The morning of the surgery my brothers picked me up when it was still dark outside. We rode to the hospital so we could have one more chance to be with dad before his surgery. It took three of us plus a nurse to finally find him.
The six of us huddled in that little niche and watched as each medical person came in to check on dad. We joked about his freshly shaved chest and his third shower in less than 24 hours. Apparently, being clean and sterile is kind of a big deal before surgery.
Before we knew it, it was time to wheel him back to the OR. The staff gave us a minute to snap a photo and give dad a hug before we had to leave. In the photo we look happy, normal almost.
I had been strong, at least I did well pretending to be strong, right up until it was time to kiss my dad goodbye. I still get a lump in my throat thinking about it. I've kissed my dad goodbye a million times in my life but never like this. That morning, in a hospital with all the smells and my hero confined to a hospital bed in a gown, well, I lost it.
It was a moment of emotions much like those I felt way back when Mackenzie was admitted to the hospital for the Rotavirus and most recently when Max was whisked away for his ear surgery. A moment when I was slapped in the face with my insignificance in the universe. A moment when I was faced with the reality that no matter how hard I try, I cannot control everything. A moment when I realized that no matter what I do, I cannot protect the ones I love the most from pain. It is a scary moment when God gives you no other choice than to trust in Him. It is scary and beautiful and it makes me cry every time.
But my dad, who was at that moment was preparing for a heart-stopping event, reached out to comfort me. "I'm going to be alright," he assured me. "I know dad," I sniffed, in spite of myself. And then, he was gone.
We were escorted to the waiting room, where we were told to settle in for the long haul. A nurse was our liaison and would keep us posted she said. It would be four to five hours from the first cut.
We staked our claim in the empty room and my brothers immediately put Women's World Cup soccer on. They should put recliners in these rooms, we collectively thought. The stress of the day combined with little sleep made for pure exhaustion before we even got started.
At last the surgeon came in to speak to us. The care he took in talking to us impressed me. He had just the right amount of seriousness to let us know he knew what he was doing, tempered with a light-heartedness that put us as at ease as we could be. He would have his nurse keep us posted but now, he had to go.
The nurse came in and told us that dad was under now. When she came back she notified us the first cut had been made. Finally, she told us what we didn't really want to hear. His heart had been stopped and he was on the bypass machine. We wouldn't hear anything again until it was over.
This was the point where my mother lost the nursing side of her and was reduced to a scared wife with a husband in danger. It was agony for me to watch the transformation. I've seen her nurse so much and so well, that I let myself forget that she is human. She's had to hospice four, yes four, of her very own siblings. In every case, she has been a pillar of strength. I don't know how she did it. But that day, at that moment, she was just another worried family member hanging on for a word from anyone that everything was going to be okay.
I wanted to scoop her up in my arms and hold her tight as she has done to me so many times over the years. I wanted to give her a kiss, pat her on the back and tell her she'd feel better in the morning. Instead I did what she asked and gathered my brothers together so we could pray the Rosary.
I know people who aren't Catholic often take issue with route prayers like the Rosary but let me explain why I love them. In a moment like this when you can't find enough words to pray the prayers in your heart; when you don't have the strength or endurance to weave a beautiful prayer of your own; when you don't even know what you should be praying, it's really, really nice to have something to fall back on. And that morning, we fell hard.
The rest of our time was spent reading, chatting, praying and watching Modern Family scenes on my brother's computer (a little levity is always nice). I was overwhelmed with texts from friends checking in on my dad and me. The Facebook messages from people praying made me feel so loved. A wonderful friend forced me to let her make dinner for my family that night and my amazing father-in-law stayed the entire day with my kids so I could be with my dad. They say you can see who your true friends are in your times of need and let me tell you, I have a whole lot of wonderful people in my life.
When the nurse came in an hour and a half later we got a little nervous. "I won't be back," she said, "until it's over unless something goes wrong." We all stood up as she walked towards us. "Well," she said with a huge grin on her face, "they're closing him up now. Everything went well and he should be in the SICU within an hour. The surgeon will be in to talk to you soon."
I don't remember jumping up and down, but I remember feeling like doing that. Was that really it? Could it be that the surgery was over and dad's heart was repaired in that short time? When the surgeon came in, he assured us it was. Dad did great, he said. He only needed three bypasses and the minute they connected them and took him off the heart and lung machine, his heart started beating stronger. We would be able to see him in about an hour.
When we gathered outside the SICU, we were instructed that we could all come in to see him but after that we would be limited to two at a time. Mom turned to us and warned us. "Remember," she said returning to the nurse with an iron will, "dad's not going to look like himself. He's on a ventilator and will have a lot of tubes and wires coming out of everywhere."
We stood at the hand washing station quietly. My six foot four brother looked at me and said with a pale face, "I'm not looking forward to this." I smiled what I hoped was a reassuring smile. Truth was, I wasn't too sure I was ready either. I just knew I couldn't not go in. I'd be okay, I reasoned. I know what to expect.
Unfortunately, all the preparation in the world could not have made the moment I saw him any easier.
We let my mom go in first because she is his wife after all. That and the rest of us were too busy holding back tears and too scared to touch him for fear that we might accidently disconnect him from something important.
For me, it was the hardest moment of the day. The man lying on that bed did not look like the dad I hugged goodbye that morning. He looked small. He looked weak. He looked...dead.
I took his hand and told him I was there. I told him he did great. I told him I loved him. Then I took out my camera. I explained to the nurses that I was under strict orders from my dad to take these pictures. I'm not sure they believed me.
I stayed with my dad for those first few hours after surgery. I held his hand and watched as he began to come out of the anesthesia. I watched as he struggled with the tube in his throat. I was there when they gave the okay to take it out and then I got to watch them do it.
Interestingly enough, the TV in his room had a mind of its own and changed channels randomly throughout the day. When my dad came off the ventilator, an old Alabama football game just happened to be on. I'm pretty sure the first thing he said when he could talk was "Roll Tide!" Perfect. In that moment I knew he was going to be just fine.
It was amazing the difference a few short hours made. You can see from this photo that he already looked a lot like himself once that tube came out and he was sitting up. By the time they brought him something to eat, he was aware enough to marvel at the size of his new scar. Of course he looked like himself, but whatever medications he was on made him act...well, not quite himself.
From that point on it was a competition between me and my brothers as to who would have the funniest story about what dad said under the influence. Those stories, because I love you dad, I will not share here. But let me tell you, he was HILARIOUS. I'm pretty sure I could have gotten him to tell me any deep, dark secret he's been hiding but I didn't have the heart. Besides, I didn't need secrets to be entertained. Just hearing what he had to say about things like his lemon Jell-O was all the entertainment I needed.
By the time Nelson made it up and we visited with dad long enough to let mom get a little break, it was after nine. We tried to talk her into going out to get some dinner or home to get some rest but she wouldn't leave the building. He was still critical, she reminded us, and she wasn't going anywhere.
A little less than twenty hours later, he was walking around and transferred to a regular room on the cardiac floor. According to his nurses, he did not look like a man who had just gone through open heart surgery. And, well, they were right.
By the time I brought the kids up to see him the next afternoon, all the tubes and wires, save the IV, had been removed. His color was good and other than a big a big scar on his chest and a cool heart pillow to hug when he coughed, what the kids saw was the Dampa they know and love.
Now, a month later, as I look once again at these pictures I am beginning to see why dad wanted me to take them. Pictures, like history, help us not to forget what we've been through. They remind us how far we've come and sometimes, how far we still have to go.
I felt like it was important to document this event so that I wouldn't forget the miracle of modern medicine or the miracle of my dad's life. There is no logical reason why dad should have been alive with the blockages he had in his heart. It doesn't really make sense that they can stop his heart, sew in some new veins and get it beating again...better than it was before. I don't want to forget any of that.
God had a plan for dad. So in His wisdom, He gave my dad a wild hair to do the Half Ironman with me. That decision to be fit literally saved his life. The road to recovery is long and requires hard work but the doctor is convinced that next year, not only will dad want to swim the Half Ironman, he’ll be able to do it better than before.
You hear that, Ironman with a stronger heart? Next year that race is ours!