Two days after Valentine’s Day, my father, a physician, was testing out a new stethoscope and discovered some trouble with his heart. It wasn’t an emergency, but the cardiologists suggested that he not wait to have the surgery.
My sister flew in from Portland and, with our parents, we headed to the Mayo Clinic. My brother would come later that week, to help get my dad settled back at home.
It was weird to see my father in a hospital gown. In the harsh light of the pre-op room, the kind and vibrant father I knew—the one who still carried his own pack in the Boundary Waters, portaged the canoe, and sat around the campfire smoking cheap cigars—looked pale and vulnerable. Here was the man who taught me how to drive, who always offered half of his peanut-butter toast, who watched Sid and Nancy with me in high school and kept covering my eyes.
After checking my father’s blood pressure, the nurse looked at us and said, “Have you had any end-of-life discussions?”
I immediately burst into tears.
“Well,” said my father, “I guess we haven’t really talked about this. But I know that if anything happens to me, you’ll make the right decisions.”
While anxiety rendered me mute, it had the reverse effect on my sister, who burst into tears and an Irish accent, shouting, “Oh, fer f—’s sake, Da! Do you want us to sprinkle you over the rhubarb?!”
As they wheeled him away, I thought about the chore my father and I did together each fall. We’d climb up on the roof with life jackets on, tie rope to the straps, and attach ourselves to the chimney. Once tethered, we’d travel out to the edges of the roof, lean over, and scrape out the leaves. It was the dumbest contingency plan in the world, but it made us feel safer.
I thought about the time I’d stayed out all night in my twenties. I’d gone to a Suburbs concert, then to a party in St. Paul. I’d finally made it home at 5 a.m., to find my father sitting at the kitchen table. He hadn’t slept all night.
I thought of something my father had once told me about men, when I’d said I couldn’t go on one more crazy date. “We’re all crazy, dear,” he’d offered. “It’s just a matter of finding the right kind of crazy for you.”
The surgery was successful, and that evening we visited my father in the ICU. Watching over him was Chad, a lovely nurse with long blond hair, exactly what dad had been hoping for and yet, not quite. “Dr. Olson,” Chad said, as he woke my father up, “Do you know where you are?”
My father looked around and squinted. “St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester,” he finally said.
“Good,” said Chad. “Do you know why you’re here?”
My father looked at us in a kind of vague and unfocused way. “To get away from my family,” he said, laughed, and went back to sleep.
For the rest of the week, we moved between hotel and hospital. We stayed in the room while dad slept, took him on walks, and sat in sodium class together, where we were presented with startling facts about soup, and a giant, cautionary replica of fat.
At the end of the week, there was a snowstorm. My sister’s flight home was delayed, and so was my brother’s flight in. When the highways were finally cleared, I drove my parents home.
It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. I went at least 10 miles under the speed limit the entire time, staying in the right-hand lane, cautiously looking for ice patches. My father snoozed in the back seat with a heart-shaped pillow buckled against his chest. My mother barked at me to go even slower, while people passing me shot me dirty looks.
I was thinking of my father and me tethered to the roof by thin rope. I was thinking of the delicate threads holding his heart together. I was thinking about how fragile life is, family, the people we love, how tentative and precarious our association—when someone passed me and gave me the finger for going too slow.
Shannon Olson, the author of the novels Welcome to My Planet and Children of God Go Bowling, is a regular contributor to “Last Word.”