Tomorrow morning, Dad’s heart will stop beating on its own.
One of the surgeons will cradle it in his fingers while the machines tick and turn over and keep my father alive as they dig out the old valve and put in the new.
But my dad’s been through this before.
This time, he knows what kind of pain to expect.
What it’s gonna feel like as his breastbone tries to knit itself back together. As his heart learns how to work with its new and improved parts.
And he’s been in so much pain of late–from the angina, the neuropathy, the up-and-down of over a decade’s worth of drugs–that I wonder if the prospect of the old pain, the familiar one, seems less daunting. Perhaps even welcome, for all of its relative routine.
They were hopeful that the doctors would be able to find another way in, between his ribs or even through his groin. But no: more than ten years and four new arteries are in the way, all that delicate stitching making anything but a direct approach impossible.
There’s a lot he’s not telling us, my brother and I. Little hints pop up in conversation, shades that this operation is far more serious than he wants to say outright.
It tells you something about us, our family, that we’re treating the prospect of heart surgery alone as something less than remarkable. As if it’s not “serious” enough on its own.
But this is how they operate, my parents, routines established and performed over 30 years of marriage and dysfunction.
My father is loyal, and at some level, that’s his greatest failure, his hubris.
He gave up a lot to provide for us, my brother and mother and me, and over time, my mother has done things to negate that sacrifice again and again.
She is more like a child than a parent, even now, and that’s what scares me most about my father dying. His absence will be terrible, and I dread it. But that’s one thing about having a parent who’s been so ill for so long–even after 50+ years of nothing more serious than a broken leg: it’s forced me to think about what it would be like, if he were no longer here. But that’s not what scares me.
What scares me is what will become of my mother, a woman once so fiercely proud of her independence that, when they were dating, she yelled at my dad after he took her car to be washed without her knowing. But now, many years later, she’s retreated into a shell of dependence, not unlike her mother before her. I don’t know how she’ll care for herself, or even function, after my father is gone.
She and I do not get along, for many reasons. Some real and some petty. And I have edged out of her life as steadily as I could without leaving my dad behind. It’s selfish, my retreat, one taken purely for my own mental health, but it’s helped me to be less afraid of who I am, who I want to be, and I’m not ready to give that up.
Like I said: selfish.
But it worries my dad, this rift. He brought it up the last time I visited, both of us chomping on straws as the coffee between us got cold. He’s worried that my mom doesn’t want him to talk to me about what will happen when he dies: the will, the logistics, all that. And it says something about his loyalty, his well-worn love for my mother, that he hasn’t. That he didn’t, even today, when I called on the eve of his surgery. The Chest Crack: Round Two.
“I’ll talk to you in a few days,” he said, like he was headed off to summer camp and not to the table. Cheerful in the way that said: please don’t worry. I’m your dad, and it’s my job to protect you and I’m telling you not to worry.
“Ok,” I said, trying to match his tone. “At least you’ll get to sleep through the Republican Convention. You’ll miss all of that.”
“Yeah,” he said, chuckling,”I guess I will.”
Dad told me a story once about a woman he met on a plane. They chatted, were friendly during the flight. But when they landed, as they walked down the jetway, she turned to Dad and said: “Well. See you on the other side.” Not in a creepy way or something pseudoreligious: just a statement of fact.
“Isn’t that weird?” my dad said, letting his left arm hang out of the car, catching the drag in his palm and smiling. “‘See you on the other side.’ Huh.”
I don’t know, Daddy. Seems about right to me, tonight.