Dad’s Death Taught Me How to Live

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My dad and me on my baptism ca. 1963

Several weeks ago, a friend observed that I was sending mixed messages on social media. One minute I’m dying and the next minute I’m at a party. He wondered aloud, “Which one is it?” After some reflection, I understood the question and acknowledged how readers of this blog could come to the same conclusion.

With respect to the first part of my friend’s observation, I’ll turn to Mark Twain. When the great 20th-century American humorist heard that a newspaper had published his obituary, the crafty old man quipped that, “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” To paraphrase the author of the classic Huckleberry Finn story, I’m not dying anytime soon.

Last week, my compadres were more direct after I paid a visit to the emergency room. They wondered what was really going on. Although my energy is limited, they remarked that I seem upbeat and continue to do many of the things that I love to do. In many ways, that didn’t make sense to them. My comadre finally blurted out, “How sick are you, Comps?” The answer to that question is a tad bit more complicated.

After a massive heart attack over 8 years ago, doctors diagnosed hat I had congestive heart failure. This means that the heart doesn’t efficiently pump enough blood needed to nourish the body. I’m not alone. According to the American Heart Association, 5.7 million Americans suffer from heart failure and the disease accounts for 1 in 4 deaths in the U.S.

About half of those with heart failure die within 5 years of diagnosis. With a whole bunch of faith and the support of family, friends, and health professionals, my first 7 ½ years living with heart failure was relatively smooth. Earlier this year, the smooth sailing entered choppy waters.

On February 27th, Sandra and I were out to dinner (for my salt monitors, it was a restaurant that prepares no-salt meals for me). While engaged in conversation, I suddenly became dizzy and lightheaded. Before I could finish telling Sandra about how I felt, I passed out. I woke up to Sandra caressing my head and asking, “Eddie, Eddie…are you ok?”

By the time I became fully aware of my surroundings, an ambulance arrived to take me to the emergency room. The ER doctors admitted me into the hospital to do a battery of tests. The next morning, my cardiologist confirmed that my heart started racing and triggered a device inserted into my heart 7 years ago to prevent fatal cardiac arrest. Thankfully, the machine worked.

Over the past 6 months, I’ve been to the ER three times, hospitalized twice, and had umpteen appointments with the cardiologist. I’m also doing an evaluation to determine if I’m a candidate for a heart transplant. That process is almost complete. So far, the findings indicate that I’m pretty healthy for a guy my age, with the exception of my heavily damaged heart.

The short answer to my comadre’s question is that I’m very sick. By itself, the current care plan of eating right, taking prescribed medication, and exercising isn’t working anymore. I need to take more aggressive steps to extend my life. Fortunately, there are options that didn’t exist a generation ago for heart failure patients.

In the past, many people died waiting for a transplant. Technology now allows doctors to place a mechanical pump on the heart so patients can continue with their lives until a new heart is available. Once the evaluation is complete, the cardiac team will decide if I’m a candidate and recommend a course of action.

This brings us to the second part of my friend’s and compadres’ observations. I still go to parties, work with east side students, exercise every day, listen to live music, and enjoy going to dinner and the movies with Sandra. If my heart is that sick, how can I still do these things? Faith and my dad’s final days provide the explanation.

My dad was a tough cookie. He lived through the Great Depression without a father, went to war when he was 16 years old (he served in the U.S. Navy during WWII), worked 2 and 3 jobs to support his family of 6 kids, and sent us all to college. I learned all I needed to know about being a man from him.

He taught me how take care of a family, work hard, be a gentleman, maintain a vehicle, properly order a drink in a bar, throw a curve ball, and shoot a jump shot. He’s the reason I love to read and have a passion for sports, music, history, and politics. Because of him, I know the proper way to tie a tie, wear a suit, and polish my shoes. He was a man’s man. I can’t avoid the cliche that he’s my hero, because he is.

Dad’s health took a turn for the worse when he was in his mid 50s. He had a heart attack and a series of small strokes over the next 10 years. By his late 60s, he had a major stroke that left him unable to keep his balance or do much more than sit on his easy chair watching TV. The stubborn nature that guided him through tough times prevented him from seeking physical rehab and using a walker, cane, or wheelchair. He was 69 years old when he died twenty-three years ago, bitter about his fate.

His passing was devastating. He loved life and lived it to the fullest. He loved being around people. I was angry at him because it appeared that he had given up on himself. It was all or nothing for him, so he detested being compromised. As I watched him slowly wither away in self-imposed solitude, I learned life’s biggest lesson. I didn’t have to do it all to enjoy a full life.

I made a commitment that I wouldn’t allow my own stubborn nature to get in the way of enjoying life. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful at that most of the time. I was too focused on getting my way on the road to “success.” When my health took a turn for the worse at 46 – 10 years younger than my dad –  I was at a crossroads. Because of my experience with his final days, I chose the road that led to living with my limitations as best as I could. To use a baseball metaphor, I plan to go down swinging.

I’ve written in the past how my faith journey has taught me to accept God’s will. Faith inspires me to live every day to the fullest my energy allows while facing the possibility of a shorter life than expected. Faith has also given me the courage to accept the way my dad lived out his final days. It the end, I now know that it was God’s will. Dad continues to be my greatest teacher. His death taught me how to live.

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