I have spent nearly a year trying to figure out how in the world I can convey to readers of this blog the magnitude of what my family endured on January 13, 2013. Not just the tragic stuff, but the amazing and unexpected good that came from an event that was so devastating. I have been tongue-tied on this. And I think it has been prevented me from writing anything at all.
So, for those who are interested … and for myself … I will give this a shot.
On Sunday, January 13, 2013, I woke up early to go to work. I never do this. I went to the window to yawn, stretch and enjoy the view. I also never do this. What I saw and heard that morning is something I try to forget …
(Up until recently, I was living behind my parents in a 4-bay garage that we converted to a home. We sold our home in Corinna to take up residence behind Mom & Dad after they had a house fire that burned their place to the ground. While watching his home burn, my Dad had a massive heart attack and later needed a quadruple bypass. So, making the decision to live behind them was an easy one. And apparently this decision would later save my Father’s life.)
… I saw my Dad in the game room over his garage … black smoke pouring out of every crevice of every window. He was screaming my name. Begging for help. It was a pathetic, desperate cry that still occasionally haunts me. I then screamed for my husband to go to my Dad so I could call 911. In seconds, Halis was running toward my Dad and I was on the phone with the dispatcher.
I remember distinctly telling the dispatcher that my Dad would not survive this. I pleaded, “Please send an ambulance with a cardiac unit … my Dad’s heart is weak and he has been through this before and nearly died!” She assured me that the fire department and the EMTs were on their way. We hung up.
I then ran over to my Dad’s house. Apparently, Halis had gotten my Dad out of the smoke-filled garage apartment and had put out the worst of the fire that had begun in the truck he parked in the lower half of the garage. I remember being a bit shocked by this. How could that fire already be out? Where was my Dad? I then saw my Dad walking around the garage. “Dad, what are you doing? Are you okay?” He mumbled that he was searching for eggs in the garage fridge. He told me he was planning to make some breakfast sandwiches. “Dad, the fire department is on the way. I think you should get out of the garage and go sit down.” He then grabbed a few food items and began to make his way toward the house. I could see my Mother was just waking up and looking out the window to understand what was going on. Meanwhile, my dog was loose and I knew he would attack anyone coming to help, so I walked him back to my place to put him in the house.
Less than a minute later, I returned to the garage and saw my husband standing there. “Halis, where is my Dad?” In the house. “Wait, why are you out here??? Someone needs to be watching him!!! His heart is going to give out!!!” I was screaming. Halis responded that my Dad told him to stay there to watch for any embers that might reignite the fire. “Jesus, Halis. Don’t do what he says! He doesn’t know what he is saying … Go in the house and …..” It was then that I heard my Mom scream. A blood-curdling scream that (wow this is so hard to write about) … well, a blood-curdling scream that meant only one thing. My Dad was dying. This would be the second time in less than 6 minutes that I would hear someone shout my name in desperation.
We ran into the house. My Dad was on the floor of his kitchen. Tongue hanging out of his mouth. Convulsing. Green/blue skin. My Mom was on the floor holding his head up so he wouldn’t choke. Every one is screaming. The world was spinning. Dogs barking. My Mom begs us to do something. I don’t know what to do. I can only think to keep talking to my Dad. I shout to him to hold on, people are coming to help. “I love you, Daddy. Don’t go toward the light! Don’t go toward the light Daddy. Jesus, please! please!” At some point it is clear that he has completely stopped breathing. Halis checks for a pulse. Nothing. I am sobbing, looking into my husband’s eyes. A look he will never forget. “Do something Halis. Do something!!! God damn it, don’t let my Dad die!!!” Halis then shouts for my Mom to get a pillow. At some point we know that Dad has hit his head hard on the stove. The details then become fuzzy. I remember Halis performing CPR. He is thrusting so hard on my Dad’s chest that bones are cracking. He later reported that Dad took in a few breaths during CPR. I never saw them. I was throwing up all over the living room. I was useless. At some point, my Mom screams “Where is the ambulance!?”. I say I’ll call 911 again. I can’t find a phone. No one has a phone. I yell at my mother to get away from Dad and find me a phone. Somehow she does.
I call the dispatcher again and beg for the ambulance. She asks me what is going on. I can barely tell her. “I think my Dad is dead. My husband is doing CPR right now but he has never done it before.” She then quickly tells me to count with her and to have my husband count with her so that he is compressing rapidly enough. On each count he is to compress downward. I quickly explain this to my husband. (He would later tell me this helped him greatly). I count with her loudly. I lose count. I cry. I scream. I beg Daddy not to go toward the light. She brings me back to task. We count again. She stays on the phone with me till the EMTs arrive.
When they arrive, I feel like everything is in slow motion. They don’t get out of the ambulance fast enough for me, although I know they were quick as could be. A woman pushes through and goes right to Halis. She tells him he is doing it perfectly and to keep going. Don’t stop. He begs to stop. He -who has kept it together this whole time – who has shouted, “Not in front of your wife and daughter, Bob. You are not dying today!” in a calm and direct-order manner – He is now scared out of his mind. But he pumps on. The next thing I know, there are at least four people working on my Dad. And one of them is drilling a whole right through his leg. There are paddles zapping his chest. My Mom is losing it. Firefighters are in the garage. Dogs are still barking. And I am standing in the snow on the porch in bare feet. I am keeping my distance. Vomiting. And praying. A firefighter comes over to me and asks me to please get some shoes on. Concentrate on that he says. I can’t. I rock back and forth. I call Cara.
Poor Cara. I call her with my cell phone that for some strange reason is now in my hand. I call to tell her I can’t go into work today. I tell her why. I am mumbling. I am barely coherent. She gets it. She tells me she loves me. She tells me not to fear. She is crying too.
Time passes. I don’t know how long. Thoughts are swirling around. My relationship to my Dad has not been easy. I go over everything we last said to each other. I don’t want it to end like this. I don’t know how to breathe if it ends like this.
The EMTs get a pulse. One of them tells me to go get my clothes on (I am in pajamas). I then realize I must also wake my son. My Mom is getting her clothes together and at this point I see my husband helping her. We all must get ready quickly in order to follow the ambulance. If my Dad is going to die, we are NOT letting him do it alone.
I wake my son. I am sobbing. His face stares at mine in disbelief and questioning. I don’t know what to say to him. He is 7. We have dealt with the possibility of his Poppy dying before. I only know to say “Angel, we gotta go. Poppy may be going to see Jesus.” He begins to cry instantly but stops short. I help him get his shoes on. I talk to Jesus again. We fly out the door and toward the truck that is waiting for us. Halis is driving. My Mom is next to him. I stop at who I now know to be the Fire Chief. I am inches away from his face. “Don’t lie to me. Tell me like it is. What are my Dad’s chances?” He says, “About 3%.” (I would later learn that there are new rules that prevent him from telling me what he believed to be true, that my Dad had no chance at all). “I’ll take it.” I said as I buckled my kid into the truck.
The whole way to the hospital, I am trying to call my brother. My fingers aren’t working. I am calling all the wrong numbers. I am a mess. I finally get his voicemail and I tell him to come to Bangor. Dad may not make it. I then call my Aunt to have her find my brother. She is on it.
We get into the Emergency area after going through airport-style security screening. We are ushered to a special room for families to wait. This is not a room you want to be in. This is the room that is surrounded by security because they know you will want to try to get to your loved one, but that you can’t and shouldn’t. This is the room for people who are grieving. I would love to know how long we were in there, because it felt like forever. Clergy came to see us. Nurses in and out. Finally, I am about to lose it and I tell the nurse we HAVE TO see my Dad. He cannot die alone. I stare into her eyes. I am trying to figure out if he is already dead. After some time, she tells us that she will let us in to see him but that he is very sick and many hands are working on him. He is being transferred to CCU (Critical Care Unit) and we can follow.
I will never forget the chaos of that room. My Dad is on a gurney tied up to all manner of machines. At least 6 or more people are surrounding him, all working feverishly. They get silent as we enter but they don’t stop working. I am told we have only seconds to see him. I know I am with my Mom but I don’t know what she is saying or doing. I get right up to my Father’s ear and tell him not to go toward the light. “Don’t do it, Dad. It looks pretty but it isn’t time. Don’t go toward the light Dad. We can do this. We can do this. Ok, Daddy?”
The next part of this journey is another blur. Lots of waiting in the CCU waiting room. A visit from my dear friend Kathy so she can hear what the doctors are telling us. Mom and I don’t understand much of what is being said. And Kathy is a nurse. The more the doctor talks, the more sad Kathy looks. I am sure my Dad is leaving us. Kathy won’t say the words. But she is sure too.
More waiting. Every conversation between Halis, Mom and I is us going over the timeline of what happened … in a desperate attempt to make sure Dad took in oxygen at some point during the CPR. All of us trying to establish a time line so we can hope that he was not down ‘too long’. Then we are told he will be put into a hypothermic coma. I am sure all of this was explained to us, but again, it is a blur. We know this is a treatment that saves lives. We know it will take days to know if it worked. We know we are not leaving that hospital. We will stay by Dad through this whole process.
My brother arrives as do other family members. Phone calls get made to my Dad’s brothers and sisters. Prayers are said. Tears flow. My Mom, Halis and I – in the midst of all the visitors – continue to look into one another’s eyes. Good Lord we have all just been through something traumatic together and we have no idea how to move forward. People talk to us but we keep coming back to each other.
I visit my Dad every second they will allow within those first 24 hours – which isn’t much. (And I did much sneaking in). They have a nurse in with him round the clock. They need to reduce his core temperature slowly, leave it there for 24 hours then increase it slowly. All of this takes about 3 days. This should help his organs heal and then we can assess the damage. The wait is pure torture. And though I come in every now and again to tell my Dad what a good job he is doing, it is awkward to do anything else as there is always a stranger in there, working hard to keep my Dad alive. But I sing Beatles tunes to him when I can. And I ask the staff to please allow me to keep my Ipad in there, on the Beatles station … to keep my Dad comfortable. They allow it.
Every time a nurse comes out to speak to us, I feel relieved to know he is alive. That is all I have at this point. Thoughts keep racing. I bargain with God. I continue to beg Dad to stay away from lights and tunnels. At this point, I cannot even imagine how long this whole journey toward recovery will take because it is hard to imagine that there will BE a journey to take. I continue to go over all the details of my life spent with Dad. And wonder, hope and pray that I can speak to him again. That I can fix anything yucky between us. Somehow, I eventually find sleep on the waiting room floor.
THAT was how I spent January 13, 2013. As for the rest of story …
The wait. Wow. There is so much to tell. So much happened within our family in those three days of waiting. Burned bridges were rebuilt by some. And new bridges were burned by others. Family drama is a huge part of these sorts of events. And this is something I will likely expound upon in later blog posts.
It would take more time than is usual for my Dad to come out of his coma. And that journey of trying to pull him out of it is a topic I will be sure to come back to later as well. One of my favorite life stories comes from this time. The way my Dad returned to us was nothing short of amazing. In truth, his entire recovery blew minds. Nurses and doctors are still talking about his miraculous recovery. It took much time, don’t get me wrong. And it was hell … peppered with glorious moments of the beauty and tenacity of the human condition and the human spirit. I concentrated on those beautiful moments as best I could.
Friends visited often. My community rallied around to help with my son. My husband was the glue that held us all together … including my Mother. The staff at EMMC was stellar in every way and with very little exception. We are eternally grateful to them! (I’m looking at you, Jayme). We were well supported.
It would take over 3 months to get Dad out of the hospital and another 2 months to get him on his feet. At some point after coming out of the coma, Dad told me his death story. (He also told me he was pissed I didn’t take pictures of him in the coma and during his recovery. He wanted to see what we all saw. “You’re a photographer! Why didn’t you take pictures!?”) Dad did see the light and the tunnel. He saw his deceased brother. They played poker. He felt the most love he has ever felt in that light. Pure peace he said. There were times during his recovery that he wished he went all the way down that loving tunnel. I asked him if he saw Jesus. He said No. I laughed. “When am I ever going to get proof of that guy!?” (I am an Agnostic who is always searching for faith). Dad laughed. I asked him why he didn’t stay in the light, why he didn’t let go and just stay there. “You kept telling me not to.” My jaw dropped and tears formed. “Dad, you heard me!?” Yeah he said. He heard me. “Wait – you heard me while you were dead? While you were in the light?” Yeah, you kept telling me not to stay there. I heard you. Like a loudspeaker. “Wait, then what did Mom tell you? She was screaming too.” He reponded perfectly. He said Mom kept shouting at his Mother (deceased) not to keep him – that he was hers now. “Ok, so what did Halis say!?” Dad responded that Halis told him not to die in front of his wife and daughter. Right again. I was astounded. I remembered my friend Kathy told me that hearing is the last sense to go. Dad heard us. Even without a pulse.
And that is where I shall end this part of the adventure that began a year ago today. An adventure that I don’t regret and wouldn’t change any part of, as it has all lead us to today … and today is very, very good. Dad is doing well and planning trips he has always meant to take. He saw my brother become a Daddy this past November. Dear baby Presley is a whole new joy in his life. He has mended fences with his siblings. He is enjoying retirement.
And me? I have learned much about my strength during this process. (I was a complete mess when I was watching Dad die … but I was a warrior for him from that day forward.) I have learned forgiveness. I have learned when to hold tight to people and who to let go of. I have witnessed incredible sadness during my hospital stay (I stayed with Dad every single night for 3 months) and jaw dropping miracles. I fell in love with my husband all over again (I do this often) and I hold tighter to my son. I understand my Mom a bit better and like her more. And my Dad? I have a whole new relationship with him that I never thought possible.
Thanks January 13, 2013. You sucked the life right out of me, and then returned it — rearranged for the best.
Written in love and peace,
Post Script: It occurs to me that one may want to understand medically what happened to my Dad that day. It turns out that he went into respiratory arrest due to major smoke inhalation which then lead to cardiac arrest. He has very few long term side effects from this event, but does have some minor brain damage that one would only notice if one was very close to him. The chances of CPR working in a case like this are 2%. Halis rocked that 2%!