IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Dad Died While I Was on Hold On The Phone For Him

If only I’d gone home when I'd gotten that first call. If only I’d called him earlier in the day. Maybe he’d still be alive.
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Sue Smith
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If only I’d gone home when I'd gotten that first call. If only I’d called him earlier in the day. Maybe he’d still be alive.
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October marked the tenth anniversary of my father’s death. Death is always difficult to comprehend, but when a parent dies, it feels like a part of you is gone, too. After my father died, I felt totally alone.

My dad chain smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, minimum. Yuck -- I know. When I was young, he had open-heart surgery to have his aorta replaced. The doctor told him if he didn’t quit smoking and change his lifestyle, the replacement valve (which ticked, btw) would only last 10 years. He told his doctor that quitting smoking wasn’t an option for him. He was 42 at the time.

On Columbus Day 10 years later, a phone call woke up me up in the early afternoon. His secretary, Sandy, said he hadn’t showed up for work that day. He didn’t have a cell phone, so Sandy had called the hospitals nearby to see if he’d been admitted. She located him an hour away in Erie, Pennsylvania at St. Vincent’s Hospital. He had a blood clot in his leg. 

I didn’t really know what that meant, but she assured me that the doctors were going to remove it and it wouldn’t be a big deal. Since the guy was always CONSTANTLY sick (honestly, you can’t chain smoke three packs a day for that long and be in good health), I didn’t fly home from New York City. If she’d used the word “aneurysm,” I probably would have.

The next day, I was at my admin job, sitting in front of my green iMac, when my brother called. He’d just gotten off with my dad’s doctor who was pissed because my dad was saying some crazy shit to the hospital staff. He was having psychosis from the medicine they’d given him to reduce the blood clot.

My brother had just talked to my dad five minutes before calling me. He couldn’t get him to calm down, which is why he needed his big sis to step in. I called the hospital and located his room. The nurse placed me on a long hold. It seemed like forever. Then the doctor got on the phone and told me that my dad had just died. He died while I was on the phone with him. That bastard.

I went home to Pennsylvania feeling guilty. I was too late. I struggled with that guilt for a while. If only I’d gone home when Sandy had first called. If only I’d called him earlier in the day. Maybe he’d still be alive.

As his only relatives, my brother and I planned his funeral, cleaned out his house, and help settle his estate. That stuff wasn’t fun. I had nightmares, anxiety, and emotional trauma for several years afterward.

The hospital sent my dad’s possessions home in a clear plastic bag that said PATIENT’S BELONGINGS. In it were his white sneakers, Lee jeans, and toe tag. He’d been wearing them just a day earlier and now I’d never see him again. There were so many signs of his life all around me that it was hard to believe he was just gone forever. One day back in NYC, I saw a man carrying a PATIENT’S BELONGINGS bag on the subway and had a panic attack. That’s the kind of shit I was dealing with.

I felt so alone and angry. I drank and snorted blow to make those feelings go away. I was blacking out every night to forget that my dad was dead. I fell over a lot. I have scars. I ended up in jail because I was literally falling down drunk.

But I couldn’t avoid my feelings. When I passed out at night, I had nightmares that my dad was still alive. We’d buried him alive and he was trying to escape. Over and over again, I’d have those nightmares. I got to a point that I was so miserable I didn’t care whether I lived or died. 

I eventually started caring about myself a little and decided I didn’t want to waste my life any more, so I got sober.

My dad’s death made me realize that life is short. He died out of the blue when he was just 52. We could go at any time so it’s pointless to waste your life being unhappy. Fuck that.

After I quit drinking, I realized that my dad might have died, but that didn’t mean I had to. I had a second chance at life. I started pursuing comedy and writing. Today, my life is really inconsistent, but I’m happy. I’ve built something for myself and I see it growing every year. I think maybe he’d be proud.

When my dad first died, I missed him every day. As the years went on, those feelings lessened. I still think about him, but the pain and the loss aren’t as prevalent.

If you’re experiencing the recent loss of a parent, I want to tell you this: It gets easier. Eventually it won’t be so painful. You won’t feel cheated out of time with them. You won’t feel like no one understands what you’re going through. That loss won’t feel like a stabbing pain every day. Eventually it will be a dull throb, and then it won’t be a pain, but a fondness when you realize your parent is always with you. You’ll hear a Fleetwood Mac song and feel connected to them.

Right now, I’m sitting at Intelligentsia Coffee in Silverlake, on vacation with my boyfriend. And just after I had that thought, about how much Fleetwood Mac makes me feel connected to my dad, a blonde girl walked by my table. And she was wearing a Fleetwood Mac T-shirt.