I had to look it up to truly understand the 10 percent survival rate.
My father had the harder task. He had to survive it — then survive the triple heart bypass surgery that followed a week later.
At 9 a.m. this past Wednesday, he resolutely rolled into an operating room at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass., on a gurney that seemed flimsier than it really was. And we? We trudged into a waiting room. We hoped his body and his brain were strong enough to have his chest split open and his heart — intentionally this time — halted.
We played Plants vs. Zombies 2 on our phone or worked on our computers or read novels whose characters weren’t us. We wore lucky Kokopelli socks or lucky powder blue shirts and bought each other meals and snacks and drinks. We talked and joked or didn’t.
We waited, less motionless but no less hopeful than a pair of children outside the hospital with an oh-so-important dream. We wanted, too.
I flew back to Boston 10 days ago, a day after eight paramedics rushed into a house of mostly happy memories and guarded against the saddest memory of all.
Around noon the day before, my dad had been in his driveway, shoveling snow in the bitter cold. When he was done, he climbed a dozen or so steep steps back into his house and sat down on his large living room sofa — “the good couch,” he calls it, to distinguish it from another one nearby.
Then his heart stopped, and with it, his breathing.
Alerted by the silence, his wife found him quickly, this newly-minted 70-year-old who had ended a lifetime of smoking two and a half years ago on the birthday of his youngest son’s son and who had stopped sculling only recently after a knee replacement.
Her arms moved quicker than any sculler’s ever did. She called 911 and performed chest compressions and mouth to mouth resuscitation on him, guided by the calm voice of the operator on the other end of her cell phone and by her own CPR certification, earned as a teenager and renewed when she was 40, an achievement as worthy of a wall as my father’s Ph.D.
There is no other way to say this: she saved his life.
So we — my two younger brothers, my older sister, her boyfriend and I — sped to Massachusetts separately, uncertain what we would find, and doctors kept our father sedated for two days in hopes that he might start to heal and then monitored his vital signs as he regained consciousness, groggy, unfocused, unsure why he was in a hospital or even where he was.
That first day he woke up, he shared this drug-addled dream with me: “I had a dream I was playing backgammon, and I was on the middle, and I couldn’t shake myself. I couldn’t turn myself back into myself.”
His words seemed as full of import as a more famous refrain about self.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
The whole thing was scary. It was unsettling. It was sad.
Until it wasn’t. Until he was well. Or as well as could be expected given that doctors said he needed a coronary artery bypass graft or “CABG” because five of his arteries were blocked like this:
Memories raced through my mind as his worked to recover before surgery.
I was reminded that time is always consequential but not necessarily sequential, that it tumbles like a gymnast, somersaulting back and forth, back and forth, always back, always forth to stick its landing in the present.
There I am on a plane flying back to Massachusetts 10 days ago. There a baby, born overseas as my dad pursues a doctorate degree in German history. At my grandfather’s funeral on a farm in Minnesota, my dad weeping on the ground; in my first-ever airplane flying to that same farm, nine years old maybe, to spend the summer alone with my dad’s parents; tucked into bed near his mom that summer, trying to explain the back and forth of comic book panels to her; home in Rockport, Mass., having my grandmother question me as a teenager about some story or picture I’d penned about a boy who kills (decapitates, as I remember it) his father….
There I am riding home from seeing “Schindler’s List” with my dad, just the two of us, in silence. Hearing the heaving sounds of sadness that washed over him, over us, at the movie. At my wedding in the oldest synagogue in San Diego; at the births of my two daughters; the days he first held them….
There, sitting on the staircase to the bedrooms of my brothers and I — we called it “the wooden hill” as kids — and eavesdropping on the peculiarities of marriage: the parties, the fights, the conversations, the quiet; there, seeing my dad in the living room reading a newspaper, ignoring me by focusing on the thing, the singular thing, that would become the touchstone of my adult life as a journalist; seeing my dad smiling at Christmas, at soccer games, at the beach with my daughters in his last visit to San Diego, in his backyard in Rockport, Mass., playing “bucket ball” and barbecuing….
There I am, eating meals prepared by Barbara, my dad’s third wife, the life-saver, and hearing him, happy, so happy, talking over beers that night about the novel he’s writing; swinging my daughters and my youngest brother’s son in the hammock in the yard behind my father’s purple-painted house a few summers ago; buying purple gem earrings for my wife and a purple ROCKPORT sweatshirt for me before returning to San Diego yesterday….
Living. Laughing. Fighting. Hugging. Talking. Not talking. Just. Being.
Building a life. Building a network of lives.
Modern medicine is such a marvel that fewer than four hours after my dad entered the O.R., the doctor who had reassured us he’d done this work 5,000 times before was striding purposefully — is there any other way for a heart surgeon to stride? — into our small, tense, quiet — and also loud; it was that kind of day — waiting room. In words as efficient as his hands, he told us my father’s surgery had been — the doctor’s word — “perfect.”
It’s a word you don’t hear enough in a lifetime.
It’s a word I will never hear the same again.
In anyone’s life, in everyone’s life, there are days that give and days that take. That Wednesday, the day of my dad’s surgery, was most definitely a day that gave.
How illustrative of the beautiful yet brutish yin and yang of life that the doctor’s pronouncement of perfection came, almost to the minute, one week after a day that took — nearly took my father out of our lives, out of his — a day that shook up lives coast to coast as his four children plopped into cars or planes — plop, plop, fizz, fizz — to be by his side, to support him and his wife, to be in it, this thing, this sudden sadness, together.
Now his body is working its magic. Progress comes daily. His bedside is quieter with fewer tubes and drips. His short-term memory retention improves. He walked 60 feet last night! He exchanged the surgical ICU — where Van Gogh’s bateaux watched over us — for a cardiac ward on Friday night, and his recovery is so “remarkable” — the doctor’s word again — that my father expects to go home Monday, tomorrow — home! home! — another one of those words that I will never hear enough or the same again.
So what did we find at the hospital? We found a fighter of a father, a warrior and wonder of a wife, and bonds of brotherhood, sisterhood and friendship that will stretch for thousands of miles but never break.
We found that New England clam chowdah is still the tastiest comfort food on the planet, that Papa Gino’s …
… still smells like home, that laughter and beer and the sounds of family are cathartic, that FaceTiming your wife and daughters is better in real life than in any commercial and that sleep is fleeting but Dunkin’ Donuts is not.
I’m back in San Diego as I write this, back home with my family, which, of course, is my father’s. Back with my two lovely daughters and my beautiful wife and her most excellent extended family, which, of course, is my family.
It is all of ours, together. And it is obvious: Family is a heart, generations are the arteries that sustain us.
This, then, is the perfect takeaway from what’s transpired here. It’s inspired by what happened but also by this, a six-word Ernest Hemingway story that is again making the rounds on social media.
Inspired, I sit at home, surrounded by family, and type six words for you:
Be. Live life. Follow your heart.