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Waking Up to a Nightmare

Posted by on Mar 6, 2015

It’s a sound I’ll never forget. In my twenty-one years on Earth I’d never heard that sound before, and I didn’t even think it was possible for this particular sound to come from this particular source. It was the sound of fear, and it was coming from my mom.

“Den, wake up! Something’s wrong with dad!”

My head sprung from my pillow. “What?” I asked. I was confused.

“Daddy won’t wake up! Something’s wrong!” she repeated.

That’s not possible, I thought to myself. My dad had to wake up. He had work, and he never missed work. I jumped out of bed, and ran to my parent’s bedroom. My dad was just lying in bed. He looked like he was sleeping.

“Pop? Hey, pop?” I called to him while tapping his leg.

His eyes opened slowly.

“Hey pop, are you okay?”

“No, he’s not. He can’t talk” my mom said.

I looked back at her, not really understanding. What did she mean he couldn’t talk? Of course he could talk.

I looked back at my dad. His eyes were closed again. “Hey pop!”

They opened.

“Talk to me.”

Nothing.

I told them I was calling 911. His eyes shot open. He looked angry. He waved his index finger at me to tell me no, but I knew I had to. My mom was right. Something was wrong with dad.

Seeing the ambulance pull up to my house was quite a shock, but my dad, a real life superhero, being carried out of my house on a stretcher barely responsive is a scene that replays in my mind on a daily basis. It’s one of a number of scenes during this whole ordeal that seem to play on loop for me.

My mom rode in the ambulance with my dad, and I stayed behind because I had a few phone calls to make. My brother, Bobby, already knew the situation. He was a first responder and I called him immediately to have him talk to one of the paramedics. I called my sister, Molly, who was at work, and told her what happened. I didn’t have much information for her. I really didn’t know was going on.

“We’ll meet you there” she said. She then called Jerry, her husband, who drove downtown to pick her up from work.

I called my work to let them know I wouldn’t be in. Then I got dressed and drove to the hospital, which was luckily only a couple minutes’ drive from my house.

When I arrived, my dad was conscious, but he couldn’t talk. He was so frustrated. Doctors were quick to identify my dad’s condition as a stroke. We were told that while the stroke was a major one, they felt as though there was a good chance of recovery. Throughout the next few hours multiple doctors and nurses came to speak with us about treatments and tests. We were even visited by a nurse from one of the areas very best stroke rehabilitation facilities who familiarized us all with what to expect on this long road to recovery.

I could see an emptiness is my dad’s eyes. He could hear every word this woman was saying, but he wasn’t listening. It wasn’t long until he kicked us all out of his room. Everyone except for my mom.

We all stepped into the hallway. My mom followed us.

“Dad’s tired” she said. “Go to the cafeteria and get some coffee and a bite to eat. Come back to see dad in a little bit. Let him rest so we can all go home soon.”

I gave my mom a hug. We made a strong, almost telepathic connection. I could see in her eyes that she knew what I knew. My dad was never going home.

At that moment all I could do was playback the last twenty-one years in my mind. Thousands of memories flashed before my eyes like a documentary of my life. If it wasn’t for all of these memories, I know without a shadow of a doubt that I never would have made it past the worst time in my life.

 

Speaking In Our Own Language

From the first moment that I was able to use my hands until I was about 11, I was holding an action figure. It was usually a wrestling figure. They were a drug, and my dad was my dealer. He supplied me with more “wrestling men” then I even knew they produced. Like most dealers, dad rarely got involved with the product, but on rare occasions I could talk him into playing with me.

I don’t know why I wanted to play with him. He was the worst. I would just smash the two figures together letting them both fall to the ground, and say, “they both lost.” It was such sloppy play. No choreography involved at all. When it came to playing with action figures, dad could not hang with the big boys. He even made the most ridiculous sound when the figures would hit each other.

“Tuka tuka tuka!”

“No, dad! It’s ‘psh, psh, psh,’ like on TV.”

No matter how much coaching and correcting I would do, he would continue making the “tuka tuka tuka” sound. It was awful, and kind of funny at the same time.

Sometimes he would walk past me in the hallway and pretend to beat me up while yelling “tuka tuka tuka.” It ended becoming something we would say to each other on those occasions when the growing young boy that I was no longer wanted to say “I love you”. He would come home from work at night, and I would already be in bed. He would open my door, and say “Goodnight, Dennis. Tuka, tuka” and close the door.

During the second day in the hospital I was in dad’s room with my mom. Nobody was saying a word. We were just sitting there in silence, keeping each other company. After about an hour, my mom said she wanted me to go home to shower, and get some sleep. I had been in the same clothes as the day before. I slept at the hospital, and I was beginning to stink.

I was standing at the foot of dad’s bed saying good bye, and telling him that I would be back soon. He tried to speak, but like so many times in the last twenty-four hours, he couldn’t. He was able to make noises while pointing at me. I was able to make out seven syllables. He repeated it a few times before I finally realized what he was saying.

I looked in his eyes, and said “tuka, tuka. I love you?”

He smiled and nodded his head. I patted him gently on his leg, smiled back and said “Tuka, tuka, pop” and I walked out.

That was the last time I spoke with my father.

 

Let Him Get Some Rest

When I got back to the hospital, I went straight for pop’s room. I wanted to give my mom a break. As I got off the elevator, and walked down the long corridor towards the room I saw my mom in the hallway talking to a nurse. I was concerned. As I approached, I could tell by her body language that they were only talking. When I got to the room I was greeted by my brother, Bobby, and my dad’s friend and partner from the police department, Joe.

“How’s he doing?” I asked.

“He’s sleeping, right now. We just want to let him get some rest,” answered Bobby.

Just then my dad’s eyes opened. He reached out his left arm as if he were grabbing for something.

“You okay, dad?” asked my concerned brother.

He kept reaching for a few seconds and then he slowly fell back to sleep. Something didn’t seem right. I called for him with a raised voice.

“Pop! Hey pop, wake up for a second.”

He didn’t open his eyes.

I slapped his leg gently. “Pop, wake up!” I kept calling for him, and slapping his leg. Each slap harder than the last. I felt sick. This is the same feeling I had the previous morning when I tried waking him up at home.

“Dad!” my brother joined in. The second voice didn’t help.

“We need a doctor!” I yelled. I think I yelled. I tried to yell.

I looked up and I saw Joe. He had a worried look on his face, which worried me. Growing up, I always felt that guys like him didn’t worry. He walked out with my brother to get the nurse.

The room quickly become flooded with nurses and doctors who eventually kicked us all out of the room. After a few hours, dad was moved to the intensive care unit. He never regained consciousness.

 

A Much Needed Distraction

In four days that seem like a total blur; a mess of what felt to me like thousands of hours which Father Time threw at me with no thought or consideration, it’s amazing how some moments; some tiny fragments of time stick in my mind like they happened moments ago.

There are times when I wish I could just wipe my out my memory like a hard-drive. Clean it out, and start over, but I know that the moments that linger so vividly in my mind are the moments that got me through this ordeal.

At a time when many families would prefer privacy to share intimate moments before saying goodbye for the final time, we took the opposite approach. We wanted to be surrounded with those we loved, and most importantly, those who loved my dad. The nurses and doctors told us on many occasions that they have never seen such a strong showing of love and support from family and friends of a patient before. They were so touched by this, that they unofficially waived the restrictions of visiting hours, allowing anyone and everyone access to the waiting room, and my dad’s room as long as we gave the okay.

For three straight days there was a seemingly never-ending flow of visitors to say their last goodbye. Family members with whom my dad had fallouts over the years came by to make amends, regardless of fault. Friends whose names we hadn’t heard in decades, and friends who were spoken about daily all took time out of their lives to spend an hour, and some, entire days with us.

Many of my dad’s old police friends became mainstays in the waiting room. These men were like brothers to my dad, and just as they had for four decades, they faithfully came by every day to look out for their brother and his family. They told countless stories about my dad from long before most of us were even born. Though my family and I told them this many times, I don’t know if they truly realize how big a role they played in getting us through the week. The entertaining stories were exactly what everyone needed. It was as though my dad hired a comedy troupe to distract us for a few minutes at a time from the hell that was going on around us. Every story got increasingly funnier as the guys would sneak away for “meetings” in the parking lot. The last meetings ended when the bottle was empty.

I don’t know if I ever laughed harder in my life than when, after the final meeting, two of my dad’s friends approached an elderly woman, who was not with us, at the vending machine. She was complaining about how the machine took her eighty cents but didn’t give her the potato chips she purchased. Watching this tiny old lady interact with these two six-foot, two-hundred-plus pound men who had just polished off a bottle of Tully was beyond hilarious.

“What seems to be the trouble, ma’am?” asked Joe.

“I put my money in and made my selection, but I didn’t get my chips,” replied the woman.

After a thorough inspection of the machine, Joe assured the woman that he and Carl will get to the bottom of it, and she will not leave here without her chips.

“How do you plan to get them?” she asked, and without a second of hesitation, Joe responds, “I will rip the goddamned door of its hinges if that’s what it takes.” And a without missing a beat, the woman replies, “Well, then get to it!”

As much as all of us wanted to see that scene unfold, it was not to be as Carl put one of his own dollars into the machine while Joe distracted the woman. He gave her the chips and assured her that they would be sitting over in the corner if she found herself in any more trouble.

When I saw my mom smile through her tears, and heard her laughing, I realized that Joe, Carl and the rest of my dad’s friends didn’t just start telling stories to pass time. They were distracting us, if only for a moment, and they knew exactly what they were doing.

 

Coming To Terms

Once dad was placed in the ICU, I think all of us knew what the outcome would be, and we began to expect the worst. None of us said what we were thinking, but there is no doubt we were thinking it.

We were allowed to live in a state of denial for a few hours. That ended when the family was gathered into a room that was filled only with chairs. We each took a seat. It was me, my mom, Bobby, Molly, Jerry and my aunt. The person who gathered us was our aunt’s sister, who happened to be a nurse manager at the hospital. She was not my dad’s nurse, but her guidance and support throughout the ordeal cannot be overstated.

She began by telling us that my dad was not in pain. We were relieved. She continued to explain to us in terms that a grieving family could understand. With tears welling up in her eyes, she told us that both strokes caused massive swelling in dad’s brain. His brain was pressing against his skull with such force that there was no chance of recovery. At that time, we had two choices. We could allow the doctors to remove part of his skull to reduce some of the swelling, or we could make him as comfortable as possible, say our goodbyes, and allow him to pass on his own.

We knew that the operation, if successful, would only cause temporary relief, and we did not want to put dad through any more trauma. We decided, as a family, that we would give dad a couple of days, and let him go when he decided it was time.

We informed our family and friends in the waiting room, and asked them to pass along the news to anyone they thought would want to say goodbye to him. We allowed anyone who wanted to see him come visit. We agreed that we would not take that chance away from anyone who wanted it.

Of all of the tiny fragments of time, and all of the long, drawn out hours that I spent in that hospital, there remains one image that is burned into my mind’s eye. Each of us took time to be alone with dad to say goodbye in our own personal way. When I left the room, my mom went in. I went to the waiting room for about an hour and then went back to check on her. I moved the curtain to the side to see into the room, and there was my mom, laying with her head on my dad’s shoulder. I closed the curtain and walked out.

All I could think about was if this ordeal was so hard on me, just imagine what it was like for my mom. I was born to my parents without a say. I had no choice. My mom, at the age of twenty-two, made a decision to spend the rest of her life with this man. She chose him. She was forty-eight years old, and the last twenty-seven years of her life was slipping away from her right before her eyes. One day they were planning a trip to Florida to see the Phillies in Spring Training, and the next they were spending their final hours together.

 

Coping With Tragedy

The next morning, around ten o’clock, the doctor entered to room. The room was filled with loved ones. He told us he wanted to speak with the four of us. We knew what he was going to say, and we told him everyone in the room is our family, and we wanted them there. He told us that the most recent tests show that my dad’s brain had not recorded any activity. He was gone.

Tragedy strikes without warning. Without a moment’s notice your world can be flipped upside down. When it happens, you find yourself grasping for air, and grasping for answers. The problem is, there usually are no answers. You can ask yourself “why”, and you can lose entire days wondering what you could have done to prevent it. You can ask God, and you can curse God, but it all comes down to one fact – nobody knows.

There is nothing that I could have done to prevent my dad from having a stroke. There is nothing I could have done, and no prayer that could have kept him alive. It happened, and I don’t know why. I’ve stopped asking. To be honest, it doesn’t matter why. The only thing that matters is how we dealt with it as a family – as a unit. Me, mom, Molly and Bobby stuck together throughout the entire time dad was in the hospital, throughout his funeral and every day over the last five years. Dad’s passing has changed us all in some way, but it also changed our family dynamic. We were always a very close family – Dad made sure of that. His passing serves as a reminder that life can change at the drop of a dime. You can take away a family member, but you can never take away the love of a strong family.

It has been five years since I lost my dad, but I see him every time I look at my mom, Molly and Bobby, and for that I am grateful.

 

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Photo courtesy of Dennis Kennedy.

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DK

DK is a born and raised Philadelphian. Creator of the 2gentlemenreview.com. Lover of cigars, Hamm's beer, the Flyers and Phillies. DK is an amateur Rock’N’Roll historian with a focus on early rhythm and blues and 1950’s vocal groups. When he grows up, he wants to be a writer.

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