The Night I Predicted My Father's Death...
and Failed to Save Him
I'm not psychic, I don't have ESP, and while I think I may have seen / felt a ghost once in my life, it's never happened again.
I wish I could do all those things. The thought of being able to do "something more" excites me. As a child I used to dream a magic bolt of lightening, a secret word, or concentrating hard enough would grant me some kind of other-worldly power, but it never happened.
Except when I was 18 -- on the night my father died.
That's the thought that hits me as I enter my mom's bedroom. It's a time capsule from the past 43 years she's lived in this house, with old art projects and gifts from me and my four siblings over the years: Jean Naté perfume bottles from Mother's Days, a Popsicle stick cross covered in dull glitter from Sunday school, a "vase" made from an old Dawn dish detergent bottle that was covered in dry elbow macaroni and spray-painted gold, a pen / pencil holder with hand-drawn pictures that are almost entirely faded. There are also piles of new cards and books and pictures made by all the grand kids who visit on a weekly basis. There's even a ceramic ashtray one of us made Dad, even though he died 25 years ago this year.
This was the last place you saw him alive... a voice in my head says, clear and crisp.
I feel chills up my arms. It's the same voice I heard after Dad and I had dinner together at Ally's Family Restaurant for their all-you-can-eat soup, salad and pizza buffet. It was just the two of us. That might not seem odd on the surface, but Dad and I never spent that kind of time together -- not since I was 5 when we would go swimming on a hot San Diego evening before heading inside to watch The Muppet Show together.
It's not that dad was cold; in fact, he had a huge sense of humor that would send us kids laughing so hard during dinner that we couldn't breathe. But he was also an old-school Italian Catholic father from Depression-era parents. His job was to provide, and so he did. And, if I'm being honest, I wasn't the normal son. I liked comic books and reading and wanted to be a writer, so we didn't have much in common.
I "knew" some things about Dad: He liked bad jokes and was terrible with money so he always handed over his paycheck to Mom; he also couldn't hold his liquor so Mom didn't allow any in the house; he worked as a cigarette distributor and got his packs for free, and after his first heart attack he took to hiding them around the house so that we wouldn't know he still smoked, even though we could smell it through the walls.
I also knew that he'd come from a poor family, but felt like the richest man in the world because he and my Mom had worked together to buy a house with a pool, slide and diving board; every day he'd come home from work, dive in and take nap.
That night at dinner was different because it was just the two of us, and we had a great time talking about my going away to college, his retiring, and a bunch of other really unimportant things. It was nice. Since entering junior high I felt like we never had anything in common, but for the first time things felt different. Like we were moving from father and son and trying to become friends instead.
That night, after dropping him off at home so I could go see Postcards from the Edge with some friends, a thought hit me: This is the last time you're going to see him alive.
It was sudden, strange and it felt stupid. I immediately brushed it aside -- like when you're drinking and the sober part of your brain tells you to stop, but your supposedly conscious brain kicks in "knowing" you can drink more.
Fast forward to 10:17 that night. I'd returned from the film and started watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation when Mom came running into the living room.
"Who's here?" she asked. My sister Mary and I were the only ones still living at home, but we were both awake. I immediately knew something was wrong. "You're father's had a heart attack. Call 911."
I jumped from our brown Lay-Z-Boy, grabbed the receiver to the avocado green, wall-mounted rotary phone and dialed those three emergency numbers that had been drilled into my head since I could speak. The operator immediately asked questions about Dad’s age and weight and things I didn’t know the answers to, so I told her to hold on while I got my mother.
I ran down the hallway into my parents’ bedroom where Mom and Mary were shouting to Dad, trying to get some physical reaction from him while he lay in bed. I told Mom to handle the operator and she immediately left the room as I slipped my hands under my father's body. I knew he needed to be off the bed when the paramedics arrived -- I don't know how I knew, but I did -- and though he was smaller than me he was heavy. Very heavy. I could barely lift him.
Dead weight... I thought, but quickly blocked it out, jerking my body upright then turning around and placing him on the brown / green shag rug. I tried remembering the CPR class I took as a sophomore in high school: open his mouth, move his tongue, make a seal with my mouth and blow twice -- Are you sure it's twice? -- then from two fingers width above the base of his sternum lock fingers, put the heels of my palm on his chest… and pump.
"Dad! Richard's trying to help you," my sister shouted while I worried that I might actually be hurting him. "Dad! Wake up!"
I wanted to tell her to shut up. He was dead. I'd known it. I felt it so clearly when that voice spoke to me. But just then Dad's eyes snapped open and he let out a long, terrifying moan. I fell back as he looked at me, and I saw it: a line of consciousness pass over his eyes, turning them almost grey -- not in color, but in spirit.
I moved back over him, but his eye shot open once more. Life! There was life in him again!
I leaned in to breathe into his mouth one more time, but as I rose up I saw his eyes looking through me and at Mary. I snapped my fingers but it didn't matter; he was still somehow staring at her.
And that’s when the voice in my mind said, Stop. Let him go.
Suddenly, the paramedics rushed into the room, easily lifted my dad's body, carried it down the hall and onto the stretcher. He was rushed to the hospital with my sister and mom in tow, while I stayed behind to call my brother, sisters and our parish priest. But before I did that I returned to my parents' bedroom. I wanted to break things and scream and throw myself into the wall until I was too hurt and tired to move any longer.
And then I saw them: Sitting on the carpet, covered in lint and stray dog hairs were my father's dentures.
I picked them up. They were smooth, cold, and I threw them out...
With that thought I return to the present -- 25 years after the night Dad died. I think about Mom, who later told me that Dad took her hand just before the heart attack hit, and how she'd seen the light leave his eyes just as Mary and I had later on. And though I'm not psychic or have ESP, I wonder if Dad did, or if he knew on some level that he needed to have one last moment with each of us before he left.
And as I think that thought, I taste something: the slight hint of Camel, unfiltered cigarettes -- the ones Dad smoked, and the taste I couldn't get out of my mouth after giving him CPR that night.
It's okay... I hear the voice say. He's okay. You're okay.
A sense of peace and warmth washes over my body. I don't question it. Instead, I smile and leave the bedroom to see what Mom is cooking up for the grand kids.