It is August 2017. My family and I are at the cottage we rent annually in Ludington, Michigan. My sister is tanning at the beach (of course). My mom is cleaning upstairs (of course). Standing at the sink, I put in my contacts and get ready to join my sister.
My phone buzzes. It says “Dad – Mobile.” I pick up the phone. I hear noises. I don’t know what’s going on. I hear the sound of my dad opening and closing his mouth. He is too choked up; words don’t come out. I only hear whimpering. Eventually, when he composes himself, he says all in one breath, “Greta, I’ve been admitted to the hospital. I’m in the ICU, the Intensive Care Unit.” Even in his current state, he is considerate enough to tell me what ICU means. My eyes well up. I don’t know what to do. The knot in my throat is too big to talk. All I can manage is “Wow, ok.” He replies, “I need you to tell Mom. Hugh left work. He’s here. My brother is on his way.” I choke out, “I’ll have Mom call you” because I can’t say any more. I can’t stand to hear him like this. He ends the call with, “Love you, bye.” We hang up. I will remember those few minutes forever.
My father has Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, a chronic heart condition where the walls of the heart are unusually thick, reducing blood flow. Occasionally, the electrical system of the heart malfunctions and results in a life-threatening heart rhythm called an arrhythmia. Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy entails a possible shortened life and a high risk of stroke during arrhythmia events. This condition cannot be cured.
I stare at myself in the mirror. What just happened? The tears roll down my cheeks, dripping one by one off my chin. I grab the counter to steady myself. I feel out of breath. All logic is gone. I think about the two entire hours it will take to get to him. I wonder why he cries when usually he is the strong one. I remember all of the nasty things I’ve said to him and regret every single one of them. I yell at myself internally for the hostility I treat him with. Why do I have to be such a jerk all the time? Foreign sounds leave me. My face is red. I look around, frantically searching for something to hold on to, something to anchor me, something to keep me sane.
My blurred vision lands on my toothbrush. I need to brush my teeth. Putting toothpaste on my toothbrush calms me; it’s such a normal act. I focus on moving the toothbrush across my teeth. Forward, back, forward, back. I look at myself in the mirror and will myself to stop. Stop thinking, stop crying, stop aching.
I compose myself. I have to tell Mom. I grab some toilet paper and hastily wipe my face. The redness in my face subsides. The sniffles are leaving. My eyes dry out. I walk up the stairs to find my mom. I report the information to her, showing no emotion. I can’t let her see how affected I am by the news. I give her a quick hug and leave.
I don’t know how I’d get through it without my family. We support each other, we cry together, we hug each other. Because of them, I am able to move forward. Because of them, I am able to see I’m not alone. Because of them, I am able to succeed despite the worry ravaging my thoughts. I wonder what it would be like if I came from a dysfunctional family. There wouldn’t be money to pay for medical bills. There wouldn’t be support for one another. Above all, there wouldn’t be abiding love. For this reason, I give thanks for the family I have.
He has been hospitalized for the arrhythmia three times. This is my reality. My day goes from ordinary to heartbreak in a matter of seconds. If I’m at school, I do all I can not to break-down in front of my classmates. If I’m at home, I walk to my room to be alone. If I’m with friends, I pretend I didn’t see the text or answer the call.
As for what it’s like day to day, I just try to avoid thinking about the situation. I figure if I can eschew the thoughts, they can’t upset me. At family dinners and events, we avoid talking about the plight unless there is new information. Dodging the subject allows us to enjoy ourselves without the shadow of sadness. Yet neglecting the issue doesn’t always work out. I fall into old habits and take my dad for granted. I spend less time with him once again. But all it takes is one text or call to bring the chaos back.
When I hear an ambulance, I wonder. When my phone buzzes, my heart drops. Each time, it dredges up the emotions I work so hard to keep away. I think of the things I could never say, I could never admit. My pride stopped me. I love him.