(UPDATE) Dad is home and resting comfortably. (He called me and said he'd "split some wood and shovelled the driveway"--his driveway is long enough that shovelling it is out of the question, heart attack or no--and when I began to express some misgivings, he laughed and said he was joking).
Fathers are like heartbeats.
Always there, sustaining, essential to life; and yet nearly always in the background, away from conscious thought, easy to take for granted.
Ken was shovelling off a friend's porch when the pain hit. Indigestion, he thought. Pulled muscle, he thought. In the back of his mind--in his heart, you might say--he knew those diagnoses were unlikely, yet he clung to them ferociously for a time. Indigestion was nothing to be afraid of. A pulled muscle wouldn't abort his trip to Florida less than two weeks away, a trip he and his wife were eagerly looking forward to.
He drove the short distance home, pulled the car into the driveway, and sat, motionless, thinking and trying not to think. The pain was really quite bad.
At the nursing station down the road, he was given an ECG. Clear as a bell. Yet the nurse was concerned. When a patient who is also a friend presents with chest pains, concern is only prudent, no matter what the ECG might say.
An air ambulance arrived, landing on a heliport that Ken himself had helped establish some years ago. Twenty minutes later, Ken found himself at Sudbury Regional Hospital.
I was sitting in my living room when the phone rang. I looked at the television screen's call display and recognized my father's cell phone number, which alarmed me. Dad never calls from his cell. Something must be wrong.
"Hey, dad, how are you?"
"Could be better."
"Sorry, was that--" Could be better? He said couldn't be better, right?
"Had a heart attack. I think it's because the Leafs won the game."
"Very funny, Dad. Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, I'm calling from the hospital." From Emerg, I later learned. "It was just a little one, nothing to worry about. Don't even think about coming up here, I'm okay, there's nothing you can do, they're doing an operation on Monday to put some stents in and I'll be out soon after."
The conversational autopilot engaged as I tried to make headway though the thicket of wrongness I'd just heard. "Just a little one"--is that like a little bit pregnant? A minor war? A little bit dead?
"Nothing to worry about". Yeah, right. Why do the people I love always insist on saying that? Anyone with a shred of humanity would worry, given this particular information.
"Don't even think of coming up here." Does that mean "don't come up"? Or, more likely, "get your ass up here, don't stop to think about it, your dad's dying"?
"There's nothing you can do". That's the only unambiguous and completely truthful thing and goddamnit it hurts more than the rest of this put together. There's never anything you can do.
Sleep did not come easily that night.
Saturday morning. Visiting hours, the first of the day. Ken's beloved wife Heather was chatting with him when a charley horse hit without warning. Ken grimaced, and tried to stretch his leg out and massage it. The damned hospital bed restricted his movements. Stretch. Just a little m--
The pain was sudden and huge. Unimaginable. It was as if a tombstone had fallen across his chest, squeezing the life from his body. That's what you get when you take your heart for granite.
I'm going to die.
I don't care. It fucking hurrrrrrrts---
--hurrrrrts-- The pain grew, suffusing everything else.
Nurses rushed in, followed an unknowable time later by a cardiac surgeon. "Couldn't wait 'til Monday, could you?" he asked amiably.
They placed four stents on the left side of Ken's heart: two at the front, two behind. The two on the right could wait until Monday. Ken was conscious through the operation, but not very aware of it.
I was still torn over whether or not I should bus up to Sudbury. At work, I explained the situation and asked if I could just place some orders and go home. "Of course", my boss said.
On my way out the door, the phone rang. "Ken, line two..." came over the P.A. and the dreadball settled more deeply in my gut. Nobody calls on Saturday morning. This will be bad news.
And it was. "Your dad's had another attack, a bigger one," Eva said. "Are you able to come home?"
I hopped online as soon as I got in the door and checked the bus schedules. The 12:30 bus would get to Toronto at 2:05, giving me ample time to make the 4:00 bus to Sudbury, which would arrive at 9:05. The trouble was making that 12:30 bus.
I packed hurriedly and haphazardly, fighting fatigue and recalling that windchills in Sudbury were forecast to approach minus 50. Among the things I forgot: deodorant, shaving cream and a razor. Eva drove me downtown just in time. "Try to sleep on the bus," she counselled.
As if. I envy you people who can sleep on busses and planes and trains. As for myself, my bed doesn't move. Even without the added weight of worry, I'm unable to sleep in anything that does.
Thoughts circled in my head like a flock of crazed vultures. Seemingly everybody I know in Dad's generation is, if not at Death's door, at least approaching the freeway exit that leads to Death's neighbourhood. Anticipatory grief is hard enough when there's only one person involved. I had a nightmarish image I couldn't shake: playing some grotesque version of Whack-A-Mole where the moles were the bodies of people I loved and each whack of the mallet would tumble them into coffins which would sink out of sight.
Greyhounds are so called for a reason. Those busses fly. This one flew north into deepening cold and roaring wind, depositing me at the Sudbury bus depot twenty minutes early..not quite early enough to catch the last visiting hour of the day.
My stepmother Heather, my aunt Dawna and her partner Barry plucked me out of a frigid parking lot. (I'd stepped outside for some air and the door had locked behind me.) It had been a while since I'd experienced this level of cold: minus 32, windchill minus 47, and if that won't wake you up, nothing will. The infusion gave me just enough energy to get to the hotel across the road from the hospital, where I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
I think the worst moment I had over the past five days occurred Sunday morning, just prior to the first visiting period (9:30-10:00) of the day. Sudbury Regional Hospital is huge. It broods on its hill, looking for all the world as if it might gobble up the rest of the city one day for a snack. There's no denying a building like that. It's not a hospital but a HOSPITAL, and it has swallowed my father.
The elevator spoke to me on my way to the fifth floor cardiac step-down unit. "Going up...nous montons." Sudbury is a bilingual city. What would Dad look like? How would he really be feeling? You can count on Ken Breadner Sr. to make light of any situation: I've learned over the years to read the barometric pressure inside my Dad's skull by the quantity and quality of his jokes. "Fifth floor. Cinquieme etage. Going down. Nous descendons. I left the elevator burbling to itself. The vultures cawed in my head.
They're really strict at that step-down unit as to when visiting hours begin. 9:30, not a minute before. You have to pick up the phone in a tiny waiting room and seek permission to enter. Like a dark castle, I thought.
I entered the room, armed with a Sunday SUN. "That's m'boy", Dad said, grabbing the paper eagerly. I relaxed. Dad looked like...Dad.
"You didn't have to do this to get me up here", I said.
He chuckled. "Worked, didn't it?" The smile ran away from his face. "Thank you for coming," he said. "I appreciate it."
"I couldn't not come, Dad", I said. "I just wanted to see you and make sure you're okay."
"Well, now you've seen me, and I'm fine. Bye", he said, before laughing, grabbing his angiogram pics and showing me the blockages that had threatened to kill him. We talked for a while, father to son. "This is hereditary," he said. "Now you know. Watch out." He was extremely happy with the quality of his care, and we reflected on how lucky he was. "That second one," he said, "that was a big one. I was two, maybe three minutes away."
"Well, Dad, if you're going to have a big heart attack, I guess you couldn't pick a better place."
He talked about how this had been sneaking up on him for months, if not years. Scary stuff. Then he started goofing off, deliberately holding his breath to set off the alarms, musing about fastening the blood pressure cuff to his groin, just being Dad.
His operation, he told me, was postponed until Tuesday. I visited him throughout the day, and his only complaints were the lack of a television and the discomfort of a hospital bed.
Monday morning. "You're free to go", the doctor said.
Ken blanched a little. Still, this is a doctor, and doctors know what they're talking about, right?
"But, the two other stents", he said.
"Not necessary", said the doctor. "We'll discharge you later today."
This was just shy of 9:30, just before Heather went in for the first visiting period. I stayed out in the waiting room for twenty minutes, and so I didn't get to be treated to the sight of my stepmom on the warpath. A pity, really. I would have loved to lend a voice. Not that I needed to.
"My husband is not leaving here until the other two stents are put in", she said. "He almost died."
"Oh, they always say that they almost died," sniffed the cardiologist. Heather straightened up and glared. "I was right here", she said in her nurse's brook-no-bullshit tone, "and he nearly died. He was two, maybe three minutes away. There are two stents on the left front and two on the back and we were told he still needs two on the right side."
"The right side?" asked the doctor, as if he'd momentarily forgotten the difference between left and right, and went to confer with the cardiac surgeon. "The wife is under the impression that you are still going to put two stents in", he said, still in Heather's earshot, leaving her bristling at under the impression. As if she was delusional or something. "I am", said the surgeon. "I will". The doctor returned, only a little chastened. The surgery was back on.
Dad came through the second operation just fine. They only placed one more stent, as it turned out. He now faces cardiac rehab and a fairly radical lifestyle adjustment I, quite frankly, am not convinced he fully appreciates. Dad is a helping person. He spent his working years helping society as a police officer, retired from that to become a volunteer firefighter, and he remains a Lion. There's nothing he wouldn't do for his legion of friends...but now there's lots he can't do. Hell, he can't even drive for a month. That's a nontrivial issue in a place, as he calls it, "fifty miles from nowhere."
But as he'd also say, it beats the alternative.
My thanks to Heather, for putting me up and putting up with me in the midst of a very trying situation. To my Aunt Dawna and Barry, for being there, for supporting Dad and Heather now and in the time to come. To Heather's sister Donna (and you don't have to tell me how confusing that gets) for the same and for the laughs you got out of me when I didn't feel much like laughing. To Annie Palamar, who sent Dad to the right place, and everyone else who chipped in along the journey. And to my Dad, for still being there. Fathers are like heartbeats, and I promise to pay attention to mine.