Looking out over the sands of Kuwait on the eve of Memorial Day, I wanted to revisit this salute to my favorite soldier. I’ll post more contemporary reflections soon.
“Hey, Sis? You busy today?”
“Not really, Dad. Just the usual chores and whatnot.” It was Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and all that really meant was I had an extra day to redesign my research after many months working diligently into a dead-end path. Dad’s phone call might mean a day out shopping, or a long drive to the coast or some wooded area, or even an afternoon meal in Seattle. I pondered whether I could afford the distraction when work was feeling like such a loss at the moment.
“I think there is something wrong with that new medicine I’ve been taking. I called the nurse line, but it routed me through to Ohio. She just said I should go to the emergency room.”
This information was not what I was expecting on a sunny Saturday morning of a holiday weekend. Recently Dad had been diagnosed with an irregular heart rhythm, both unexpected and anticipated. His mother, brother, and sister all had died of congestive heart failure. But Dad was sturdy, like the trees he felled in the work that made him who so much of who he was.
Forty minutes later I opened the door of Dad’s apartment as I started to knock.
“Come in. Sit down a minute,” Dad was leaned back casually at the dining table, ready to receive guests.
“I thought you needed to go to the emergency room? Where are your shoes?” I was not in the mood to mess around with small talk and trite civilities.
“Let me get you a cup of coffee,” Dad stood up and pulled out the chair next to him so I could sit. “I don’t think we’re in any hurry. We’ve got time.”
Dad’s calm, edging on jovial manner usually was a sign that something was going horribly wrong. Instead of sitting, I herded Dad to find his shoes. In between the updates about his most recent batch of soup, his latest screenplay, and general life philosophies du jour he managed to put on shoes and a jacket and teeter out to the car.
Half an hour later we arrived at the Portland VA Medical Center—my first of countless visits to the facility. I jumped out of the car to fetch a wheelchair, but Dad would have no part in it.
“I don’t need that,” he barked. Dad was not looking very steady on his feet, but he was vertical and walking. If he collapsed between the door and the desk he would certainly be admitted quickly.
Inside, Dad staggered up to the reception desk and recited his VA number like a soldier standing at attention.
“What brings you here today, Mr. Lund?”
“I’m taking some new medications and I think they are having some kind of interaction.” He offered none of information he’d shared with me en route, such as losing all strength and having to lay down flat on the floor until he could get up to use the phone.
The receptionist lowered his eyes to the computer monitor in front of him. “Why don’t you step next door and see the triage nurse.” Without a stop in the waiting room, I inferred either there were no other patients that day, or Dad was in serious trouble.
With Dad’s arm in a cuff the triage nurse tried to record his vital signs. His pulse yo-yoed between 98 and 193 beats per minute, stopping at any random place in between for but a brief second. Dad could not see the monitor. Without the equipment, I would have thought he was on a social call as he told the nurse about how he found the gold leafing for the fishing rod he made for his oldest grandson. After a few moments looking back and forth between Dad and the monitors the nurse finally decided on 177 beats per minute.
“Why don’t you step over there,” the nurse requested, gesturing toward the actual emergency room where the action takes place. We walked out into the hall toward a large, open room. In the VA, emergency patients do not get their own rooms, but rather a workstation with emergency equipment mounted to a wall and a curtain hanging from the ceiling on a track just large enough to enclose one twin-sized bed plus one small person standing on any side of it. The luxury is in the equipment and expertise, not the accommodations.
Instantly, Dad was swept onto a bed with the help of what seemed like a dozen staff. He had tubes in his nose and oxygen flowing almost before he was laying down. Before his bed was backed up to a hub on the wall in reach of the equipment he had an IV port in the back of his hand, ready to receive drugs that would save his life.
The hospital staff seemed to multiply. “Fred, it’s been a long time. How’ve you been? Come on and join the party!” Dad grinned his crooked smile at the nurse adjusting his blood pressure cuff. I only wish I could have such wit in my best of moments.
“Oh! I think you missed a spot.” Dad winked at the nurse sticking his legs and chest with EKG tags. Somehow in times like these Dad’s words flow nonstop through some kind of a standup filter that Alan Alda couldn’t match. That is how I know not to worry, that everything will be okay. It’s not that Dad finds the humor in every moment, it’s that the humor finds him and he can’t hold it in.
Dad’s heart rate and blood pressure ricocheted against itself ever more erratically, trending ever higher toward the heavens. His lungs filled with fluid at an accelerating pace. The banter and one-liners kept spouting at every opportunity. Finally someone thought to close the curtain around us as the team plugged in more sophisticated heart monitoring equipment. The medicine dose in the IV kept notching upward in hot pursuit of his heartbeat, like it was chasing down a runaway truck full of timber.
Suddenly a look of panic flashed across Dad’s face as he turned ashen blue. He lurched forward grasping at his throat where it meets his chest, almost as if he could open it up with his own hands and make more room for air that his own body fluids were crowding out. He was drowning. Dad’s inner log truck seemed to be barreling for certain disaster.
Standing beside him, I felt as if I was watching from a distance. I could see it all, so close circling inside it all, but I was not really there. I’ve heard that when some people are on the brink of death they separate from their body and they watch their life being saved from the corner of the ceiling. There I was waiting for Dad at the corner of the ceiling, but he wasn’t about to leave that bed.
“Dad I’m right here. It’s going to be okay,” I said as much to bring myself back into the physical space as to reassure Dad. I assume Dad couldn’t hear anything by then. The room created by the curtain felt claustrophobic. Dad continued to writhe, grasping at his chest struggling for one tiny breath as the medical team continued to increase the dosage of his medicine.
Then just as suddenly as it came on, like a fever it broke. Dad’s blood pressure and heart rate quit skyrocketing toward death. There was room for air in his lungs again. Not much, but enough to catch the runaway truck. Eventually, Dad’s heart rate began to creep downward, one millimeter at a time.
I have no idea how long the worst of it lasted. A minute? Ten minutes? He could have been thrashing for air for an hour. Could anyone survive asphyxia by drowning for that long? Time simply stopped while Dad was searching for the detour around that zone that invites us to choose a path forward, either with our human bodies or leaving the body behind into eternity.
After some time, Dad’s heart rate stabilized around the low hundreds of beats per minute and showed signs of continued slowing. Someone on the team told Dad he needed to go out for a chest x-ray.
“Oooh-wee! I’m going to be in pictures!” Dad jested with the enthusiasm of a golden age actor who received his first paying role. By then he was wearing not much more than a sheet and a whole lot of plugs, wires, tubes, and equipment.
Eventually the medical team received the approval to move Dad to the x-ray room. They disconnected the equipment that could not be moved, and set up the portable equipment for that which could.
“As long as I’m going on parade we’re going to have fun with this,” Dad whispered to me as if we were out shopping the sales on that sunny holiday weekend.
Finally the medical team pulled his bed out to wheel him away. He sat up as best he could with the tubes and wires hanging from his nose, chest, and legs, beaming like a newly coronated princess. The parade started down the hall with the equipment dragging behind the bed. Dad turned toward the side and began to wave slowly at the staff and the other patients.
Elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist, wrist. . . . Elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist, wrist. It was the best Memorial Day parade I have ever seen.
The fanfare ended on January 10, 2021, in the very same Veterans Hospital where this story took place. I don’t know Dad’s official cause of death. Most certainly he died of a broken heart. For months, direct human contact was reduced to a minimum because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we just couldn’t get the technology working well for video visits that I’d hoped would bring us together. In December of 2020, he was near completion of cancer treatment, which damaged his lungs. His heart just couldn’t keep up with the new workload. The increased demands on the central power plant that distributes fuel to the rest of the body came at time when Dad’s primary fuel source was its lowest ever. Love is the most renewable of all resources, and yet the touch of covid created artificial scarcity.
Dad spent his final two weeks alone in the hospital, because pandemic restrictions prohibited visitors. When it became clear Dad had entered the zone between life and death and had chosen to continue forward toward eternity, his team at the VA allowed family to visit two at a time—too little too late for his lonely heart. I was able to visit by video for several hours at a time his final days. Dad left us quietly, sharing the company of a loyal VA nurse who didn’t leave his side.