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08/15/2005

Grandfathered

My oldest nephew calls my father grantfather, hard T in the middle. My middle nephew calls him gra'far — a speedy elision by a kid who's always on the go. My youngest nephew, in the babyish tones of a four-year-old, has always called him gran-dah-oo. Charlie's done no more than eye him curiously, an unfamiliar man with a loud voice and a heavy step he's seen only twice in his life.

In April 2002, my father was driving to a meeting one day and began to feel shortness of breath and a terrible pain in his chest and leg. It was bad enough to make him turn around and drive to the nearest hospital, where he was immediately admitted into the ICU — blood clots in his lung and his leg.

Although he recovered quickly, this frightened us all. My brother responded to his fear by moving his family 800 miles closer to my parents; they now live a single block away. "Dad's not getting any younger, you know," my brother says meaningfully. When he does this I want to fly at his face, ripping off the bushy eyebrows he's lowered in an expression of concern.

My father just turned 60. He's in both poor health and good — poor because he has diabetes, a history of smoking, high blood pressure, and overweight, and a worrisome family history, but good because he now eats right, exercises frequently, and astonishes his doctors regularly, who tell him his vital signs are as strong as those of a man half his age.

He just had a battery of stress tests last week, my mother told me this morning on the phone, which he passed with flying colors. Yet last night, he was ill enough that they called his doctor, a friend who lives in their neighborhood, who went to their house immediately, talked to Dad for a few minutes, then wrote on the kitchen notepad, where only my mother could see it, "CALL 911 NOW."

Dad was immediately admitted to the same hospital he'd stayed in three years ago, where they observed him overnight. At the moment he's having an exploratory angiogram; the doctors will inject dye into his heart to see where it goes, and will place stents if necessary. My mother called to tell me this when he'd already been taken to surgery. She'll call when it's over, when they know more.

This is exactly what my brother, whose sons have had the chance to build a close day-to-day relationship with their grandfather, who is now at the hospital with my mother, foresaw. I hate it that he was right.

...

When Mom was telling me about this, I kept flashing back to my own experience last November. Like I did, my father had a few isolated episodes of pain, bad enough that he'd ask my mother to call a doctor, that would then magically lift, leaving him certain he didn't need assistance, sure that it was indigestion, fatigue, overexertion. Like it did with me, it finally got bad enough that he knew it was time to get help. Like me, he expected only to be given a quick once-over, then to get a reassuring pat on the shoulder and perhaps a prescription or two. But like me, he's ended up in a gown and a bed, wondering what he should have done differently.

In part, it's my father's medical history that makes me reluctant to try to get pregnant again. We know that I'm at high risk for developing gestational diabetes again, of course. And although my own blood pressure is low, his tendency toward hypertension is not encouraging. And his doctors could never pin down a reason for his blood clots — without knowing why they happened, or what in his makeup made him prone to them, who's to say I wouldn't experience another placental problem?

When I think about the possibility of my father dying, I am clear that my brothers and I are adults. It's unspeakably difficult to lose a parent once you're grown; that I know from seeing Paul through the death of his mother. But how much harder must it be for a child? Although I wouldn't be likely to die if I got pregnant again, or even if I developed complications, I came close enough last time that it terrifies me to think of leaving Charlie motherless. When I think of my last pregnancy and I wonder what I could do differently, the answer that keeps surfacing is simply not to take the risk at all.

...

"Julie, he's a miracle," Dad said on the phone, having watched the video I took (QuickTime, 216 KB) of Charlie while he was still in the NICU.

After spending the balance of his adult life away from the church, in the last five years my father has returned to the Catholicism of his childhood. He is a contributor, a participant, a believer, regularly attending services at St. Rose's while my mother sleeps in on Sundays. When he says miracle, I think he means miracle.

"He certainly is," I answered. I don't believe in God, or in miracles the way he does. But I do believe in random convergences of unusual grace — the burst of strength that can inhabit us when we feel most sapped; or the mysterious force that can drive an unintended act of heroism, leaving the hero shaking his head and saying, "I didn't stop to think; I just did it"; or the stroke of serendipity that puts the right doctors on duty, leaves the right nurses watching, the right treatments available. So I agreed that Charlie's a miracle.

I don't pray. Without a God, there's no obvious place for the buck to stop, so instead I simply hope. I hope for that same serendipity that brought Charlie home with us. I hope that my father's all right. I hope this is only a scare. I hope the phone rings soon

Update: Bypass surgery tomorrow, the kind where they part the ribcage, fire up the heart/lung machine, and go fishing around in your leg for a nice juicy vein to move. Thank you all for your good wishes. They really, really help, more than I can tell you.

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