Friday, September 14, 2012

September 13, 2008

On September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall near Galveston, Texas. Its 120 mph winds and rain reached 275 miles from its center. It ripped roofs off of houses, knocked down trees and power lines, blew the windows out of skyscrapers and exploded a giant hole in my heart.

On September 11, 2008, my dad called me from Conroe, Texas to tell me that the trip he and my mother had planned to come out and see us would have to be postponed, the airports were closed. I was confused because of the date. Was it because of terrorists? "No," my dad laughed, "I don't think the terrorists have figured out how to control the weather yet. It's because they're expecting Ike to touch down. They're extra careful about these things since Katrina." My parents lived on a flood plain and I begged them to consider going to stay with friends. "We'll be fine," said my dad. "I want to be here to move the sand bags if I need to. Don't worry about us. We'll catch a flight out when this blows over." We talked a while longer, a rare treat. My dad didn't like chatting on the phone. We talked about a passage in the Gospel of John. I don't remember which verse, specifically. I just remember it was John because we both loved that book with its non-linear perspective, its mystery and its poetic leaning. "Give my babies a kiss from me, and we'll see you soon," he said. "My babies." That's what he called his grandchildren. It irritated me irrationally. I hung up a little relieved that the mad cleaning frenzy could wait a few days before they came to see us in our tiny house.

I checked the weather throughout the night Friday and into Saturday morning. Ike made landfall around 2:00 Saturday morning. I tried to call my parents, knowing I wouldn't be able to get through. Everyone was trying to call their parents. Jammed phone lines, phone lines down, no cellular service. Not that my parents had cell phones. I prayed and assumed they were all right. Saturday afternoon with my babies in the back seat, I drove downtown to pick up my husband from work. We chattered about replacing our fence, I'd found someone giving away old fence boards. My husband answered my phone when it rang because I was driving.

It was my sister. I listened to his end of the conversation: "Oh.... oh... OK... well where are they now? ...  All right... she's driving, I'll have her call you."
I was pissed. I had assumed that my parents had jumped a plane somewhere and were on their way to our house. They sometimes had a habit of arriving unannounced. I thought about the toddler mess and un-dusted shelves and panicked. "Where are they? Don't tell me they're here!"
"No, they're not here. Just drive home."
"Then where are they? Are they OK?"
"Just get home."
"No, tell me now. What's going on?" My panic had shifted. I didn't like how calmly my husband was speaking. I didn't like that he wasn't telling me anything.
"I don't want to tell you while you're driving."
"I'm fine. Tell me."
"Your dad had a heart attack."
I don't remember the rest of the drive home. Only fighting the urge to throw up and the hot, pounding, ringing of disbelief in my head.

I sat in the garage and called my sister. We wept together and tried to figure out what to do. The airports were closed. My mother had no cell phone. All my sister had was the front desk phone number of the intensive care unit of the hospital where they were. I called over and over and over, trying to reach my mom. Phone lines still jammed. All I could think of was my mother, afraid and alone in a hospital waiting room with nothing to eat, nowhere to turn and her family stuck thousands of miles away. Her worst nightmare come true.

Later that evening, I finally did get through to her. Dad had been out in the hurricane, shoring up some things in their yard, moving some debris. He could never sit still in a crisis. A tree had fallen across their driveway, hitting their car. He came inside and told my mom he thought he was having a heart attack. The car was ruined, the driveway was blocked, the roads to their subdivision were impassable, so they started out on foot to the hospital. A stranger in a pick-up truck stopped for them, picked them up and got them as far as he could before his truck got stuck in the flooded streets. They walked some more in the wind and rain until another stranger picked them up, a doctor as it would happen, who took them to the hospital.

My phone rang Sunday morning during church. My mom had no idea what time or what day it was, just that the doctors had discovered a hole in the septum of my dad's heart. They would have to operate and repair it. Sunday night, instead of boarding a flight to visit me in Seattle, my dad boarded a life flight on a stretcher, heavily sedated and in critical condition. The hospital chartered an emergency flight to get him to San Antonio for open heart surgery. The hurricane had knocked out the power in the hospital, too. The generators were too overtaxed to be reliable during surgery. The airports were closed. I sat all night on the couch, nursing my baby, watching mindless TV, knitting a useless shawl, uttering wordless prayers from that place where anguish and fear live deep beneath the ability to verbalize.

Early in the morning I got the call. He made it. He was too unstable to operate. Congestive heart failure, wait and see. I took my kids to the park and sat on a stump. "My dad is dying," I wanted to tell the other moms as they chatted about shoes for pre-walkers and the best baby food mills. "There's a hole in his heart," I wanted to tell the birds that chirped obliviously around me. "He can't breathe on his own," I wanted to tell the sun that twinkled in the beautiful fall sky. "I can't get to him, the airports are closed," I wanted to tell the leaves that were just starting to change their colors. I said nothing and stared at my phone and let the kids play in the sandbox.

The airports finally opened. My sister went first because she didn't have any children. My brother went next because his wife would take care of his children. Then it was my turn and I would bring my children with me. We stayed in a hotel near the hospital and ran errands for my mom. Dad was stronger by then, but not yet ready for surgery. They released him to the hotel. FEMA vouchers paid for them to stay there. My dad fell in the lobby when he came down for breakfast. My daughter cried, the hotel employees scurried to find a wheelchair, hotel guests looked on with morbid curiosity, I watched as if from above myself. This was someone else's life. My mom sent us home. FEMA wasn't covering our stay, we were useless, they didn't need our help. My son called hotels "hospitals" for a year.

The morning Dad went in for surgery, my brother and sister thought to call and speak to him before he went in. I didn't. I didn't know I could do such a thing. It was so early. He made it through the surgery. One of the best heart surgeons in the country patched the hole in his heart. Two days later, on a Saturday afternoon, my mom called and told me that the doctors thought he was making good progress and they were going to take him off the ventilator the next day. She sounded a little more rested, hopeful, excited even. "I held his hand and sang to him. I told him I loved him. He's non-responsive, but I know he heard me. I'm almost positive he heard me. He moved a little." I passed on the good news to people who called to check, I went to sleep that night on the couch, lighter than I'd felt in weeks. I slept so hard I didn't hear the phone in the wee hours the next morning.

At about 4:00 AM on Sunday, October 5, 2008, the hurricane made landfall again. I missed the call because I was asleep. It woke me up but I didn't get there in time. I had to call her back. She was crying so hard I didn't recognize her voice. "He's gone. He didn't make it. He's gone." I hung up the phone and called a friend to go pick her up. I sat in the dark with my baby on my lap and the phone in my hand and I didn't know what to do. I threw up. I wondered if I should go back to sleep. I wondered if there was some kind of mistake. I sat for an hour, not wanting to wake up my husband or my daughter. Numb and empty, nursing my baby back to sleep. It finally occurred to me that my husband might want to know. I would have to say it out loud. I went up to the bedroom where they were sleeping and nudged my husband. "He's dead," was all I could say.

Four years later, I can't help but remember the hurricane. The sun shines today, the leaves are thinking about changing, the birds are hopping around the trees. My baby and toddler are full-fledged kids now. My son knows the difference between a hotel and a hospital. My daughter doesn't cry over her Papa any more. My mom is on a train tour of the Rockies with friends right now. None of us live on a flood plain any more. It sometimes seems unreal that we weathered that particular storm. But we did. The waters have receded, the power has been restored, the debris has been cleared and repairs have been made, the airports have been reopened and we can fly again. I always think of my dad on this day and tell him silently: "Don't worry about me. I'll catch a flight out when all this blows over."


  1. I'm so very sorry. This is so poignant and beautifully written. I'm so sorry you lost your dad. Sending you much love.

  2. Oh TangleLou. I'm so so sorry. Sending you extra hugs today.

  3. This post just arrived in my inbox. I'm holding you in my thoughts, Lou. Take care, take it easy.

    Sending loving thoughts,


  4. This post brings to the forefront of my emotions my own dad, who passed away not quite three months ago. I was fortunate enough to see him in February, when he was still doing relatively well, after many months of very serious post-surgery health issues). It brings enormous comfort to me to know that my dad lives on . . . and so does yours.

  5. Oh Hun, hugs on their way to you! I am sorry that no matter how many times the storm blows over it always seems to circle back round to knock you off your feet.

    Even though I was only eight I too remember when I was told, it never leaves you!

  6. Love and hugs to you. Much love and big big big hugs. What a beautiful way to tell a tragic story, Lou, I hope it helps you to put it into words like this.

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  8. I was four when my dad died. I woke up to voices, and my Mom and all my grandparents were in the house, in the middle of the night. I, of course, asked where Dad was, and my Mom told me he had died in an accident. I said okay, went back to bed, and threw up.

    Still seems like the appropriate response.

    This post is beautiful. I keep reading it and loving it. Thank you so much for sharing.

  9. "The morning Dad went in for surgery, my brother and sister thought to call and speak to him before he went in. I didn't. I didn't know I could do such a thing."

    This is only one piece that stuck out to me. There were so many. Reading this today has filled my heart in the way that I needed. You are very brave to share it. Thank you.

  10. How sweet and sad. SO generous of you to share this, S. Four years later, it still seems fresh. I can't shake the beautiful image of you nursing your baby while worrying about your parents, over and over. Bug hugs to you!! xoxo

  11. I am so sorry. You really wrote his passing. All the silly, ridiculous, and human things that happen in the midst of tragedy that maybe we think are wrong (in the moment)...they are instead so very real and part of our individual stories.

  12. Thank you everyone for your kind words, memories, hugs, favorite parts, etc. I appreciate all of you so much. You are infinitely tolerant of my ramblings.

  13. What a beautiful piece about such a hard, hard thing. As always, the details you give us bring it all to life.


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