I had just gotten done working out at the gym, and had stopped at the nearby Walmart to pick up some things for dinner. My four year old was at preschool, so I had a deadline, but trying to rush through a store with just one kid is still a time challenge. I was making my way through the pharmacy , heading to the craft section: I had to pick up yarn and knitting needles to make the dozen dishcloths I’d promised a friend.
My phone rang, and I hastily fished it out of my pocket; my husband is TDY frequently, so I answer that phone when it rings, since he doesn’t always have time to talk when he’s gone. I glanced briefly at the caller ID and saw that it was my mom; odd, since she works a regular job during the work week, and this was still during her workday, unless my time zone math was off (again).
“Hey Mom, what’s up?” I answered distractedly, trying to keep an eye on my two year old who insisted he was going to walk through the store.
“Hi Honey,” the comforting tones of my mother’s voice came through the line. “What are you doing?”
“Oh, just stopping by the Walmart to get some stuff for a new recipe tonight. What are you doing?”
“Oh.” She paused, then plowed on, “Well, I just wanted to let you know that everything is alright, but Dad had a heart attack this morning.”
And just like that, I felt my entire perspective elongate, stretch impossibly out, before condensing down into a tiny, little pinprick of light so intense I thought my head was going to implode.
My dad was 52 when I was born. This means that he is now almost 82 years old. For being an octogenarian, he’s in remarkably good health. He’s a chronic asthmatic, and he’s got a problem shoulder that he’s getting ready to have surgery on. We have very similar personalities, in some respects, so we butted heads often enough growing up that I made sure to keep myself busy with extracurriculars so I had plenty of irons in the fire and responsibilities that would keep me from falling into arguments with him. It also meant that he was retired by the time I was in the fourth grade. He drove me to school every morning and picked me up every afternoon. He came to all of my games (first to watch me cheerleading, then to watch me play volleyball), and my meets (I ran hurdles). As much as we argued, it was still great to have him there supporting me at every single event.
Because my dad is significantly older than the parents of many of my peers, I’ve already faced some of the big health scares that come with advanced age. There have been some chances for my husband to let his superiors know we’d be willing to move abroad, but I’ve always cautioned him that I need to be able to get home if something happens to my dad and that it can’t break us financially if I need to do that. I have halfsisters and a halfbrother, but they are all twentytwo years or more my senior; our immediate family unit was my mom, my dad, and me. If something happens to my dad, I have to be there for my mom.
When I got that phone call from my mom, I can’t even begin to name the big, roiling mass of emotions that started to churn inside me. There I was, standing in the Walmart, listening to my mom tell me about how my dad suffered his first heart attack. I remember watching two strangers looking at me, and the progression of horror on their faces as they must have watched my world spinning off its axis on my own face. I managed to sound like I was holding it together for my mom. Or at least a good enough facsimile of holding it together, but I stood there in the damn seasonal aisle with tears streaming down my face. I pretended to study the display of dishes, trying to keep my two year old from seeing mommy lose her shit so thoroughly.
I finished the phone call with my mom. I let myself indulge in tears for another minute more, then I made my way over to the home goods section and found the mirrors. I wiped my face off, took some deep breaths, and waited for mottled look to leave my cheeks. My eyes were still red, but at least I didn’t have that horrid cryingface look to me anymore.
I texted my husband: “My dad had a heart attack this morning.” I went on autopilot and I finished my shopping. I even had to stop at one more store for a few more ingredients that I couldn’t find at Wally World or that I didn’t trust to buy from there. I picked my son up from preschool. The whole time checking my phone obsessively to see if my husband had read the message yet, let alone responded. I made it back home, put away my groceries, and got my kids their lunch.
I managed to hide my tears from them. I cry in front of them, but this was scarycrying. If I started to let it out, I knew it would frighten them, so I only allowed myself little trickles, quickly and quietly wiped away. I called my best friend here, but she didn’t answer, so I just hung up. My husband finally texted me back that he had to wrap up a couple things at work and then he would be leaving post to come home and be with me.
When my friend called me back, however, I barely ducked into the bathroom by myself before I lost it. Having to say the words out loud, “My dad had a heart attack this morning,” turned me into the uglycryinglady. My friend made me repeat myself three times and she still couldn’t decipher what I was saying, so she told me she was coming over and would see me in 15 minutes.
My dad started having massive chest pain and called the neighbor to come over. The neighbor saved my dad’s life: he called the ambulance and then called my mother. My dad was rushed to the hospital and it was determined that the back artery on his heart had clogged and he would need a stent. He had to be transferred to another hospital for the surgery, and my mom called me while he was being transported. If my dad had waited any longer for treatment, this might not have a happy ending.
As it is, my dad had the operation the same day, was up and walking around at midnight, and then was released home the following morning. We were able to Skype that day, and I felt immensely reassured to be able to see him, see how well he looked. It assuaged some of the massive guilt I felt at not being able to just go to the hospital with my mom and sit. She had to sit there, in that waiting room, by herself. She had no one to sit with, no one to hold her hand. By the time I could have even gotten someone to take care of my children and arranged a flight for myself, my dad had already been released from the hospital. I asked my mom if she needed me to come in (we’d work it out somehow, financially, logistically), and she said there was no need. To be on opposite ends of the country from people who you care so much about, who are going through a major health crisis, is excruciating. We already had tickets purchased for just under a month from now to go back home and visit. I’ll be able to see my dad in person, give him another hug and a kiss. Spend some time with him.
Living so far from my family, I feel like my time with them is marked. I know time waits for no man or woman, it moves inexorably forward. Watching my sons growing, I see that. I know all these things, and yet I feel them heavily when I’m with my parents and grandparents back home. It’s times like these when this military life weighs heavily on my heart. But try as I might, I just can’t imagine us living where I grew up. Love it, hate it, praise it, curse it – it is what it is. I’m just glad that my dad is still here.