It’s not like I didn’t know I’d turn 54 someday. Well, hopefully I’d hit 54, unless I got hit by a bus or lightning first. “Hit” is truly how this birthday felt, like hurtling face-first into cement.
Yeah. It stung.
You see, last week, I reached the age my father was when he had a cerebral hemorrhage. I was 18. I barely knew what a stroke was, let alone a brain aneurysm. Well, didn’t I get a quick and nifty lesson about that.
Strokes, particularly the aneurysm type, strike suddenly and fiercely like a cobra from the dark. You’re walking around, living your life, you bend over to pick up the newspaper or run up some stairs, and bam — out go the lights.
For some, the lights never come back on. For others, they flicker on momentarily and then off for good, like my mother, who also died from a burst aneurysm in her 50s. Others, like my father, survive and recover. But rarely are they the same again. Recovery is a relative thing.
“Aneurysm.” Nothing strikes more fear in my heart. Cancer and heart disease don’t even come close. Given my family medical history, it’d make far more sense for give me a yearly brain MRI than a pap smear or mammography, but there’s little logic in modern medicine.
Unlike my mother, my father technically survived his aneurysm, but was completely mentally and physically disabled. He learned to walk and talk again, sort of, but that peaked out early on, and a steady decline into convalescent care ensued. Twenty-six years of total disability in all until he passed. But, I realize now that he died in 1977, not 2003. And yet, there was no grieving in 1977 because he was still “alive.” And, therefore, no closure, like a book you just stop reading halfway through.
Let’s recap the plot.
Before the stroke, my father was a brilliant physician, and even served as president of the Sacramento Medical Society. Able to speak five languages, with medals in swimming and marksmanship, he was the valedictorian at Bordentown Military Institute in New Jersey, from where he was drafted into World War II directly as a second lieutenant. He landed on the beach in Normandy. By day’s end, a German assault killed every man in his unit, except him.
My father told me that amid the carnage, bullet holes outlined his body. There wasn’t a mark on him. But he lay there, amongst dead and dying soldiers, seeing for the first time what happens in battle at a time when there were no movies or video games to desensitize an 18-year-old to in-your-face blood and gore.
Thankfully, he was rescued. But his fighting days were over. He spent six months in a hospital in “shell shock,” unable to even write his own name, and was finally shipped back to his parents without so much as a “thanks for your service.” Because my father wasn’t physically wounded, he received no Purple Heart. Let me assure you, my father was wounded. Deeply.
“PTSD” didn’t exist in the 1940s, or even ’50s, ’60s or ’70s. The Veterans Administration didn’t take any responsibility for the results of what we now call PTSD, and it eventually came roaring back to my father in the form of flashbacks, hallucinations, delusions and alcoholism. It took him about seven years after his discharge to patch his psyche back together, and after what he’d seen in battle, he decided to become a doctor and save lives — a mitigation of sorts. In medical school, he met my mother, a fellow student, and they went into practice in Sacramento.
They were the picture of success.
On the surface.
Beneath it, PTSD kept eroding his mind, but alcohol seemed to help. “Seemed.” The synergy of PTSD and alcoholism ultimately overtook him. He went rogue, declaring it immoral to charge money for medical care, abandoned his practice, and saw patients only from his apartment, free of charge (my parents had separated and filed for divorce in the thick of his emotional instability). The Medical Society did not look kindly upon any of this, and revoked his medical license. When? As he lay in a coma from a burst brain aneurysm. He never even had the chance to defend himself.
No matter. The stroke ripped through his brain. He never could have practiced again. His career, and life, were over. Worse yet, the stroke wiped away his entire personality. The person who emerged from the coma was not my dynamic, amazing, troubled father. Twenty-six years later, when he technically died, the person I grieved was that sad, meek, dependent person I’d been parenting for more than two decades. I still hadn’t grieved my “real” father. Until I turned 54.
Wow. So this is 54. Young and vibrant, full of potential and brimming with unfinished business. And to have it all ripped away? Right now? Without warning? Oh, I so get it.
My father and I are now peers, fellow 54-year-olds, standing shoulder to shoulder. What happened to him in 1977 has snapped into harsh focus. On my 54th birthday, more surprising to me than anyone, I didn’t feel like celebrating. The dull ache of grief settled onto my chest, and the tumbling, tumbling, tumbling of comparisons between my life and his began.
Finally, 36 years later, comes the grief. And with it, closure. How fitting that it’s Father’s Day, when I honor not that sad shell of a man that I cared for, nor the troubled and struggling physician, and not even the doting daddy who held me as a toddler and walked me around the yard, teaching me the names of all the plants in the garden and stars in the sky. No, today, I honor that bright, brilliant teenager, whose life was catastrophically spun sideways in a French barn. May I aspire to be the reason that bullet holes outlined his body. I’m only 54. There’s still time. God willing, there’s still time.
— Email Debra DeAngelo at [email protected]; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.edebra.com