“Get here quick,” the caller had said. “He’s in bad shape.” The voice on the phone had sounded scared, desperate, his words choked with emotion.
I push the accelerator to the floor as I weave in and out of traffic, desperate to make it there in time. I pass a Honda Civic by pulling around him in the breakdown lane, his horn an indignant bleat in my wake. I can see the driver’s face in the rear view mirror, lips moving in soundless anger. I could care less.
I replay the caller’s words in my head as I speed past eighty, now eighty-five and ninety. I crowd the bumper of a Ford pickup and finally he sees my flashing lights, pulling to the right and allowing me past, but there are others ahead of him. I pound the steering wheel in frustration. I fear I will not make it in time.
Damn it, MOVE! Get the hell out of the way! Can’t you see me behind you?
I play out possible scenarios in my head. He had been sick lately, battling an infection since the last time I had seen him. His caregiver had told me that his blood pressure medication had been too potent, causing him weakness and fatigue. Just getting up off the couch had left him dizzy.
He’s eighty-three years old. His immune system is failing along with everything else. He doesn’t move around enough. He doesn’t eat enough, even though he’s been gaining weight lately. He’s probably septic. He’ll need fluids and probably dopamine. If he’s decompensating he may even need to be intubated and put on a ventilator. Broad-spectrum IV antibiotics should help. There are good hospitals nearby. If only I get there in time…
But the line of cars is refusing to move, oblivious to my desperation. They don’t see my flashing lights, can’t hear my siren. No one is sitting in the passenger seat, helping to check my mirrors and look for gaps in traffic. The only emergency here is my own.
My father is dying.
Not before I get there. Not if I get there. I can get him through this, if only I can get there in time. God please…let me get there in time.
Norman was the second oldest of four sons of a railroad engineer, my grandfather, Frederick. One of his prized possessions had been his father’s railroad pocket watch, a gold Hamilton engraved with his father’s name, one he also bore. The name that is, not the watch.
He grew up in Monroe, LA during the Great Depression. He and his brothers were country boys, spending their days hunting and fishing, tinkering with motorcycles, and as they grew into men, learning to fly airplanes. When World War II started, he and his brothers had enlisted in the Army Air Corps. One trained as a navigator, right there at home at Selman Field. Another flew the P-38 Lightning on reconnaissance missions, venturing into enemy territory armed with nothing more than a high-speed camera and a young man’s bravado. His little brother had become a ball turret gunner on a B-17. A neighbor and childhood friend, Claude Crenshaw, became a famous P-51 Mustang fighter ace. A cousin became a Marine, and survived the Bataan Death March. All of them young men raised with a sense of duty and service, men who put their dreams and aspirations on hold to answer their nation’s call.
And I’ve never told him how proud I was that my Dad was a veteran. Not once, not out loud anyway. I never told him…
Norman had gone to Hobbs, New Mexico and trained as a B-17 radio operator. Radio operators also served as machine gunners, operating a belt-fed .50 caliber machine gun in the top turret. Years later, in the stories he told his children, he spoke of the friends he had made in New Mexico and Italy, but he spoke little of his combat missions. The few he told were entertaining adventure stories, nothing more, told to an impressionable kid, and repeated more than once to a bored, disinterested teenager.
I remember seeing pictures of those B-17s coming back from missions with gaping holes in them. Ailerons missing, two engines gone, chunks of wing blown away by flak. The bird flown back over friendly territory by one scared bombardier who had refused to bail out, navigating with nothing more than his bomb sight, praying to get home alive. I remember being impressed at how much abuse they could take and still fly. It never occurred to me that some of those pictures were from Dad’s squadron. He described what flak bursts looked and sounded like, and I never realized he was talking from personal experience.
He came home from the war and worked as a Harley Davidson mechanic for a number of years. He married, and divorced a few years afterward – both of them still young, no doubt more in love with the idea of being in love than they were with each other. No children from that marriage, save a stepdaughter, Janice, who considered him her father for the rest of her life.
Dad met my mother in the late 1950s, shortly after he and his brothers had opened their own television and stereo repair business. Monroe had just opened its first television station, and Dad and my uncles had smelled opportunity. Mom was a customer, early on in those days.
They met, dated briefly, and married in…
Jesus Christ, when did they marry? What kind of worthless son doesn’t even know his parents’ anniversary? Answer: a son who was eager not to know. By the time I was old enough to remember things like birthdays and anniversaries, I was already mentally out the door. I wanted out, as far away as possible. And when I was young and self-righteous, I blamed it all on Mom and Dad. Please, God…let me get there in time. I have so many things to atone for.
My mother was a recent divorcee, already with two children of her own – damaged goods in the eyes of many men in the 1950s. Dad too, I suppose – he raised my brother Terry and my sister Sheri as his own, but from family stories, his relationship with his stepchildren in the early years of his marriage was…contentious, shall we say. Stayed contentious, too, even after we were born.
My older sister Darlene came next, followed by my twin sister Kim and I a few years afterward. I’m the baby of the family, by a whopping three minutes – three minutes my sister never let me forget, believe me.
I’d like to say that my childhood was idyllic, but that would be a lie. Oh, we were never abused, and there were happy childhood moments aplenty. We were fed, clothed and cared for. But there were plenty of dark and unhappy moments, enough to convince me at a very tender age that my only hope at life, at having some shot at succeeding, would only come once I had gotten as far away from my family as possible. My parents gave me life, and they taught me good values, but they also gave me all the tools and excuses I needed to fail.
My older brother Terry had reached much the same conclusion, at nearly the same age. He raised me throughout my teenage years, when Dad and I were at each other’s throat. We fought like bitter enemies, and for a time I suppose we were.
We were so different, he and I.
And yet, so alike. His sentimentality, I see in me. His temper, God forbid, I see in me. His stubbornness, I see in me. His curiosity, I see in me. Neither of us could ever stand not knowing something. We have the same intolerance for stupidity. I’m just as volatile as he was. I like to think I control it better, but do I? We have the same mind, albeit focused on different things. He could look at a schematic or wiring diagram and just get it. He could do calculus in his head. There was nothing mechanical he couldn’t do with his hands.
I’m the same way with living things. I can look at a sick person, and just get it. I can’t do the calculus on paper, much less in my head, but deciphering the language of the body comes as easily to me as breathing. People say the same thing to me that they always said to him.
“How did you know that?” they’d ask, shaking their heads in wonder. And like me, he’d be powerless to explain how, and he’d have trouble understanding why everyone else couldn’t do the same thing.
That same lack of patience led to most of our fights. We were always at odds; him furious that I didn’t care how an engine or a television worked, and me furious that he’d think I’d even want to. Usually, he’d wind up throwing a wrench and swearing, and I’d usually wind up walking away, cursing him with every breath. Occasionally, it would end with blows.
Dad was Old School. In his world, sons were supposed to be tough. One day, when they were ready to become men, they’d rise up and challenge the father. He always took my unwillingness to fight as a sign of weakness.
You were wrong about that, Dad. By the time you figured it was time for me to challenge you, you were too old and frail to win. Fighting you would have proven nothing to me. What kept me from whipping your ass wasn’t fear, but respect.
So what should I choose to remember about you, Dad? Do I remember the man who sucker punched me, and dared me to do something about it? Or do I remember the man who taught me to dance by having me stand on his feet as he held me?
Do I remember the man who called me stupid countless times when I was growing up, or do I remember the man who spent his waning years bragging to everyone who would listen what a talented, gifted son he had? “My boy is a paramedic. One day he’ll be a doctor,” you told your friends. “He can do things I never could.”
Do I remember the fights we had, or do I remember the times I felt the stubble of your chin against my cheek as you rocked me to sleep?
Should I be bitter about the scorn you heaped upon me when I achieved a goal that wasn’t yours, or should I be grateful for the work ethic you taught that allowed me to achieve them?
Should I remember how grouchy you were when you came home from work, or should I be grateful for the clothes and food those sixteen-hour days provided?
Should I resent the times you accused me of being afraid, or should I be grateful for the times you chased the monsters from under my bed?
Should I remember you as the man who taught me to settle, or shall I remember you as the man who taught me how to be realistic and pragmatic?
Should I hate you for making me do things I didn’t want to do, or should I thank you for teaching me that fear only controls you if you let it?
And how about you, Dad? Are you as proud of me as you seems to have been the past few years, or have you been that way all along? I was hardly a dutiful son. How will you remember me?
Will you resent the fact that I lived less than thirty minutes away and still only spoke to you a couple of times a year, or will you be proud of me for being independent and self sufficient?
Will you treasure the rare times we’ve spent together over the past few years, or will you remember the times I put you off with lame excuses?
Will the times I’ve told I loved you lately make up for the times I cursed you in years past? Can I ever say it enough? Will I be able to say it again?
Will you remember the time I shot a hole in the kitchen window, or will you remember the times we’ve watched a sunrise from the duck blind?
Will you resent my childhood when I shunned you, or will you treasure my manhood when I finally recognized you for the man you are? Will it matter that the realization came too late for us to be friends?
Will you remember with anger the day I carelessly left your shotgun to rust in the bottom of a muddy boat, or will you swell with pride remembering how well I learned to shoot it, using the lessons you taught me?
Will you remember the disappointment you felt when I dropped out of college, or will you remember the people who told you how well I treated them when they were in my rig?
Will you remember your birthdays when your phone never rang, or will you remember dancing with Mary at our wedding?
Will you resent my aloofness with my siblings, or will you remember the day I first put KatyBeth in your arms and introduced her to her grandfather?
Will you remember the family funerals I skipped, or will you remember the times I offered to let you live with me after Mom died?
After his heart attack, Dad turned into an old man overnight. The man who had dropkicked me with a WWF wrestling move at sixty-three was a feeble old man at age seventy. His Parkinson’s disease slowed his speech and his movements, but his temper was still there. His spirit was undimmed. All that changed when Mom died. Dad just quit. Nothing was worth fighting over any more. My sisters and their brood spent the next five years bleeding Dad dry, depleting his savings and destroying his home. Many times I offered to have him come live with me, but always Dad refused.
Eight months before this day, Uncle Sonny, Mom’s younger brother, had come to visit and seen the conditions Dad was forced to live in. He had threatened my sisters with the pain of death, packed Dad’s clothes and what few belongings he had left, and moved him to Oklahoma City the next day. Uncle Sonny had always worshiped Dad, and treated him like a king.
KatyBeth and I had come up to visit in April, and Dad looked good. He had gained weight, and the light was back in his eyes. The Parkinson’s had made his voice faint and weak, but he had bounced KatyBeth on
his lap and told the stories I had heard since childhood, stories I had heard a hundred times and knew by heart. This time, I watched KatyBeth listen with a child’s wonder, and I found myself once again hanging on every word. We stayed three days, and he had pleaded with an old man’s tremulous voice for me to stay longer. I had assured him I’d come back in the fall, but I never did. I meant to, of course.
Uncle Sonny had sounded scared when he called. A great, blustery bear of a man, he had always been as quick to cry as he was to curse in anger, but I had never before heard fear in his voice, and that’s what it was, fear.
And I’m scared, too. Scared of too many things left unsaid, and no time to say them. For so many years, I had thought of Terry as a father by proxy. It wasn’t until we were both grown men that we realized the lessons he was teaching me were the ones he learned from you. You raised two sons who didn’t appreciate the man you were until they had reached manhood themselves. When I get there, I’m going to tell you that. I’m going to tell how –
The wail of a siren interrupts my reverie, and I look up to see blue lights in my rear view mirror. I check the speedometer to see that I’m doing ninety, and curse silently at myself as I find a place to pull over. Judging from the highway signs, I’m into Texas now, but how far I have no idea.
I take a deep, shuddering breath and reach over to retrieve my registration and insurance cards from the glove box. The cop saunters up to my truck, ticket book in his left hand, right at hand at his side, resting lightly on his duty belt.
“Howdy, son. Why don’t y’all do me a favor and step here to the back of the vehicle, please,” drawls the deputy. He looks like a caricature of a small town Texas lawman – tall, balding, and bucket-bellied. A Stetson sits squarely on his head, and his eyes are hidden behind dark sunglasses. Not trusting myself to talk, I hand him my license and registration. He examines my license, takes off his shades and eyes me speculatively for a few moments.
“The reason I pulled you over is that I clocked you at ninety three miles an hour. The speed limit on this stretch of interstate is seventy miles an hour during the day. That’s twenty-three over the posted limit, son. You mind telling me where you were going in such a hurry?”
“No excuse sir, I –“
“You an EMT, son?” he interrupts, nodding at the Star of Life on my cap. I nod affirmatively.
“Then you oughta know better than that,” he chides. “You got Loozyanna plates on this vee-hicle, so it ain’t likely yer goin’ to no emergency. So where are ya headin’ that you got to travel so fast?”
“I’m headed to Oklahoma City. My father is…is sick. I got a call that he’s…I mean, they told me he’s…” I feel the words catch in my throat, and I feel my face flush with shame but I am powerless to stop it. I find myself sitting on the bumper of my truck on the side of the road in Deepinahearta, Texas, cradling my head in my hands and crying like a heartbroken child, my shoulders shaking with every racking sob. Sitting there on the side of the highway, I made my decision.
I’m going to remember you for the things you did right, not for the mistakes you made. I pray you’ll do the same for me, Dad.
After what seems like an hour but was probably no more than a minute, I wipe my snotty palms on my jeans and look up. The deputy has his shades back on, his ticket book in his left hand, still unopened. He looks at me for a few moments more and then hands me back my license and registration.
“Go see to your Daddy, son,” he says gently. “Watch your speed.” Without another word, he walks back to his cruiser and drives away. I am barely back on the road again when my cell phone rings. I hit the SEND button.
“Where are you?” Uncle Sonny says without preamble.
“Probably thirty miles from Tyler,” I answer. “How is he –“
“Don’t bother coming any further, then,” he sighs, his voice breaking. “He passed about ten minutes ago. We’re bringing him home Tuesday.” Sonny’s voice is tired, drained. He says something more about funeral arrangements that I don’t bother to hear.
I thumb the END button, pull over again and put the truck in park. I lay my head on the steering wheel and let the tears come. I pray for forgiveness for perhaps ten minutes, and then I wipe my eyes, pull back into traffic and turn back toward Louisiana.
Grief has its time and place, but right now I have a funeral to plan. So I put my heartbreak aside for the moment, and set my mind to working on the things I have to do.
Just like my Daddy taught me.