My dad almost died twice.
The first time, we sped to the hospital at 90 miles an hour on the freeway, honking other drivers out of the left lane. It was stupid, but I was 23. When the triage nurse told us to wait in line, I screamed, “he can’t fucking breathe,” as tears streamed down my face and my body shook with panic.
Since he was born with a congenital heart defect (repaired with open-heart surgery in 1956), it shouldn’t have been surprising that something like this could happen. But who knew about endocarditis? That potent little vegetation shooting, like meteorites, through the bloodstream, sometimes to the brain and sometimes causing strokes.
One month and an open-heart surgery later, he came out of it; alive, but not the same.
A world-ranked tennis player turned college professor, turned entrepreneur, my dad had a larger-than-life personality. He was quick, witty and since he struggled with his own OCD demons, he understood my mishegas. He was the only person (besides my shrink) with the patience to process it with me.
After he got home from the hospital, when he needed me and my patience, I failed to give it to him. I mourned the person I knew, and even though the basics were there—the humor and kindness—I still felt like I had lost him. Again, I was only 23.
It was a fearful time, and without realizing it, I distanced myself. I put up a shield so I would never have to go through that again: the excruciating moments in Intensive Care, listening to the beeps, wondering if he would make it, if he would be the same or a vegetable (as one neurologist diagnosed). There were times when I prayed to a God I didn’t know I knew, begging him to please take my dad if he wasn’t going to have a life afterwards that he’d want; and waiting for the beeping to stop. The breathing to stop. All to be still.
I knew I couldn’t do this again. Ever. But I did. Fast-forward 10 years and replay: this time, two open heart surgeries. This time, he almost had to have his lower leg amputated.
But my dad’s the survivor type, so he’s still here; hobbling around on the golf course, drinking red wine over ice cubes, proclaiming Donald Trump a “fucking idiot,” and pretending to snore during Passover seder.
He’s still here. Very much so. But so is the trauma I experienced of almost losing a parent. And this translates to constant worrying about both parents: Wondering if the last time I see them will in fact be the last, the anxiety of missing an opportunity to have dinner or talk on the phone because maybe I won’t get another one, and struggling to fully integrate into my own family because I’m afraid that I’ll regret leaving them, even if it just means going a week without having dinner.
Recently, when I read a woman’s story about dealing with her father’s mortal illness, it hit me hard. Really hard. Having a parent who’s actively dying is absolute hell, as she writes. But living with your parents’ mortality, knowing the end can come anytime, is also a kind of hell, in a quieter but never-absent way.
Like a pebble in your shoe that you can’t get out, the fear for their future is always there. And if you’re not careful it will ruin your present.