Less than three weeks to go before Christmas and I have been given one of the greatest Christmas gifts any adult child of living parents could ever hope for. My dad suffered a mild heart attack. Yes, you read that correctly and yes, I love my dad and I shudder the thought of ever losing him. I say that his heart attack was a gift because he did not succumb to it. It did not take him away from us.
On the evening of December 5, I received a text from my mom sent to me and my brother informing us that our dad was in the ER with chest pains. After a couple hours and several back and forth texts, we learned that he was in fact in the middle of a heart attack, clinically referred to as a myocardial infarction. He would be kept overnight for more tests and a cardiac catheterization first thing in the morning. Against my mother’s wishes that we not act impulsively, I had an overnight bag packed and was out the door rather quickly to make the three-hour drive to Sussex County in Delaware where they have been living for the past 17 years.
I went straight to the hospital. He was still in the ER and my mom was with him. She had driven him to the hospital that afternoon and had been there ever since. I did not arrive until 11:00 PM. I won’t belabor the details but suffice it to say that his diagnosis of a heart attack was no joke. As I sat with my mom next to his bed in the ER, the nurse began to ask several questions and two of them I found rather jarring. “Do you have a living will?” and “Would you like a minister to visit with you?” Hearing her ask that last question was like a bucket of ice thrown in my face. My immediate thought was “Excuse me! What are you implying?” In that moment, I began to process the notion of the family’s first Christmas without Dad. Every unsaid word between us that I ever wish had been said came rushing through my head and all tomorrows with him began to dissolve before my eyes. For a moment I allowed myself to turn my focus away from how I was responding to all this and look for clues about how he was feeling. We Gorman men never achieved any measurable degree of mastery in talking about how we feel. Nonetheless, I was sensing that he was very frightened and despite the physical presence of my mom and me, he felt alone in his mortality.
Later, my mom and I prepared to leave for the night. She walked out of the room ahead of me. Every unsaid word was stampeding through my mind and I refused to walk out of the room without giving life to the most important amongst them. I turned back to face my dad and took one step towards the side of his bed and I got down on one knee. I took his hand, looked him in the eye and I said, “I love you Dad. You are stubborn and sometimes I think you’re bone-headed, but you’ve always had my back.” It only took about eight or nine seconds for me to say these words to him while we looked into each other’s eyes. But that was plenty of time for both of us to get choked up. In no more than a whisper, he said while holding back tears, “I love you too.” I put my other hand on the back of his head and kissed him right above his forehead. By now I was incapable of speaking through my own tears. The last sentence that I said only to myself is “I am not ready to lose you.” As I walked my mom out to my car, I refused to entertain any outcome that did not include him returning home soon.
The follow morning, corrective procedures were performed to alleviate that which triggered the heart attack. All went as well as we could have hoped. My mom and I arrived back at the hospital and Dad was recovering from the morning’s procedure. The doctor who performed the procedure stopped by to provide us with the post-procedure summary. After explaining things in ways that made it easy for us to understand, he took on a more serious tone and said exactly what I was beginning to conclude on my own. He looked at my mom then at me and said, “Your husband/father is very lucky he got here when he did.” Yes, we are very lucky. We are very blessed. We are very grateful. And that was only part of my early Christmas gift.
Not only did I receive the gift of the opportunity to say those three little words man-to-man; son-to-dad while he is alive, but the door has also been opened to organize the scores of so many other thoughts and words that flooded my head when I heard the nurse ask if there was denomination preference for clergy. I had been given the chance to use that moment when I knelt by his bedside to explore further what our relationship means to each other and what it has meant throughout the years. Far too often are loved ones lost while their survivors agonize over all that is left unsaid.
In a most surprising way, I shall also be grateful that my, shall I say ‘quiet’, employment situation allowed me to drop everything and be by their side through this.
After my mom and I went home on day two, we had dinner and I returned to the hospital for a one-hour night visit alone. As we sat there, my dad told me something of which I am very aware if even at times only subconsciously. He pointed out that my brother Andrew and I, both in our fifties, are fortunate to enjoy the longevity of both our parents. He is right. But we are more than fortunate. We are truly blessed. Thanks in no small part to social media, I am very aware of so many of my contemporaries who have lost one or both parents. At best I could only ever imagine how such pain could possibly feel. That imagination had become quite vivid.
The following day, my mom and I, along with their dog Latte, headed to the hospital to pick up Dad who was being discharged. Once home, I backed into their driveway to make sure his side of the car was near the front path to the door. I opened the door to help him along and told him I had two things to say. First, “Welcome home!” and second, “I am sure happy it is me saying that and not Saint Peter.”
If I may offer this to all – and I doubt anyone will be hearing this for the first time. Tell you your loved ones you love them. If this is not something you find comfortable, you are not alone. Do it anyway. You will be very happy you did. Trust me on this. Grief, it is said, is nothing more than unexpressed love.
God bless you all! For all who share in the faith and tradition in which I was raised, I wish you a very Merry Christmas. For all others, I wish you a very joyous Holiday Season.