, crush us and break our hearts, my dad’s heart, big and strong and open, against all odds in a world that can be cruel and forgiving all at the same time, kept beating.
Ten days ago he lived.