By Marissa Dubecky
For as long as I can remember, my dad was sick. It started when I was in kindergarten, and he had several heart attacks that our family physician misdiagnosed as heartburn. When he went to him the third time, after collapsing in the grocery store parking lot and crawling the rest of the way to his car, the doctor took his complaints more seriously. After doing some tests, he wasted no time life-starring him to the hospital in the nearest city, where he had a quadruple heart bypass. Bypasses were less common twenty years ago, and the doctors were honest about the fact that it was a risky procedure. But all went smoothly, and the blockages around his heart were soon circumnavigated by clear vessels grafted from other parts of his body. The blood could flow to his heart again.
After a few months of recovery, my dad returned to the bookstore where he worked, but he was never the same. He’d always been a worrier, painfully aware of his mortality since he hit puberty, and now death felt all too real. My brother and I were only nine and five respectively, and he became obsessed with the idea that he wouldn’t live long enough to watch us grow up. Though fixed for the time-being by surgery, his health issues weren’t gone for good. The physical ills morphed into morbid, troubled thoughts that made themselves comfortable in his brain.
My dad worked at a bookstore an hour and a half away from where my mom, brother, and I lived in the country. They’d moved to get me and my brother into a better school system, but hadn’t found work to support us, so my dad kept his job in the city and the apartment we’d inherited from his mother. It wasn’t a bad situation; my dad loved his job. He worked next to the Yale School of Drama and Art, so he was constantly connecting with artists, actors, and writers. He was a jack-of-all trades kind of artist himself, so he could easily converse with the customers, forming bonds with movie stars and screenwriters.
My mom carted me around to her freelance graphic design gigs, and I joined her most days as she volunteered as the librarian at my brother’s elementary school. On Friday nights, my dad would come home with a VHS tape and stories to tell us over a big dinner. Saturdays were spent grocery shopping and scouring thrift stores for books, clothes, and antiques. Sundays we relaxed, and Monday mornings he headed back to the city for work.
After the surgery, his lifestyle there changed. He started drinking when he got home from his shifts, and when we would visit the apartment during the summers, my mom would find the porch littered with beer cans. Among other anxieties, he felt that his death was impending, and alcohol was the best way he could erase that thought from his mind.
My mom eventually got certified as a teacher, and my dad was able to move up to the country with us the year I turned nine. We hoped he’d find work there and his drinking would stop, but it didn’t end until a court-ordered trip to rehab when I was sixteen. He didn’t get a job, but he built a studio on the side of our house and spent hours filling its walls with paintings.
Throughout this, I worried about my dad’s physical and mental health. He had a temper, and his sadness was palpable. You could feel the stress emanating from him when he was angry. He looked healthy and handsome, with smooth, glowing brown skin and a thick head of bright white hair, but he drank and smoked a pack a day. He joked constantly, always making me laugh, but it was obvious from what he talked about that death was never fully out of his mind.
He was also one of the most loving people I’ve ever known. He was complicated, but he wore his heart on his sleeve. I lived in constant fear that I’d get off the school bus and find him dead from a heart attack, but I never worried that his love and adoration for me would die.
When I was fourteen, my dad went to the hospital for an angiogram, a test that examines arteries for blockages. He refused to go to the doctor unless his pain was unbearable, and this time it was. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the angiogram revealed clear vessels. It was summer, which meant we were all free of obligations. It was our time for adventures. We hit the road, driving up to Maine to see the ocean.
Somehow, no matter the frequency of arguments or tension, we all thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. Long drives were spent in constant conversation, and none of us ever ran out of things to say to one another. We cared about the same issues, shared the same sense of humor, and were curious about the same topics. The trip was as memorable and magical as all our others.
The day after we got home, my brother, mom, and I were eating pancakes in the kitchen when we heard a crash come from my parents’ room. We ran down the hall to find my dad has knocked over a lamp to get our attention. He was gasping for breath. My brother ran and called 911. To this day, I’m not sure what I did. Eventually, the paramedics made it out to our rural home. They loaded my dad into the ambulance and took him to the local hospital, where he was again life-starred to Hartford.
The angiogram had punctured his lung, allowing fluid into it that he was literally drowning in. The moments while I heard him suffocating and waited helplessly to see if he would somehow make it were familiar. I’d felt that worry when I was five, begging a God I didn’t really know much about to give me more time, because I had no idea what else to do. I’d felt it dully over the years as I watched him neglect his health.
After a couple of weeks in the hospital, my dad was able to come home, but he was too weak to really get out of bed. The timing was especially hard because my brother was about to start his freshman year of college in upstate New York, a six hour car ride away. Our only option was for my mom to drive him, so I was left home caring for my dad. It was stressful the moment they left, but took a serious turn the day she was heading back. The previous night, his temperature had been rising and he’d been very confused. The next morning, it was dangerously high, and he was near-delirious.
I was scared and helpless at only fourteen. I paced the house, passing time taking care of him the only ways I knew how, which were mostly by getting him water and turning on fans or adding blankets. My mom got home around dusk. She took his temperature, and then as calmly as possible began to get him dressed and into the car. Then she drove him straight to the emergency room.
My dad had an infection that put him in the hospital for another month. It was spotty at times, but eventually he was able to leave. He came home a few weeks into my freshman year of high school. I was incredibly happy and relieved that he survived, but that year was tough for me. Looking back, I realize the stress of it affected me more than I knew at the time. My nervous system didn’t recognize that it was over once he left the hospital. I was still constantly on alert, more ready than ever for the next tragedy to strike.
There was an ebb and flow to that feeling for the next ten years: A month-long stint in rehab that truly convinced him to quit drinking made him calmer and healthier for a couple of years, which had the same effect on me. But his anxiety always seemed to catch up with him, and I always felt it. We laughed a lot, and had deep conversations I wouldn’t trade for anything, but we fought a lot, too. Both of us were highly sensitive and quick to forgive each other. Though I’ll always treasure our relationship for exactly what it was, it’s true that it was often turbulent. It’s also true that it always felt to me like it was on the verge of disappearing forever.
I’ve talked to people before and after I lost my father who told me how afraid they were of losing a parent of their own. I always agreed–it can seem unimaginable and completely unmanageable. But to this day, I don’t know what was harder: losing my dad or worrying about losing him every day since I was five.
I couldn’t bear the thought of it at the time, but my dad’s trip to the hospital last May was his final one. On some level, it was what he wanted: to never have to go back there again. His experiences getting cut open, his heart taken out of his body and put back in… His time spent lying in the beds, wondering if he’d make it. He’d smoked countless cigarettes and drained endless bottles to the rhythm of those memories. They’d traumatized him even more than they’d traumatized me.
His final heart attack burst a hole in his heart so big they couldn’t repair it. They tried again and again to save him, but after a month spent mostly comatose, we let him go.
I said goodbye to my dad finally, and the experience was more than I can explain in a paragraph. Nevertheless, here’s my best try: It was as difficult as I’d always imagined it, if not more. But I survived it, at times even gracefully. What really struck me was the fact that all the time I’d spent worrying, the hours logged of dreading, made no difference at the end at all. The obsessing didn’t work for my dad, and it didn’t work for me; like most things we fear, there was no way to emotionally prepare for it. He was sick, and one day he died. That much was inevitable.
The lesson I’m forever grateful for, though, is this: obsessing over the tragic or the scary–even if it will likely happen–never helps to ease the pain of its arrival. All it does is damage those moments you do have, the ones where someone might be sick, but for now they’re right there with you. There will be a time for you to miss them. But that time’s not right now.
Marissa Dubecky is a NYC-based freelance writer and editor who has been published by BUST Magazine, Bust.com, and Bustle.com.
Featured image courtesy of Tiffany Lucero.