Thursday, November 09, 2006

Pangs of the Heart

I got a call earlier this week telling me that my Father was in the hospital.

Brought in by an ambulance after collapsing.


Actually, make that, 'Yet again'...

A hurriedly arranged trip two hundred miles south to Washington State confirmed he'd had another heart attack. And numerous complications. Diabetes. Kidney failure. Liver failure. He was on his way north to Canada from Phoenix to visit me and other stuff. With my father there is always other stuff. It runs in the family.

My father was asleep when I was admitted to the CCU. I can never remember, does that mean critical care or cardiac care unit? And does that mean that critical care is worse than intensive care? And before I let him know I was there, I watched him for nearly half an hour. Then his eyes opened. As if he knew I was there. And as soon as he saw my face, despite all the drgs and medication, he smiled. "How's my baby boy?" Because I think that is how my father still really sees me. His first-born son. Albeit forty-six years after the fact. How can you not smile at that?

I am not a big fan of hospitals, but then who is? I do feel however, that you have an obligation to whichever poor bastard you know who is in there, to suck it up and put in an appearance and put on your happy face. After all, once you're in the hospital, who's kidding who? None of it is good. But at least you walked in of your own free will. Not everybody does. Certainly not my old man.

The staff at the Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon are absolutely tops. The best of the best. Amazing care-givers who give the impression that they really actually honest-to-God care. And this is the fourth such time I have visited my father under similar circumstances. On a fifth occasion I sat by a phone for twenty-four hours waiting to find out if a). he was going to make it through the night (it was a toss-up according to the doctors) and b). whether or not I was going to have to fly across the country for a bedside vigil. In the end my Father, as he is wont to do, made a semi-miraculous recovery. He has the constition of a bull. He is also, on occasion, as smart as an ox. It runs in the family.

As I stand on the brink of running my twentieth marathon in the past six years it is hard not to draw comparisons with my father. I am now just a few months past the time when he had his first heart attack some twenty-odd years ago. And I was the one who drove him to the Emergency Room. I was twenty-four and my father was forty-six. We argued all the way to the Hospital. In the end, the only reason - at least on the surface - that he went was that I refused to embark on a weekend sailing trip unless he got a clean bill of health. And I was First Mate. In other words, the only one who could be counted on to navigate sober while Captain and crew and guests were inebriated. For me it was a no-brainer. While loading provisions aboard his sailboat he nearly dropped a case of wine into the drink - saltchuck that is. Knowing my father as I do, he was clearly a man with a serious medical condition.

I knew intellectually that there was something not quite right with my father. The burning pain in his gut and his chest, his shortness of breath, his pallor, the sweat beaded on his forehead and the pain down his right arm. It was so obvious to me I couldn't understand why he refused to aknowledge a problem. It runs in the family.

I understand it perfectly well now. You can get a little emotional about these things.

It runs in the family.

Growing up, my father loomed in my life as a giant. A physically, emotionally and intellectually imposing man who really is larger than life in nearly every way. At just over six feet tall and always somewhere in the vicinity of two hundred pounds, I think of myself as 'small' because my father is so large. He has almost always physically dwarfed me and most of the other people in a room. He fills doorways. Literally. The same height as me, he has often outweighed me by a hundred pounds. In his prime he wore up to a 56 Tall sports jacket. He had massive shoulders and a barrel chest and at one time a nineteen inch neck. I once saw him single-handedly lift a 45 gallon drum of diesel fuel from a loading dock into the back of a pick-up truck because he was too impatient to wait for a fork-lift.

He is charming and funny, witty and eloquent and cursed with an explosive temper. He is, and often at the same time, capable of being both brilliant and cruel. At one stage in our relationship, we did not speak for eight years. You have to really love and hate someone to carry that kind of torch for that long with that degree of intensity. He has four children, does my father. Three sons and a daughter. He doesn't speak with the other three. At least that I know of. He gets it and doesn't get it, if that makes sense. It pains him, his relationships or lack thereof with his children. He has regrets. Sometimes, when we have been drinking, a lot. He always asks after them. I answer as best as can, passing along information gleaned from my mother. I don't talk much to the other three either. It runs in the family.

And in the end, for each of us, there is probably no other who better understands what makes us tick. Neither he nor I gets under each others skin like he and I. Over the past quarter of a century we have worked together, fought together, and (once he had divorced my Mother) chased women together (disturbingly, often after the same women), and on a few memorable occasions, brawled together.

So now, two decades on, my father is in his late sixties. He has outlived his own father, the father who died of a heart attack, by more than a decade. Like his father and like me, he has outsize appetites, for food, for alcohol - he white wine, me red, for, well, you know the other stuff... His shoulders are still wide and broad, but his clothes hang on him like sails waiting to be filled by a full breeze. The flesh, the bulk, the very heft that was once my father has withered and disappaited and melted away. His hair and his beard are more white than silver, although silver sounds better and is more flattering. Once giant thighs and huge calves are withered away, sticks really, and slashed with scars where they harvested veins for his bypass. His chest is split and rent with the same bypass scar. The heart that would have once have powered King Kong is weak and scarred and mush. He has congestive heart failure, his valves barely able to squeeze out more blood than they let flow backwards. His heart is a pussy as hearts go. A weak sister. Where once there was one falty valve, now there are three. He is diminished now, the father of my youth. He himself would cry out, "I am a mere shadow of my former magnificence". And it would be a cry.

I run, I run marathons because I do not want to be like my father. I run, not for any noble reasons, but because of fear and vanity and because I have a pretty good idea of what my future holds if I don't run. I am foolish, but not quite yet stupid. I am indolent but not quite yet too lazy not to be motivated by fear.

And in the hospital I watch my father's vital signs on the heart monitor like a hawk. Not that far a stretch from my own Polar Heart rtae Monitor over which I obsess. I see his heart race, nearly a hundred beats per minute until they administer betablockers which cut it in half. When his heart is beating at fifty beats a minute, I think he is cheating. He didn't run a hundred miles a week to get it there! They gave him a pill! His blood pressure is 140 over 100 until medication brings it down, too far down at one point, until the medical staff struggles to get it higher than 70 over 40. His heart is my heart. How many more times can he do this I wonder? Push himself, and let himself get run down and ignore his diabetes and his heart and his treatment and end up in a hospital and then recover. How many times can you go back to the well, before the bucket comes up empty?

And I know he is going to continue to do exactly what he wants. He would like to do what is best, but in the end he is going to do exactly what he wants. He can't help himself, not really.

It runs in the family.


Blogger Scooter said...

I read this post, and felt a degree of comfort as my Dad was recently hospitalized undergoing treatment for his third bout with cancer. I wish him and you the best. I hope you have many more years arguing with him.

3:31:00 AM  
Blogger Vince Hemingson said...

Thanks, Scooter

11:15:00 AM  
Blogger Justin Callison said...

Buddy, I'm sorry to hear about your dad, but it sounds like he's sure to bounce back. Your story of forcing to the hospital when he had his first heart attack reminds me of having to do the same for my mother. Different circumstances and personalities, but the same refusal to accept reality. If I don't make it out for the run on Sunday, I'll try to make it for breakfast.

2:13:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home