When I looked down, he was dead.
It was supposed to be a trip I would never forget; it was a trip I will never forget. We left the small town of Bay St Louis when I was 13. My dad was going to speak for the 40th anniversary of the church he started. My mom was traveling too, on another flight the next day. Unbeknownst to them, my brother and I were working out a surprise. He was driving an RV across the country with his wife and kids and as fate would have it, I was attending a trade show the same weekend in the same area. I moved my flight up a few days so I would be there on the same days as my dad. My family would all be together at the same time in our old hometown; a treasure beyond comprehension.
Can you believe I was on the same airlines with the same connecting flights as my dad; what are the odds?
The morning started as planned. I arrived at the airport having carefully kept my travel plans secret. I started recording the video as I walked up behind him, walking slow, struggling with his suitcase. I tapped him on the shoulder, and he was surprised, thrilled and then… relieved. Surprised because it was so unexpected. Thrilled as it dawned on him that I would be traveling with him to our old hometown. Relieved, because he would now have help to change gates in Chicago; O’hare can be difficult to navigate and he would lose his breath so easily. He checked his bag and we talked as we went through the various security and border crossing checkpoints. The flight was full and there were no seats together for the first leg of the flight, but we secured seats for the second leg; we would be together in Chicago.
The flight from home was mundane. I got some rest; I read some. We landed in O’hare with a bit of time to change planes, but not a lot. I was high on excitement and expectation. He was so glad for the trip and the turn of events, but sore from the trip. His knee was acting up. We found a porter with a wheel chair to spare and we made the trip to gate H4 with time to spare. We passed a food court on the way; a burrito place stood out. You can tell there’s good food at an airport when the flight crews eat there. Dad was hungry and I was happy to oblige. With my dad resting comfortably and checking his phone for messages, I left him my bags and ran back to see what was so good about those burritos. I ordered one chicken and one steak to go; I would let him choose.
A stranger ran up to me, “The man you are travelling with in the wheelchair doesn’t look well. I think he’s passing out.” “It’s ‘ok’”, I said. “He falls asleep at the drop of a hat. He’s done that all my life.” I’m next to pay. Credit card tap didn’t work. Tried again; same result. Entered the card and typed in my PIN. Third time’s the charm. Another stranger… running, “Come now, they’re doing CPR!”
I pushed through the crowd looking at the man that inspired so much of who I am. Head to the side, looking out of touch, mouth was moving like blowing in and out faintly. I inched in beside him and grabbed his hand and yelled, “Dad, are you ok?!?”.
He was dead. The eyes were pointed towards me, but there was no life behind them. The blowing breaths were in time with someone pressing hard, doing CPR. I looked harder into his eyes, as if by will I would make them have life.
Everything in me said I should jump in and help, but this was life-and-death; not metaphorically. I learned CPR in Boy Scouts, but that was 35 years ago. This is not the time to try and remember; I’m sure I don’t remember. These people seemed to have a solid understanding of what they were doing. I found out later that there was an ER doctor, a cardiac nurse, and an EMT that were waiting to catch the same flight. Strangers to each other, they worked as a team. Chest compressions, strong and fast. A voice, “I saw and AED, I’ll go grab that.” Another voice, “Paramedics are on their way; a minute out.”
“Dad, can you hear me? Dad! Ernie! Dad! Squeeze my hand”. Nothing.
A voice, “I’ve got the AED. Pad’s go here and here. Unit’s on and charging.”
Another voice, “Ok everyone, stand back. AED is a go. Its gonna shock him”.
The eyes looked forward and went wide. The body jolted upward from the floor.
“Dad! Ernie! Dad! Ernie! Ernie! Dad! Ernie!” Nothing.
A few seconds
“Stop for a minute…. AED says he’s good”
“I’ve got a pulse, it’s weak.” Compressions continue.
Another moment. Compressions stop. “He’s breathing on his own”.
“Dad, if you can hear me, squeeze my hand!” The eyes still look lost and unfocused. But the breaths are real.
Squeeze. I breathed… for the first time in minutes.
Paramedics rushed in and went to work. I stood back and took a picture. You can always go back and erase pictures you never want to see again, but you can never go back and take a picture again. It seems morbid or grotesque or dishonoring, but always take a picture if you can. I dialed my mom on speed dial, “Dad’s just had a heart attack, I think. Paramedics are here. They’re taking us to a hospital.” I called my wife.
They put him on a stretcher and lifted him to a cart to descend stairs. Someone handed me his glasses, missing a lens. Someone handed me his small document case and his phone. I didn’t look anyone in the eye. I didn’t thank anyone. I breathed. I tried to focus my thoughts. I can’t focus my thoughts by trying harder; only by calming myself. I’ve learned this through enough crisis.
The ER doctor that used the AED found me on Facebook and asked about my dad. From that, I had his name. When it was all over, exactly the same day that I left Chicago, I ran into the Chief Development Officer for the American College of Emergency Physicians. “There’s someone I need you to thank.” He’s getting a commendation. Hopefully he knows the names of the other two.
Police officer, “Is this your father? Is this his ID? How old is he?” more questions. I did my best to answer, but my mind was blank, flushed with panic and adrenaline. “Yes, Yes, He’s…. 70-something. I can’t remember.” I don’t remember if he was done asking me questions. I followed the paramedics.
I’ve been through my share of negative experiences. I can be calm under pressure, but this was something else. Our bags were heading to New Orleans; I had checked my carry-on at the previous gate, people were driving a distance to pick us up. my mom needed to know details, my wife needed to know enough that she could be there for me. God, I needed my wife; we battle together. Dad was loaded into the back, I started to follow. I was on the tarmac of an international airport; they stopped me and ushered me to the passenger seat of the ambulance. You can’t open the door from the inside. I could talk through a window to the back. “How’s he doing? Is he OK?”. The reply, “He’s stable. He’s OK”.
We proceeded to the hospital, Resurrection Medical Center, an apt name. People aren’t very good at getting out of the way of an ambulance, please respect emergency vehicles. Into the ER, we are met by kind staff. I’m asked to wait outside while they cut away clothes and started their procedures.
“Sir, can you tell me your name? How old are you? Do you have history of heart trouble?”
“Ernie Culley. 72. I had a heart attack 14 years ago.” It occurred to me for the first time, he had been out for some time. He might have lost memory or brain function, but he could answer the questions, address, Social Security Number, age, birth date. My heart skipped a beat and then quickly calmed again; he could have, but he didn’t. “That was a new shirt they cut.” “I’ll get you a new one”; he knew recent details too. Short and long-term memory, OK.
We carried on from there to follow the protocol, oxygen, admitted, close watch overnight, angiogram in the morning revealing 85 to 100% blockage in all coronary arteries. He’ll need open heart surgery, major bypass reconstruction, probably a pacemaker. Surgery booked for Monday, 48 hours later, “He might not make it till then. His heart is very very weak. He’s only alive because his body has tried to grow new vessels around his clogged arteries. It really is a miracle he’s even alive right now.”
I called and gave updates to those that needed to know, and a lot of people needed to know. I didn’t say he might die tonight, or tomorrow. I couldn’t speak those words. Words have power. I have one thing. It makes all the difference, “Father, how will this end? Will he be OK?” I can hear the “Yes. He will be OK.” It’s a simple answer, deep in the depths of my mind, not audible, but there’s a feeling that makes the voice unique. I can’t describe it better, but it’s the same voice that told me my daughter would live through cancer. It’s the same voice that has prepared me for the outcome countless other times, almost always positive, but sometimes preparing me in advance for what is to come. He will be OK!
That doesn’t take away the sleepless nights when the heart monitor starts to go erratic. It doesn’t stop the panic when alarms sound in the night. But it quickly follows the panic, followed by a deep inhale, hold, exhale, hold… box breathing is something I learned calming autistic meltdowns for my sons.
There’s so much emotion going through something like this. Anger, guilt, loss, fear, hope, gratefulness… and everything else, all at the same time, like standing in a garbage dump and smelling a bouquet of different flowers. Sometimes smelling the pleasant, sometimes smelling every variety of offensive, sometimes smelling all together to create a smell that’s not natural or supposed to occur.
I write these words, because I know loss. I write these words, because I know overwhelming pressure. I write these words because I know grief. I write these words because I know hope. I write these words because I know God. I write these words because I know calm in a storm. I write these words because I know that in order to move from here, I have to cope, I have to own the thoughts and feelings, I have to process, I have to compute it all, I have to cry, I have to see it all, I have to share. My life cannot accommodate down-time for battle-earned scars. I embrace this process quickly. There is no weakness in being vulnerable… it is the only strength.
A son should never look down and see his father dead, surrounded by strangers, holding his own breath, thinking everything and nothing. I should not have been there; it’s just not right. But there is no one else that could have been.
Today I sit on a plane heading home, reliving it and processing through words. My dad is alive for the moment, with a long road ahead to rebuild strength and heal wounds. I don’t know what the future holds. In a few hours I will walk through the front door of my house, and I will embrace the living, the loving, and the chaos. I will hug my wife and not let go. I will see all the things my children will share with me; it’s their only way of relating. I will be present for them, but I will not be holding freshly earned scars. They will already be prominently displayed on the mantle of my life with the other tragedies and triumphs that I have earned thus far.