His lips were blue. I’d heard the paramedics enter and storm toward the master bedroom at the far end of the house. He breathlessly refused to be put on a stretcher, but instead was carried, each arm slung over a burly supporting shoulder, breathing shallowly, jaw slack. His sweaty skin was a pale and grayish color against the pastel stripes of his pajamas. He glanced at me with tired eyes as he was ushered out, his feet still in their slippers, toe fronts dragging across the living room carpet and around the corner to the front hallway. My mother hurried behind, hastily checking her purse while urging the men onward and into the waiting ambulance. The front door closed behind them, and all was quiet. I stood for some time in that spot, lost. He was such a powerful man and it was more than a shock to my young eyes to see him this way. I had never witnessed it before; never been there at the moment he was ushered away. He’d had many moments like this before now, but i heard about them later on as I had not been present at the time. In our house, they were like war stories told at the fireside, related with reverence and tinged with the astonishment of survivorship.
Once, he’d had one in Kings Point in the middle of the night. Loath to wake my mother, he’d crawled down the double staircase and called his own ambulance. Now, I was there to see it for myself. Still fighting it, he would not leave the house lying down.
This day, many hours later, my mother arrived home without him. She was beside herself with worry. The doctors were not sure he would make it this time. She asked me to take a walk with her down on the trail. They’d told her at the hospital that he had pneumonia and in addition, was suffering from heart failure due to another attack. His lungs were filling up and his heart was weak. They would do everything they could to save him.
My mother and I walked side by side down the sunny trail. I was ten years old. She wept openly as we went, and I wept with her. It was a moment of closeness which was unique in my experience of her. It was as if she’d forgotten herself and forgotten who I was in the bargain. I felt a strange combination of abject fear for my father’s sake and a delicious sensation of being wanted by my mother, both at the same time. Stranger still, she offered me a cigarette, saying, “Have one of these. It’ll make you feel better.” Had she lost her mind?!!! I could not break the moment to remind her I was only a child, and didn’t smoke. I took the cigarette from her and she lit it for me, as if she’d done it a million times before.
We walked and talked until she was tired, and then returned to the house through the back gate and up the lawn to the back door by the pool. Over the next few days she went back and forth to the hospital as he slowly recovered enough to finally come home. It was always the same, he would have a close call, and eventually, he would be brought home and straight to bed, where he was expected to stay for months at a time.
Friends would send their good wishes by phone or post, and my father would stay in the bedroom to recuperate, my mother hovering nearby and tending to his needs.
When I was even younger, I had given him my favorite doll at one of these times. It was a little cloth clown with a fabric body and legs which flopped every which way, the bells on its feet making a lovely sound as it was carried. I gave it to him in a moment of pure altruism, meaning for the doll to be the comfort to him that it had been to me. He kept that doll on his side of the bed from that moment on, and it was there with him now. It was, in fact, on his pillow until he died, but that would not be today.
We were allowed to go see him the hospital after a few days, but only for a minute or two. Now he was home. When I entered the room, he held his arms aloft in greeting from his place on the bed. I ran to him and he clasped me hard and kissed me forcefully on the mouth with a kiss that was more earnest than any I had ever experienced. It was certainly not his custom ever to kiss me on the mouth- or kiss me much at all, for that matter. Neither was the the extremity of this warm greeting customary for him- but I felt it as it was meant. The sensation of love now requited gripped my heart at that moment and I shall never forget it. The impervious giant was vulnerable after all, and more than that, I felt loved, really loved, perhaps for the first time in my life. I was grateful for that moment, and horrified by it too. I understood in an instant, that he had been sure he would never see me again, and it moved him in a way I had never seen before or since. For my part, I knew with a certainty, that I’d almost lost him too.
Eventually, he regained his general health, such as it was, but each heart attack damaged his heart just a bit more, and I knew that despite his forceful personality and his indomitable tenacity, that he was fragile right there at the center of his chest.