(Preface: Since I wrote something about my mom for Mother's Day, I don't want my dad grousing about not getting "equal time" on his day. So here you go, Pop.)
My dad's Superman in my universe, and I mean it.
He is a brave, intelligent and good-hearted man -- my hero, really -- and I am frequently amazed that he continues to put up with me and my shenanigans.
Admittedly, and for quite a few years, I took him for granted. It's not hard to do that to with someone who seems to be the definition of "ten feet-tall and bulletproof." People like that are already hard to knock down, regardless of your emotional connection to them. Sometimes, true appreciation has to be shocked into you.
Late January 2002. I don't recall exactly what time it was when a ringing cell phone woke me from my sleep. 1:30 in the morning, or 1:45, maybe -- somewhere in that frame. When it stirred me, my mind instantly flashed to the moment when my high school English teacher told the class, "You don't get phone calls between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless something is wrong."
When I noticed on the caller ID that the call was coming from my parents' house, two thoughts sparked. The first was that something awful had happened, the second was that somebody I loved -- and who loved me -- couldn't sleep, missed me and just wanted to say hello. Since they knew my usual sleep cycles, and I knew them, I dismissed the first, and prepared myself for the second. I picked up the phone, actively working at avoiding anger and annoyance. Not that I wasn't feeling it.
"Jeremy," the voice on the other end said. "It's Steve."
I was surprised, to say the least. My little brother Stephen -- the last person on Earth who would ever call me now -- was calling me now? "What's going on?" I asked.
"Dad's had a heart attack," he said softly. Calmly. "Or a stroke. We're not sure."
A cold rush of panic blasted through every nerve in my being. "What?" I think I asked, probably along with two or three dozen questions that would have come pinging out of my brain.
Stephen was quick to offer answers, and a sense of the situation in the house. He explained that Dad had come downstairs in the night, and while passing through the kitchen, mumbled some gibberish words to another of my brothers, Peter, who was also awake at the time. A concerned Peter followed him for a moment, saw him walk straight into a door frame, then leapt to catch Dad as he started to fall and ultimately carried our father to a couch in the living room.
That had all happened a half-hour or so before. Dad was now wide awake and responsive, but had absolutely no memory of how he'd managed to get from the upstairs bedroom he shared with my mother to the couch in the downstairs living room with pale and frightened faces chattering at him. Stephen told me that Melissa, our one and only big sister, who was also a nurse at the time, had sped to the scene to give him a cursory exam. She -- along with everyone else -- insisted that he get to a hospital immediately, regardless of his repeated declarations that he felt fine.
By the end of the 20 minute phone call, Stephen had confirmed that Dad, Mom and Melissa were getting in the car for a trip to the emergency room. I made him promise that someone would call me when there was news; he said he would, and we said our goodbyes.
(A few days later, I marveled to Stephen about his panic-free tone during the call, to which he replied with no little amazement, "You thought I sounded calm?")
I rifled through drawers to find an image of my Dad so I could concentrate my prayers on it; that was all I could think to do. I spent that night clutching a wallet-size photo of my family in my palm, praying and trying very hard not to cry.
Mom called early the next morning. Dad had been admitted to the hospital, she told me. His doctor ordered the standard tests, which came up inconclusive as to what had caused his sudden illness. More tests and labs would have to be run. The work would take all day. I told her I'd prayed all night; she thanked me. I asked her to call me as soon as there was anything new to report. She said she would.
The day passed without hearing from her. From anyone. I finally went to dinner, then a movie.
When I returned, I called home again. Mom answered. She sounded exhausted.
"I thought you were going to call me," I said.
"Dad's still in the hospital," Mom replied. "They're keeping him for a while."
Fear and sadness were no longer creeping up on me; they were taking root. "Do they know what's wrong with him?" I asked.
"No," she said. "It could be anything -- blood clots, a bacterial infection. Anything."
And as she spoke, all the terror that I'd been able to keep at bay throughout the day and into the night crashed through every barrier I had built. She'd given me the answers I'd sought, but not the ones I wanted.
"No. It's not fair," I said, the tears burning in my eyes. "It's not fair."
In that moment, every ounce of strength I had was gone. My body crumpled on to a cardboard box filled with old clothes that I'd kept meaning to throw out. I sobbed until I literally had no more tears. And I said, over and over, "It's not fair."
And it wasn't. What had my dad -- my hero, Superman in my world -- done to deserve this? Or my mom, for that matter? That terrible, wrenching fear of losing a parent, one shared by almost every child (no matter the age), had me powerless.
But it was my mother who saved me from that moment; she showed me the mercy that my own emotions wouldn't. "Can you come home?" she asked with enough force to cut through my grief. "Can you come home and see him?"
It was like someone had found the light switch, one that I could normally flip on my own, but not at that moment. Of course I could go home. I had just enough money to put gas in my car to get there. Getting back, though ...
"If you can get here, I'll make sure you get back," Mom promised.
I was on the road the next morning, feeling much lighter, praying and concentrating my energies on seeing my dad.
But as I arrived at the hospital, I felt an unnameable dread snaking its way up my spine. As I walked through the lobby, it spread through me, and continued clouding me as I rode the elevator to his floor.
By the time I reached his room, my whole body felt heavy. I was weighted down with fear and dread and doubt the likes of which I'd never experienced before.
I poked my head in the doorway and saw my dad -- my hero, Superman in my world -- laying in a hospital bed, a thin blanket covering his legs. Sure, he was awake and conversing with my mom (and his roommate and roommate's family), but he looked pale and tired. And I just couldn't take another step past the first one that put me in the room.
"Hey, Jer," Dad said. He must have sensed my paralysis, because he added wryly, "You can come in, you know."
"Yeah, I know," I said, and felt the tears coming again. I started to talk; my voice felt so small and weak, and I started to cry as I tried to put the words together. "It's just -- you're in that bed -- and -- "
And my father looked at me with an unmistakable love and smiled.
Then, like any good Superman, he threw off his blanket, stood up, walked the distance I could not cross and embraced me. I remember his benevolent laugh mixing with my relieved one, and as I relished his hug, all that fear and dread and doubt evaporated.
The moment my dad put his arms around me, I decided that I'd never take him for granted again. I'm blessed and lucky to have him in my life. I'm not a perfect son or a perfect man -- far from it most of the time -- but hey, everyone pales next to Superman.
(Footnote: We'd find out some days later that he'd suffered a TIA (transient ischemic attack), also known as a "warning stroke" or "mini-stroke." It left him weakened for a while, but thankfully, he recovered and hasn't suffered another. His doctors don't know what caused the stroke, however; a stress test revealed no heart problems, an MRI found no clots. I, however, am beginning to suspect Kryptonite was somehow involved.)