My dad is in a hospital bed.
There’s something wrong with his heart.
Something more than
what the pacemaker and
the blood thinners are for,
more than the arrhythmias.
My dad is having heart surgery,
and I’m worried
but I worry for my future, too.
At thirty-one, I am now fully aware of all that he’s given me:
the receding hairline,
the poor circulation,
the wide feet,
the furry legs
I worry, selfishly, because I know he has also given me
He gave it to me in pieces.
When I took my first hit in third-grade football,
back before anybody knew any better,
and he told me, “Get up, Son. Get tough,”
he gave it to me.
When he strapped his biking gloves on
and ran routes in the backyard,
and the ball bounced off his hands,
he gave it to me.
Every football coach I ever had saw it.
“You got heart, kid,” they’d say, and I’d grin,
all the way to the end zone.
I scored my first touchdown at nine,
got my bell rung,
as they said
but don’t say anymore.
I went on to get that same bell rung,
again and again,
paying my penance,
six points at a time.
Now I’m in the hospital,
right there beside him,
as a burly male nurse enters the room and starts explaining the procedure.
I try to slow time down.
I think back to when my dad told me all I needed to know about his dad:
smoked-down cigarettes and empty beer cans
left over in the mornings,
but never the man.
That’s the whole damn story.
And now, as the nurse plants tubes in my daddy’s arm,
it all starts to make sense.
Why Dad chugged four Coors Lights—
the most beer I’d ever seen him drink
—and did the one thing he feared worst of all:
He gave a speech.
The night before my wedding,
Dad told everybody at the rehearsal dinner that he’d always wanted a girl.
but he wasn’t kidding.
Dad told our family, our closest friends, the truth that night:
he wanted a girl because he was afraid he’d be too hard on a boy.
He was afraid he wouldn’t know what to do
his dad had never shown him.
His dad was never there.
Dad is gone now,
the surgery begins,
and I sit in the cold waiting room with my mom,
who’s been there all along.
Mom has bad knees and a head full of thick brown hair.
Her heart is healthy,
but I can feel it breaking,
coming apart as she waits for her husband to return.
Mom’s heart has been broken before.
Every time I stepped foot on that field it would tear right down the middle.
Every hit I took widened the gap.
I could see the divide growing during my college days,
when she drank Southern Comfort before the games,
throughout the games,
deep into the fourth quarter,
trying to soften the blows her baby boy—
her only child
—endured on that field.
What did Mom feel in those moments?
As I pulled myself up and staggered back to the huddle.
Did she take another swig of her blended whiskey?
Did she call out my name?
Or, did she do like she’s doing now,
sitting with her chin up, eyes to the window,
waiting to hear the news,
maybe wishing the game were over.
I’m tired of sitting.
and my knees pop,
my ankles crackle.
I fight through the pain, dying to see what’s coming for me.
Will it take aim at my heart
or my head?
Will it come on like a backside blitz?
Think L.T. snapping poor Joe’s leg.
Or will it be a slow burn,
something like a migraine,
a postgame darkening
no amount of Advil,
or a fistful of hydros,
will ever wash away.
I try not to think about it,
but I fear my heart has betrayed me.
And then the nurse appears,
white Nikes squeaking to a stop,
as he tells me everything is “fine.”
Dad is going to be “okay.”
When they wheel him back down the hall and into the room,
he doesn’t look the same.
The mustache is still there,
but he’s not wearing his glasses,
just two red dots on the bridge of his nose.
Mom goes to him.
She touches his hand,
and I think of fishing,
instead of football.
How, two summers ago,
both of us thigh deep in Crooked Creek,
Dad told me something I didn’t understand,
but it’s starting to make sense now:
“Death don’t scare me, Son,
but dying sure does.”
I move up beside the bed and take his other hand.
I hold it so tight I can feel his pulse,
the beat that connects us.
How many are left?
I wonder what it looked like.
“Hash Marks” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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