When the phone rings at 3:54 in the morning, it is rarely a good thing. Ryan’s dad had been in the hospital since Friday and it was now early Monday morning. The doctor figures that he suffered a heart attack last Tuesday and then another while at the hospital during the night on Friday. Even with encouragement to go to the hospital after the first one, Jack refused. The man is stubborn as a mule. I guess this could be expected from a man who has used a pliers to remove his own stitches and immediately resume whatever he was tinkering on in the garage.
I looked over Ryan’s shoulder at the caller ID when our slumber was interrupted by the early morning call. It is usually the MNDOT dispatcher that calls at all hours of the night. Within minutes, the jeans are on and the coffee is brewing before Ryan heads out the door.
But not this time.
Of course we had all been on pins and needles knowing that dad was in the ICU, his life hanging on by a thin thread like tinsel on the tree. “Oh, shit,” seemed like the perfect response when Ryan saw who was on the other end of the phone.
Bypassing any formalities that one might usually engage in when beginning a phone conversation, his mother jumped right in to the purpose of her call.
“The doctor wants to meet with us all at 6 am. He said that we have some decisions to make,” Donna explained. I could hear her steady voice from the receiver as Ryan collected his thoughts and realized the gravity of the situation. I wasn’t sure where she found the strength to place such a call without her voice cracking like ice on a windshield.
The jeans were on, gas station coffee was substituted for his usual generic Folgers from home and he was en route to the hospital. I remained in the bed consumed by my thoughts. Was this really going to be the end? It was only 2 weeks until Christmas. I could not imagine a Holiday without Jack saying, “Alright, grab a plate. Find a spot at the table.” For the first two years of our marriage, Jack introduced me to new people by saying, “This is Ryan’s new wife. Boy is she an eater!”
The family consented to the surgery that his heart needed, even though the rest of his body was failing quickly. It would be risky, but what choice did they have?
Ryan drove home to get me and the boys. We pulled them out of school early so they could at least say “good bye” in case their grandpa did not make it through the surgery. In the car, I told the kids that there was a very good chance that the angels would meet grandpa during his surgery and take him to see Jesus. They have not had to deal with the death of a loved one yet. Although the title of their devotional book reads, “Little Visits with Jesus,” they don’t understand that when someone meets Jesus, they don’t come back. Their “visit” is for the rest of time and eternity.
Entering the waiting room of the Intensive Care Unit, I saw all the familiar faces I had just seen at Thanksgiving. Everyone was sprawled out with purses dangling from the backs of chairs, homework on the floor and a couple of boxes of picked over Dominoes Pizza on the table. One nephew was eating a salad fit for a king that was made in the hospital cafeteria, cousins chased each other around the room in stark contrast to the hospital setting and Donna, Jack’s wife of 57 years, sat stoically amongst the crowd.
My sister in law, Kelli, took the call. Somehow even the children sensed that this was important and they did not make a peep. She said that they were finishing up and the doctor would discuss things with anyone who wanted to go to the third floor. I joined the small group of about 15 ambassadors who made the trek.
It truly seemed like an eternity as we waited for the doctor to appear. Antsy kids trying to find something to distract them on T.V. were quietly shushed. Several times, Donna asked various grandchildren to “Go check the board again.” It indicated that the “Procedure was complete” and the patient was “In recovery,” yet where was the doctor? I even had time to consume two cups of coffee. Under typical circumstances, it takes me two days to drink two cups of coffee. But this was not a typical day.
Finally a man with shaggy hair wearing surgical scrubs appeared. I wouldn’t have taken him for a doctor if I had seen him on the street; I.T. guy maybe; or someone who played in a grunge rock band back in the day, but not a heart surgeon. He had his cell phone attached to his ear, but when he stopped near Kelli and Donna, I knew this was our guy.
“Okay. Uh huh. Okay. Well let me update the family,” he said into the phone as he wrapped up his call.
He nestled in to a chair that suddenly became available near Donna and Kelli. The rest of the family approached him from the four corners of the room like hawks narrowing in on their prey. He sensed us closing in and looked up.
“Is this all family?” he asked.
Yes, we were all family, but we certainly were not all of the family. For each one of us down there, there was probably three more still waiting upstairs.
Although doctor shaggy tried to speak in layman’s terms, I sure wished I had my Anatomy and Physiology book on me – or at least the Cliff Notes with an extensive glossary. The one word that did not need defining was “if.” “If Jack survives this…” “If he makes it through…” “If he ever goes home again.” Somehow this two-letter word became a four-letter word in my mind.
Bottom line, he had made it through the surgery but would still have a long road ahead of him. As word spread to the rest of the family, people started to slowly trickle out of the hospital and resume the rest of their day. There was dinner to be made, band practice to attend and homework to be done. Life does not stop even though it felt like time stood still as we waited to hear if Jack was still alive.
The rest of our week’s schedule was quickly amended to allow time at the hospital. Yesterday afternoon, I entered his room with Ryan and Simone behind me. They had both been with him since the morning, so they allowed me my space to say “hello.”
I got down close to him and whispered who I was. I wasn’t sure if he was aware of my presence, but I began to speak anyways.
“Jack, we’re sure glad that you’re still here. Yesterday the whole family was here rooting for you.” His eyes remained closed while his chest rose and fell as the oxygen was pumped through a tube in his mouth.
I set down my purse and pulled out my Bible. I also had my healing stones on me because, well, every family needs that crazy aunt who believes that crystals cure the common cold.
I opened to Revelations 22, the river of life. I read it during Jack’s surgery the day before and I wanted him to know the words that I prayed for him. Healing words. Feeling emboldened, I said, “Jack, I would like to pray for you. I don’t think this is something you would normally do, but, well, I don’t think you have the choice right now,” I said as a nurse cautioned me not to bump any of the tubes and wires that were keeping him alive at the moment.
In fact, the closest words to a prayer that I ever heard from Jack’s mouth was one holiday when he saw someone had thrown a plate in the trash with a fairly hefty serving of ham still on it. “Jesus Christ. That is a God damn sin to throw that ham away. A God damn sin…” Even though it was not my food, I felt so guilty that I pulled the plate out of the trash and ate it myself! But now, I took the liberty to feed him the bread of life.
“Jack, God loves you and has created you in His image. You have been fearfully and wonderfully made. I thank You, God, for showering Your healing waters on Jack.” I say this prayer over the youngest of Jack’s 24 grand children as he sleeps every night. Like Jack, my Cruz has a diseased heart.
I figured this was enough “God talk” for the moment so I tried to lighten his spirits a bit. Whenever Jack would visit me in the hospital, which has been quite a few times, he would always bring a stack of magazines and toss them on my bed.
“Here ya go. I figured you might want to read these. I don’t need them anymore,” he said as if they had come from his personal collection. Knowing that he was not into “Good Housekeeping” or “Mademoiselle,” I figured that they either came from the hospital gift shop or a gas station on the way.
So I told Jack that I would have brought him a magazine that he might appreciate, but I thought I would blush too much buying a Playboy. To my surprise, a moment later his belly started to jiggle. It wasn’t the jolly jiggle of Old St. Nick, but I think that I made him chuckle.
Shortly thereafter, Ryan joined me at his bedside as a nurse had to stick a small tube through his breathing tube and wind it all the way down to wherever it goes. As she pulled it back out, Jack sort of winced and contorted his back in discomfort. Since he couldn’t speak for himself, I suggested that Ryan translate for Jack.
Catching my bait, he said, “Here, dad, I will tell them what you would say if you could. ‘God damn it, that shit fucking hurts! What the Hell are you trying to do to me you sons of bitches!’” Again, his belly started to jiggle and we knew that he sensed our humor.
Shortly thereafter, we were asked to step out as they needed to do something so Ryan and I took the opportunity to say our good byes. Simone remained outside Jack’s door and went back in once the staff allowed it. She has spent more hours in the hospital than out of it this week. The fear of losing someone certainly draws people in.
We may not be a Hallmark Family but when push comes to shove, we are there for one another.
When I looked around the waiting room that was bursting at the seams the day before, I realized that, other than us “outlaws” who married into the family, none of these people would be here. It is because of Jack and Donna that their 5 children, 24 grand children and 14 great grand children are here on this earth. And I know in my heart, that it is because of the love of God and family that surrounds him that Jack is still here. Amen to that!
Written and shared with permission on December 11, 2019.