In December, my Dad traveled to the Dominican Republic to walk me down the aisle. Two weeks later, he was running up his basement stairs and felt short of breath. He called 911 and doesn’t remember what happened afterward: his heart valve completely failed and his aorta tore.
The feeling of panic and bile rose up the back of my throat as my brother relayed the limited details from a hospital waiting room six hours away: an emergency surgery was scheduled; it would take five hours to repair the aorta and replace the valve; it was a very risky surgery.
I could do nothing but stare blankly out the window at the heavy snow falling, feeling helpless and trapped. In a desperate attempt to redirect my energy, I ran furiously through the darkness, the sound of my wails dampened by the falling snow, to a place that offers me a great amount of peace. When I reached the willow tree, my gloves and face were caked with frozen snot and tears. In dramatic fashion, I asked the universe for a sign that Dad was going to be okay. A minute later, an otherworldly noise pierced through the silence. It sounded like the crack of a baseball being hit out of the park. A home run.
This was the second emergency surgery he’s had to undergo due to a faulty heart valve – an inherited genetic mutation that can be traced back to polluted drinking water from my Grandma’s generation. We watched him bounce back quickly the first time, so we had high hopes for similar results. Months went by and Dad’s recovery was slow, but steady. Initially, he spent a lot of time sitting in a leather recliner, wrapped in a blanket, exclaiming, “Damn, I feel like an old man!” Six weeks later, he was wearing trendy new glasses and sharing a beer with me.
With all of the excitement and upsets he’s experienced this winter, Dad’s ultimate goal has been to get his life back to normal. It felt appropriate to spend Father’s Day with him in his “happy place” doing what he loves. Our cottage on Fox Lake has been a part of our family for nearly half a century and has been the baseline to our ever-changing lives. Time and schedules go out the window upon entering the peninsula, but there are a few habits we always abide by, such as getting up early and preparing huge breakfasts together, building nightly bonfires, and watching the sunset from the end of the pier, just as my Grandparents did. We never plan to, but always get too much sun, eat too much fried fish, consume too many potato chips and drink all of the Coke and Corona.
This may be wonderful for the soul, but it’s less-than-ideal for a healing body. Dad is still rebuilding the muscle mass and cardiovascular stamina he lost over the winter, so we tried to take it easy. But trying to take it easy at the lake is nearly impossible, especially when the conditions are ideal for a kayak trip.
We ventured out into the calm water. I let Dad set the pace and was surprised to find myself struggling to keep up with him. We explored a few of the nearby islands, then made our way back to the cottage. Dad was feeling good so he suggested we paddle to the other side of the lake to say ‘hi’ to his friend John. This would triple the distance we just covered, but if Dad was up for it, so was I.
The wind shifted and made paddling more difficult. Passing speedboats created wakes that threatened to capsize our fragile vessels. By the time we reached John’s pier, we were exhausted, dehydrated and sunburned. After resting for a while, we looked across the lake at our cottage in the distance and knew the evil truth – the only way to get back was to start paddling again. A total of three hours after shoving off, we were dragging our kayaks and sorry butts back up the boat ramp.
My sister chastised me for pushing Dad too hard a mere four months after having heart surgery. I tried to explain it was Dad leading the charge; who am I to limit him? But I did feel a twinge of guilt when Dad woke up after 10 hours of sleep, complaining of low-energy. Perhaps I should have known better, but we’re talking about my Dad.
This is the man who refuses to sit helplessly on the opposite side of the lake, cursing his predicament. Instead, he charges ahead, tackling the waves and wind at full speed, knowing it will get him to the other side faster. This is the man who worked six days a week to support his growing family. Who still puts our needs first, even though we are technically adults. This is the man who gives me the most solid, useful, hopeful advice I’ve ever received. This is the man who cheated death – twice. I’ll never take for granted how lucky I am to have Superman for a Dad.