“We need to go the hospital today. No rush,” my mom said.
“Ok,” I answered, still smooshing the sleep from my eyes.
I stumbled out of bed and did the normal summer morning things, in no particular hurry. As I ate my breakfast and generally lollygagged around, though, I slowly noticed that the adults were acting weird.
Nana and Bumpa were there, of course. My dad’s parents had come down to Houston from Illinois in order to help out while Dad was in the hospital. Other family had come from far away, too, which was great because we didn’t get to see them very often. Today, they were off, though.
Dad just needed to have an operation. He had cancer, yeah, but all he needed was a bone marrow transplant and he’d be fine. The odds weren’t great; I knew that. Dad liked his math and told us kids that he was 50/50 on surviving. But, come on, math is one thing but this was Dad. Dad was tough, he was strong, the downside of the math didn’t apply to him.
My brother was oddly quiet and compliant that summer morning as we finally gathered our stuff and piled into our mustard yellow 1981 Volvo for the 45 minute drive to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Weird, I thought.
I hadn’t been to the hospital very much over the previous few weeks. The last time I had seen Dad, he was intubated and pretty weak. He couldn’t talk, could barely move. But this was Dad; he’d be fine. I hadn’t stayed at his bedside for very long because…well, because I was an 11 year old boy and just didn’t have much to say. As I turned to leave, he grabbed my hand and squeezed it. I said goodbye, as in “I’ll see you in another day or two when they take that thing out of your mouth.” He looked at me and said goodbye in a different way, speaking as loudly as he could with his eyes.
On this morning, we walked through the bleached, depressing hospital hallways, stopping short of Dad’s room. That’s when Mom’s face changed. She looked at my big brother and me and told us. Dad had died during the night. Joel already knew, of course, because he was older and smarter. But I was slower on the uptake.
It hit me like a ton of bricks. Dad was too strong to die. He was a pilot, an astronaut candidate. He had been an eagle scout, an outdoorsman, a strong and fit and determined man. Smarter than damn near anybody, he had endured physical challenges with hearty enthusiasm. This was the guy who went running in shorts and a t-shirt during the Alaskan winter and came back with sweat-cicles on his shoulders.
He couldn’t be dead. Yeah, intellectually — whatever that means for an 11 year old boy — I knew Dad could die. But not really. Right?
And I wept. Hard. Right there in the ugly hospital hallway. And Mom held me. She held me until I was done.
In the Volvo on the way home I looked out the window from the back seat at the clouds over the sprawling Houston skyline, letting my mind absorb the shock. “That’s it then. It’s just Mom and Joel and me now. That’s my new reality.”
Thirty years later, much has happened since Dad’s strength gave out. Joel has left us, as have Nana and some other, older relatives. We have new additions to the clan, too, through marriage and birth.
And of course, the wider world has moved on, experiencing triumph and loss and joy and pain and boredom and anger and happiness and all that other stuff of life.
Today, on this thirtieth anniversary of my dad’s death, tragedy — more sudden and brazen — has struck again to 50 or so other families.
When my world was rocked all those years ago, Mom held me. She held me and didn’t let go until I had let it all out. That made all the difference.
My hope is that the families in pain today have someone to hold them. Someone to hold them until they let it all out. It makes all the difference.
I originally wrote this post on June 12, 2016, and put in on Facebook. I’ve re-posted here for archival purposes. It makes reference to the mass shooting in Orlando that occurred on that day.