Friday, February 23, 2007

Flashback: “Don’t Die, Hon—and That’s an Order.”

[Memories from more than fifty years for my kids and grandchildren].

The night Father was brought into Resurrection hospital, I spent the night dosing on the hard-wood couch in the anteroom; at dawn with a crick in my back, I went to a vending machine for coffee and inquired at the desk. I was allowed a peek into his room; he was sleeping under an oxygen tent with machine lights popping on and off. This was long before the era of bypass surgery which I myself experienced under relatively calm conditions almost forty years later. I talked things over with the resident physician on the floor; as far as could be ascertained, he was not in immediate danger of death but very noncommittal. I phoned Mother, reported what I had seen and told her I was going home to shower, shave and change my clothes. We agreed to meet in the hospital anteroom at 10 a.m.

When she entered the anteroom, she looked a lot better than she had the night before—less agitated with more acceptance. No sooner had we gulped coffee from the vending machine than Conley appeared. An embrace for a greeting, then his diagnosis. Father will never work again; if he’s lucky—very lucky—he will eventually leave the hospital…but there is no telling when. The heart attack was truly massive; so massive that it was anomalous he was still alive. He has not been a particularly good patient; he detests the oxygen tent, punches his fist at it. His emotional upset is a great worry because anything that sets him off could well kill him. Conley was in a quandary: to tell him this could induce panic which could kill; not to do so could allow him to fret excessively which could kill.

“My God, is it that precarious?” she asked.


“That means he may never leave the hospital, may die here.”

“Well,” said Conley, “I am not a heart specialist but I have seen a lot of cases like this. The heart is a wildly unpredictable thing. There are people given up for a fatal—the next attack—who are still around. But there’s no use kidding ourselves, he’s critical and if he goes home…and I say if…he will have to live a very sedentary existence. Resuming work at his office is entirely out of the question. I have retained a heart guy—Bill Mammoser, who will talk to you in a few minutes. Well down the road there will be surgery to alleviate the strain on the heart, with veins taken from legs and arms to send the blood re-circulating and remove traffic on the blockage. It’s not here yet. Before you see Mammoser, you should go in to see Harold. I don’t have to tell you to avoid any kind of agitation. It’s critical. I’m not going in because he knows I’m a scold.”

We entered the room; he was awake, heavy dark circles under his eyes. He said nothing, noticed us and drove his fist into the oxygen tent. All my life I had heard them call themselves “Hon” for Honey.

“Hon, I don’t want you to do that,” said Mother.

“I hate it.”

“I know you hate it but it’s keeping you alive, allowing you to breathe more easily.” She blew him a kiss.

“I can’t even kiss you with this thing. Rotten godamn thing.”

“I don’t want you to say these things because you’re not to get excited.”

“Don’t care, Hon.”

“Listen to me. You do care. Or you ought to. The important thing is that we have you and you have us and an oxygen tent is not going to get in the way. Where did you get so foolish as to let something like an oxygen tent which is for your own good anger you? Don’t you want to continue to be with us and talk about things with us getting your thinking about things?”


“Of course you do. Did you say hello to your son? He slept on a hard bench in the anteroom all night because he loves you.”

“Hello, Tom. I’m sorry you had to do that”—and he began to weep softly.

“Listen to me,” she said. “Listen to me. You stop that this minute. I won’t have it. You have your mind—and it’s a great mind. You have your sense of humor and it’s a great sense of humor. You have your insights which are great insights. You have your son and he’s a great kid. You have me; well, maybe I’m not great but pretty good. I passed a room down the hall where a man is like a vegetable, waiting to die. You have your faculties. Did you ever think about thanking God for that? Did you ever think of saying a prayer of thanks? I’ll bet you haven’t. I will not have this anger!”

He writhed in pain and the machine burped a red light sending a stream of medical attendants rushing in, brushing us aside.

“I—want—her!” he said waving his arm at Mother.

“Move over to him, missus,” said a very young doctor with peach-fuzz on his cheeks, “while we work”

They put a kind of clapper on his chest, contracted it and his body convulsed; his eyes stayed open.

“Hon…” he said.

She said: “Yes.”

“Hon—don’t—die—before--me. Don’t—you—die and that’s an order.”

The peach fuzz guy smiled as he worked, repeating: “that’s an order.”

“Of course I’m not going to die,” she said. “I have to be around to take care of you.”

Afterward, Mamosser, the heart specialist, said, “he had another serious one while you were there. I don’t know how many more he can take.”

Mother said, “then he must have the last rites—conditional, of course.”

“He had it last night when he had another spell.”

“You didn’t tell us he had another spell.”

“2:30 a.m. I was with him; I’m afraid I was too busy to wake your son in the anteroom. We were pretty busy around this bed last night. I called the chaplain who gave him the last sacraments.”

I wish you had awakened me, I said. That’s what I was there for.

“Believe me, we had our hands full.”

How long has he got?

“I can’t tell you. He might stabilize and be around for quite a while.”

Days? Weeks?

“Maybe weeks.”

“He’ll never leave the hospital then,” she concluded.

“My opinion is no.”

Another doctor came to us. “He’s asking for Mrs. Roeser.”

We went in.

“Sorry for that interruption,” he said. “Feeling o.k., Hon?”

She said, “tip-top. How are you?”

“Going to take your advice. See, when I get worked up that’s when the bad stuff happens.”

“You got it. Listen to me and you’ll be okay. I’ve been telling you that for 43 years.”

“You think I’ll ever get out of here?”

She said, “I know so.”

“What’s happening in the world outside, Son?”

Martin Luther King is tearing up the Democratic party. Lyndon Johnson seemingly can’t control him. He’s ripping at the fabric of the big cities which are run by Democrats.

“There’s going to be a political realignment. The blue-collars in the postage-stamp-sized neighborhoods are going to come over to our side and the rich—those rich on inheritance—are going to the other side. We’ll win the presidency in 1968—but with whom?”

Nixon, I suppose.

“God I hope not. I look at that man and see disaster. He has no firm consonants.”

But there’s nobody else—Rockefeller isn’t viable.

“What about Reagan? Doing a great job in California.”

He’ll try but won’t get it.

“Too bad. I want to live long enough to see Reagan president.”

Mother said: “You will.”

“Hon, I don’t want to be rude but I can’t keep my eyes open.”

“Good night,” said Mother.

I’m staying in the anteroom, I said.

“No. I don’t want you to! Go home to your family.”

Tonight will be the last night. I’ve got to go to work tomorrow.

“Let him do what he wants,” said Mother to him. “Go to sleep now. I will blow you a kiss through the tent.”

“Isn’t it awful?”

“Not awful,” she said. “It keeps you going.”

“You think?

“I know so.”

And so it went--from July 5 to August 9, 1966 when all ended. But we talked a lot before.


  1. Tom-
    I'm telling you that your work on this is important, and your memories will be of interest and help to many. Please consider publishing. I'm sure your friends will be glad to contibiute "seed money - insurance" to cover you, if I/we are wrong. Keep 'em coming!

  2. I second the motion: you must publish these entries as your memoirs. It would be a shame to allow all of these excellent posts to evaporate into cyberspace at some future date when the blog is discontinued.