Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Flashback: Father’s Heart Attack and the Struggle to Keep Composure.

[Fifty years of memories for my kids and grandchildren].

On July 4, 1966 we took Mother and Father along with our kids to a picnic in a nearby forest preserve. I thought I had never seen Father look so frail. He was only 68, not old as people lived even in those days but there was a frightening air of being enfeebled about him. He sat seemingly exhausted in a camp chair, smoking his pipe, reflecting, watching his grandchildren frolic. Mother, 70 and Lillian, 36 chatted and I, age 38, scampered briefly with our kids—Tom, 6, Mary, 5 and Michael, 3--through some trails in the forest, a bucolic setting only a few miles from Chicago. It had been a hot day but the preserve was cool, the food sumptuous and as the afternoon turned late, we all sensed the joy of being together. As it turned out, it was the last day that Father spent with his entire family.

We went to our houses—Mother and Father in the family home in the Edison Park area of northwest Chicago, Lillian and I to our house in nearby Park Ridge. We had a bite of late dinner and I was lounging on the floor, playing with the kids with the television on when the phone rang.

“Tom,” said Mother, “you should come right over here. I think your Father has had a heart attack. We’ve called Conley.” In those days of yore, family physicians not only made house calls to favored patients, they were embedded with families. The Conley brothers were longtime physicians in Park Ridge (where both lived) and went by their first two initials. T. E. (for Thomas Edward) delivered me. H. H. (for Henry Harold) was our internist.

They had come from a long line of Irish physicians from the South Side. In a never-ending web of happenstance coincidences that seems to revolve about our family and its inter-relationships, the father of the Conley brothers, Dr. T. J., had a nurse and midwife at his side named Alice Breen. She, like all midwives, delivered far more children than did he; that self-same Alice Breen, it astonishes me to imagine the coincidence even now, was nee Cleary—Alice Cleary, the sister of my grandfather Tom Cleary the marble-layer who described to me the city burning from one end to another in October, 1871 and who indoctrinated me on why Republicans are no damn good. His kid sister, Alice, who saw the city burn as did her brother Tom, agreed on these political fundamentals. And the web of Irish coincidence extended long after H. H. had departed—when Fr. Ignatius McDermott recalled the Conleys from the litany of South Side Irish—“they were,” he said, “T. E., H. H., ha-ha and hee-hee.” But it was the connection with Addie Cleary Breen that fused our relationship.

Breen, her Irishman husband (his first name unknown to me), came over here reportedly to help dig the Sanitary & Ship canal, the 28-mile stretch that links the south branch of the Chicago river to the Des Plaines river and which was used to permanently reverse the flow of the Chicago river in 1900, sending sewerage south into the Illinois river rather than Lake Michigan: which would be a marvelous feat even now notwithstanding it was done 107 years ago. The reason for Breen’s disappearance from his wife and small son was never disclosed to me (perhaps I was too young then and am still even now to hear the terrible details: whether from drink, inconstancy, early death, all three or only one of the three) but Alice, called “Addie” by children too young to lisp her correct name “Aunt Alice,” was an indomitable figure in Evanston. Why Evanston? It had a connection in some way with the Canal.

She was a nurse who also rented rooms to Irish workers on the Canal: presumably where she first met Breen. At any rate, the linkage of Addie Breen, the indispensable nurse and midwife to Conley pere, solidified the relationship Father and Mother had with his sons, the Conley brothers, for more than 40 years, principally H. H.—from Mother’s pregnancy to my delivery (although that was by T. E.) and H. H. again through all the assorted colds, flu, bone breakages and sprains, through my paternal grandmother’s death all the way up to my mother’s death and even after until H. H.’s retirement.

He was a doctor who made home calls from hell: at 12:30 a.m. when I was wracked with fever and near pneumonia at age 12, to Mother’s bedside when she had bouts of colitis, to bicycle spills that prompted seemingly hemorrhaged bleeding, to knife cuts when Mother unsuccessfully cut an apple, to one day when, believe it or not, she sank down in an easy chair only to be plunged by an open scissors left carelessly there, to grandmother’s heart pains which were indigestion. H. H. was a grump but a definite lover of the family. For a full 30 years, I would look up from bed and see his round, bespectacled face. When they brought me home as a baby and I was screaming with colic as Father was sure I needed the last rites, through grade school when I seemingly caught every cold germ in the school, he was there. When I was four, wondering where I came from, I was told by Mother that the doctor had delivered me in his satchel one day when he came calling. A week later when I had a fever and he came to prescribe—and he left to confer with my parents—I checked his bag in hopes of finding a baby brother there. There was none; nor baby sister either.

We knew all his hobbies—foremost of which was a love of circuses. Each Spring H. H. would take his vacation and join Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey, the Greatest Show on Earth, at Baraboo, Wisconsin where it had been wintering. And with it he would start out. He was Emmett Kelly, Sr.’s best friend and his house had a large painting of him: Kelly having been the master clown, with a lamentably sad face “weary Willie”—an ill-begotten tramp. I have never particularly liked clowns—particularly since John Wayne Gacy had been one but Kelly was an original and H. H. knew him and his family for years. H. H. was also a wonder to me as a kid because at his home in Park Ridge he had a monkey, a gift from the ringmaster in Baraboo.

I visited him for hay fever shots; he prescribed for my early asthma. In those days the internist did seemingly everything—prescribe for colds, sore throat, wrapped your ankle with tight bandages after you took a tumble, consulted on abdominal pains most generally without referring you to a specialist (internists’ views were decisive: “I think the pain is from the pizza you ate this noon which you washed down with warm Coke …the bowel irregularity suffered during Christmas vacation is undoubtedly due to the tense life you’ve been leading at college : lighten up!”).

When I arrived and I saw H. H.’s car in the driveway, I was comforted. Father was sitting in a red chair (which I now have on my sun-porch), breathing with deep breaths as H. H. had the stethoscope to his chest while at the same time taking his blood pressure. H. H. was two years older than Father (70) and had no thought of retiring. He pulled a hypodermic from a tube and injected it deep into Father’s forearm, pursing his lips as it went in: Father, his eyes closed, had no reaction.

“Of course,” H. H. said in a loud pronouncement for my ears yet without acknowledging my arrival, “this guy here has been his own worst enemy. He’s had no physical for years; amazing he’s still with us. Why is that, Harold? Why no physical?”

“Because,” Father gasped, eyes still shut, trying to catch his breath, “I—don’t—want—to—pay—you—for—bad—news.”

“Isn’t that the craziest thing you ever heard of?” H. H. asked me as he continued working on Father, trying to egg me on to agree with him. Well, I was not going to side with him in criticism of Father when Father was looking at me for understanding, as he struggled for breath.

“What do we do now?” Mother asked, like me trying to avoid a debate as the patient seemed to be sagging. (H. H. told me later he was doing this for two reasons: (a) to keep Father conscious and reacting and (b) to keep himself from panicking: as a man older than Father, he was direly affected by Father’s condition.

“Hold this,” said H. H., signaling my mother, “I want you to hold this needle straight and keep it straight in his arm. Where’s your phone?”

Mother and I followed the ambulance to Resurrection Hospital which Father had raised money for as a vice chairman of its initial finance committee and in a swoop similar to what we have always seen since on “E. R.” white-clad people surrounded the wheeled cart and rushed him in full running strides down the hall while we flew behind him, no one paying attention to us to ward us off. The door of a glaringly-lighted room opened, the stretcher went in, the door closed and an attendant led us to an anteroom. We sat for an interminable period. I peppered Mother with questions not only for my own keen interest but because I thought it was best to keep her talking; she was, after all, two years older than Father.

“I was watching television,” she said. “He was doing the usual—in his den saying the rosary. He has been lately in the habit of kneeling down to say his prayers and he was in that position when it hit him. I can always hear him pray the rosary because he does it aloud. It’s always been a comfort to me to hear; I say mine to myself in bed but he likes always to--. Suddenly the prayers stopped. I thought something had happened and was starting to go to the den when he came to me, his face grey, ashen. I knew what happened before he said it. He said `I can’t breathe.’ I said, `do you have a pain in your chest?’ He said `no-no.’ He sat down and then he said, `yes-yes, I do have a severe pain right here’ pointing to his chest `and a pain down my left arm.’ I ran to the phone and got H. H. and called you. I’ll tell you he was at our door seems like five minutes later.

“H. H. is right, you know. I could never get him to go to the doctor. It’s fatalism isn’t it, that strange idea that if he doesn’t go he won’t have to consider bad news? He’s been failing; I haven’t told you this but you saw him at the picnic; he was actually better today than he had been for the past week or so. Will you say the rosary now with me so he makes it? I don’t know what I’m going to do if something happens to him. Do you have your rosary? Yes, you do. Good boy. Let’s start. What mystery do we have today—it’s Sunday. Can you remember?”

She started to weep, almost convulsively. I wanted her to keep her mind fastened on duties, not grief.

Listen: you taught me this. Sunday is Glorious—that’s today. Tomorrow is Joyful; Tuesday is Sorrowful; Wednesday is Glorious and the series starts over. I’ll start: “The First Glorious Mystery: the Resurrection. Our Father…”

She stopped weeping and spoke pointedly.

“No-no-no! We always start with the Apostles Creed, then the Our Father and the three Hail Marys for faith, hope and charity. I hope you haven’t been neglecting them before you begin the mysteries because then the rosary--.”

I said: I hope you’re not going to say the rosary doesn’t count if you neglect the faith, hope and charity part.

“I most certainly am. Is that what they taught you at St. John’s?”

Listen to me, my dear heart. We’re together on this. Let’s do it the way you taught me by starting out with the Creed. I’ll start off: “I believe in God--.”

“That’s not how! You forgot! First, we bless ourselves with the crucifix of the rosary and kiss it before we begin, as you remember. We switch at the end of the Mysteries as you remember. You start with the Resurrection.”

Yes, my dear. The boss of bosses as you were with Father and at J. Walter Thompson.

We began as she ordered. Praying seemed to calm both of us. We were saying it aloud as a comfort. Aquinas said vocal prayer associates the body with the interior prayer of the heart. We were just getting to the mystery of the Visitation when H. H. came to us, in a white surgical coat.

We stopped praying and stood up. He went to her; I was a non-person.

“Now listen to me, Fran. I’m going to give you the fullest details and after you ask all the questions you want, you are to go home and go to bed. You’re no kid yourself; just as old as me. And you are not going to help him by having a stroke or heart attack yourself, do you hear me?”

She said meekly, “yes, doctor.”

“As for you,” he said to me, “I want you to take your mother home and come back here.” To her: “He’s [meaning me] young enough to camp out here tonight because we don’t quite know--. We are still studying and examining. Not you, Fran. You’re going home, do you understand me? He’s driving you home.” Back to me: “If you can take off work tomorrow, do it.”

To us both: “He’s had a major—and I mean major, a massive—heart attack. No use kidding ourselves.”

We asked all the questions; it was 12:30 a.m.

He said, “I’m going home.” To me: “I have a brochure down in my car that outlines facts for families of a heart patient. Come down with me and pick it up.” To Mother: “ I have to work tomorrow. Fran, will you give me a smile? Com’on. No, that’s not good enough! That’s the ticket! Great! Tom will keep you informed and I’m sure you both can see him when the doctors say you can see him but not for long periods. Now, young lady, I have known you for forty years. You’ve always been the anchor and you are going to continue to be. I want you two to stay close through all this. I’ll be in close touch. We’re doing everything we possibly can for him and I’m seeing to that. I was chief of staff here and T. E. was chief of staff here before me and you know we both are as dedicated to you as we can be ever since Addie was my father’s nurse. You have nothing to worry about concerning lack of care. Now you finish your rosary. If I had more time I’d say it with you but I have to make rounds tomorrow morning—and rounds start with him, here, in this hospital with Harold my first call. Do I get another smile? Huh? That’s the girl.”

A kiss and he held her as a father: unprofessional but highly comforting.

As we went down in the elevator he said: “I want you here because he may die tonight. I don’t want her here or we’ll have another heart attack. Do you know that she has serious heart trouble?”

No, she never told me.

“I figured that.” He picked up a brochure at the desk. “I invented the car thing to tell you this. Take it upstairs and keep her calm. Get her home soon and come back here. You can sleep on the couch; I’ll tell the nurses.”

And he was gone .

When I returned, she said, “My God, he said a massive heart attack, didn’t he?”

I said, The second Glorious Mystery…Your turn.

She said, “The second Glorious Mystery--the Ascension. Our Father…”

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